Lena Horne

Active - 1938 - 1994  |   Born - Jun 30, 1917 in Brooklyn, New York, United States  |   Died - May 9, 2010   |   Genres - Music, Musical, Comedy, Film, TV & Radio

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Biography by Hal Erickson

The daughter of an actress and civil rights activist, African-American entertainer Lena Horne was a chorus girl in Harlem's Cotton Club at the age of 16. One year later, she had her first featured role -- as Quadroon Girl -- in the Broadway play Dance With Your Gods. Lena then went on to work as a dancer and singer for Noble Sissles's orchestra, gaining popularity with both black and white audiences, though in keeping with the racial status quo of the '30s, she was denied entrance to all-white facilities and hotels in most of the cities where she headlined on stage. Following her film in The Duke is Tops (1939), Lena was signed as a specialty performer by MGM Studios. In most of her film appearances, Lena would sing in a sequence separate from the plotline and her white costars, so that her scenes could be edited out when shown in certain Southern theatres. She managed to survive on these terms and even won leading roles in two major-studio feature films, Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Stormy Weather (1943) - both of which had all-black casts. Hollywood's attitude towards African-Americans in the '40s was slightly better than in the '30s, but producers still treaded very slowly and cautiously: Lena was allowed romantic interests in her two starring films, but her leading men were middle-aged comedians and dancers like Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Dooley Wilson, and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, so as not to offend those white viewers who felt threatened by handsome black men. Additionally, Lena was allowed to be sexy but not too sexy, lest she arouse dreams of miscegenation in the minds of impressionable white males; her most erotic scene in Cabin in the Sky, wherein she was discreetly "nude" in a bubble bath (the bubbles providing censor-proof camouflage) was removed from the film, not to be seen in public until shown in the 1994 compilation That's Still Entertainment. Idiotic corporate decisions like this only intensified Lena's mistrust of white men, an attitude drummed into her by her mother; yet privately she managed to find lasting happiness as the wife of white musician Lennie Hayton. Lena's career suffered in the '50s, when she had difficulty securing TV work not only because of her race but also because of her friendship with Paul Robeson, the famed black singer who'd embraced Communism. Eventually talent won out over ideology, and Lena starred on Broadway in Jamaka in 1957, following this personal triumph with numerous media and live performances. Still, Lena and her husband found a more hospitable reception when they travelled to France, a country where a mixed marriage did not automatically result in rude stares and snide newspaper commentary. In 1969, Horne returned to films in Death of a Gunfighter, where thanks to relaxed racial tensions she was able to play the former lover of white sheriff Richard Widmark. Still beautiful and in terrific voice, Horne went strong into the '90s, attaining the rare status of Living Legend. She died in 2010 at the age of 92.

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  • Quit school when she was 14; got her first stage job at 16, as a chorus girl at Harlem's Cotton Club.
  • Made her Broadway debut in 1934 and her film debut in an all-black musical titled The Duke Is Tops in 1938.
  • Billed as Helena Horne, made her recording debut in 1936, singing "That's What Love Did to Me" and "I Take to You" with the Noble Sissle Society Orchestra.
  • A longtime friend of singer-activist Paul Robeson, she was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
  • The 333-performance run of Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music in 1981-82 holds the record for the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history.
  • Received a Kennedy Center Honors tribute in 1984, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989 and a posthumous tribute by Halle Berry at the 83rd Academy Awards in 2011.
  • Was the former mother-in-law of director Sidney Lumet, who was married to her daughter, Gail, from 1963 to 1978.