When one thinks of historical figures who have helped break racial barriers, names like Sidney Poitier and Jackie Robinson are usually the first to come mind. Lena Horne – well known to members of her generation but an unsung heroine of civil rights and equality amongst today’s youth – is one of those figures and it is with great sadness that we’ve learned that the Hollywood trailblazer has passed away today. She was 92.
Born in Brooklyn, NY Horne started performing at age 16 at Harlem’s Cotton Club and rose from the nightclub chorus to the rank of headliner. Once she made it to California, her films included 1943’s all-black screen musicals Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather (the latter’s title song became her anthem), though she was denied the role she long coveted: the mulatto saloon singer Julie in MGM’s 1950 Show Boat, which instead went to her friend Ava Gardner.
Horne was long relegated to supporting roles because of her skin color, a cruel and unfortunate but common practice in those days that ultimately led her to leave Hollywood and take her talents to the stage, where she prospered for years as a theater performer and consummate jazz singer. She married composer and musical director Lennie Hayton in a secret wedding in Paris (because interracial marriages were illegal in California) in 1947, but was widowed by 1971, when she moved full-time back to New York City. She continued to perform on stage for years after and even appeared in an occasional film, including 1978’s The Wiz opposite Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.
Looking back on her time in Tinsel Town when she tried to bring equality to the silver screen, Horne told People: “I was a test case. I could never feel like I was just a person working in movies. They (movie studios) believed that audiences weren’t ready. For MGM and the NAACP, it was always, ‘Look, here is our Negro woman'”. Still, Horne lived to see true equality in cinema realized as her legacy lives on through successful women of color in entertainment today, like Halle Berry, Zoe Saldana and Beyonce Knowles.
Horne died Sunday night at the New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital. She is survived by her daughter Gail Lumet Buckley.