Singer Lena Horne Dies At 92

Singer and actress Lena Horne, whose successful yet restricted career exemplified the racist climate of forties and fifties show business, died last night at the age of 92.

Horne died at New York-Presbyterian Hospital; her cause of death has not been released. What is available is a great deal of information about her full but frustrating life. Born in 1917, she began her career at 16, as a chorus girl in Harlem's Cotton Club. She would grow into, in the words of Dennis McLellan of the LA Times, "one of the best-known African American performers in the country" — but she didn't receive full acceptance from white audiences. She wasn't allowed to stay in many of the hotels she sang at, and in some whites-only ballrooms she couldn't sit on the bandstand between songs. When she signed a film contract with MGM, she refused the maid roles typically offered to black actresses, and was cast as a singer instead. But she was often filmed separately from the movies' actual storylines, singing against a pillar, so her scenes could be easily cut in the segregated South. Of her movie appearances, Horne said, "They didn't make me into a maid, but they didn't make me into anything else either."

Horne was known for her beauty, but it may have been the palatability of this beauty to white audiences that enabled her to have a (somewhat) mainstream career at a time when other black performers couldn't. McLellan quotes Donald Bogle, author of Brown Sugar: Over One Hundred Years of America's Black Female Superstars:
"In the history of American popular entertainment, no woman had ever looked like Lena Horne. Nor had any other black woman had looks considered as 'safe' and non-threatening." Horne herself said,

I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept. I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked.

Despite her success — she made millions, won a Tony and two Grammys, and performed for the Kennedy Center Honors — Horne remained frustrated with show business, and it's easy to see why. Her biographer James Gavin says, "Every perceived or real slight, she recoiled from it in a violent way. This does not make for a happy lady. She was angry." But who wouldn't "recoil" from slights like being barred from hotels she sang in, or appearing before black WWII soldiers only to find they were seated in the back of the theater, behind white German POWs? Who wouldn't recoil from a white fan base whose mix of adoration and denigration continuously sent the message, in comedian Alan King's words, "You want to take me to bed, but you won't let me come in the front door?" Horne, who also became a civil rights activist and participated in the 1963 March on Washington, reportedly considered the honors heaped on her towards the end of her life, "Too little, too late." And though we can praise her accomplishments now, we can neither give her back what was denied, nor recover what film and music lost by making her, in her words, "a butterfly pinned to a column singing away in Movieland."

Lena Horne Dies At 92; Singer And Civil Rights Activist Who Broke Barriers [LA Times]
Lena Horne Dies At Age 92 [Reuters, via Yahoo News]
Legendary Jazz Singer Lena Horne Dies At 92 [AP via Yahoo News]
No Prisoner Of Love [NYT]