New York, NY —
Lena Horne died Sunday night at the age of 92.
You might say she was born 50 years too soon. She was too black for Hollywood, and too light-skinned for the kids in her Brooklyn neighborhood who teased her for her fair complexion. But she was more than a pretty face and a graceful figure. She had a voice that took her to the Cotton Club at age 16 and then to NBC to replace Dinah Shore with the Chamber Music Society Jazz Series. A rich, voluptuous sound with light, delicate high notes, a voice that seduced the country when she sang title song in the movie "Stormy Weather."
It was a voice that earned her roles in a string of movie musicals from MGM. At one point, she was asked to sing a tune made famous by her idol, Billie Holliday. Lena Horne refused, saying no one should sing any of Holliday's songs. And then Horne says Lady Day gave her some good advice. "Lena, you have children, don't you...take care of yourself and your children," Holliday said.
Her sultry, honey-coated voice didn't save her from the ugliness of prejudice. Her songs in movies were generally designed to be stand-alone solos, so they could be edited out when they played in the South and in later years she talked during her concerts about being forced to use makeup to darken her skin so that movie audiences could immediately identify her as a black woman.
The role that Lena Horne was born to play, Julie in "Show Boat," the beautiful, light-skinned singer with African-American roots, the role that she sang in "Till the Clouds Roll By" in 1946, was given to Ava Gardner to play, a white actress whose singing voice was overdubbed by someone else in the film.
She was the first black performer to get a long-term contract from a major Hollywood studio, and she appeared in a long string of MGM films but never got a leading role. Her bubble bath scene in the all-black "Cabin in the Sky" was edited out because it was considered too risque. Lena Horne tired of Hollywood years before she was blacklisted in the 1950s for her political views. Instead, she went back to the nightclubs that had made her famous as a young singer. Horne's live album from the Waldorf-Astoria became the largest selling record by a female artist in RCA-Victor's history. And she was a familiar face on TV, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Andy Williams Show, even Sesame Street.
Lena Horne refused to sing for segregated audiences of soldiers during World War II, she worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws, she spoke at a rally with Medgar Evers before he was killed. And at age 80, she said this: "My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I'm free. I no longer have to be a credit. I don't have to be a symbol to anybody. I don't have to be a first to anybody. I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become. I'm me, and I'm like nobody else."
Lena Horne, like nobody else. A voice dripping with honeyed beauty and passion, a graceful personality that smiled through adversity, and a strong woman who made her own way in a world where she didn't fit on either side of the color line. Horne died Sunday at a hospital in New York. She was 92.
Celeste Headlee is the cohost of WNYC's national morning news program The Takeaway.