Lena Horne dies at 92

Grammy winner broke ground for black actresses

Lena Horne, whose sultry vocals and lithe beauty paved the way for black actresses and singers, died Sunday at New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. No cause of death was announced. She was 92.

Horne's rendition of "Stormy Weather" in the 1943 Fox musical vaulted her to stardom and became a classic, but in many ways the song title became emblematic of a life and career often plagued by racism.

During the 1940s, Hollywood tried to pass her off as a Latin, then darkened her skin to make her "more black." She was invited to parties with the tacit understanding that she was there to entertain and later was labeled a communist sympathizer because of her friendship with Paul Robeson.

"Lena Horne was a pioneering groundbreaker, making inroads into a world that had never before been explored by African-American women, and she did it on her own terms," Quincy Jones said. "Our nation and the world has lost one of the great artistic icons of the 20th century."

Horne, who won two Grammys and a Tony, began her show business career during the 1930s as a dancer at the Cotton Club in Harlem and was the first black singer to tour with a white band when she sang for the Charlie Barnet Orchestra during the '40s. During the early days, Horne was referred to as a "chocolate chanteuse."

"I was a sepia Hedy Lamarr," she said later. "Now I'm black and a woman singing my own way."

During World War II, at the height of her "Stormy Weather" popularity, Horne entertained U.S. troops but took on the Pentagon when she refused to sing to segregated audiences. She became a favorite pinup of black GIs as much for her attitude as for her beauty.

At home, Horne also took on segregation, fighting for integrated audiences in clubs and theaters. During the '60s, she was active in the civil rights movement and worked for racial equality with such organizations as the NAACP, the National Council of Negro Women and the Urban League.

While touring with Barnet, Horne was noticed by an MGM talent scout during a stop in Los Angeles. She landed a contract with the studio but initially was cast only as "window dressing," appearing in the background. With her light skin tone, the studio had pressed her into trying to "pass as a Latin," which she refused.

Horne always insisted that she not be cast in "stereotypical" roles like a maid, but her color always was a sticking point. MGM wanted her to look darker on the screen, so executives consigned Max Factor to come up with a makeup especially for her. Labeled Little Egyptian, it brought a darker luster to her skin.

While under MGM contract, she first attracted attention for her performance as a nightclub singer in the 1942 musical "Panama Hattie," starring Ann Sothern. But MGM shot her scene so that it could be cut when the film played the South.

Well aware of her talent, rival studio Fox secured her on loan to star in the all-black musical "Stormy Weather." Horne's soulful, stirring performance of the title song in her first substantial role became her trademark, and when the studio sent her on a singing tour to promote the film, she became a popular nightclub attraction.

Also in 1943, she appeared in Vincente Minnelli's "Cabin in the Sky," an all-black musical also starring Eddie Anderson, Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Many regard it as her best role.

"My father discovered Lena Horne and brought her to Hollywood to star in 'Cabin in the Sky,' which throughout the years has owned the position as being the first elegant and unique all-black movie," Liza Minnelli said Monday. "It made Lena a star.

"I knew her from the time I was born, and whenever I needed anything, she was there. She was funny, sophisticated and truly one of a kind. We lost an original," Minnelli added.

Despite her burgeoning popularity, Horne's movie career stagnated during the late '40s. Perhaps most appalling, she lost out on the role of the mulatto Julie in a 1946 Broadway staging of "Show Boat" and in a 1951 MGM version because of fears of using a black actress in the lead.

In the film, Ava Gardner was cast as Julie; she reportedly prepared by singing to Horne recordings, most prominently her rendition of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" in "Till the Clouds Roll By" (1946).

Horne also had minor roles and performed in such fare as "Boogie-Woogie Dream" (1944), "Mantan Messes Up" (1946), "Words and Music" (1948) and "Meet Me in Las Vegas" (1956), but, because of the dearth of parts and the demise of the movie musical, she concentrated on her singing.

Horne received a special Tony in 1981 for distinguished achievement for her one-woman Broadway hit "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," whose original six-week run was extended by more than a year. She also collected the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and a Drama Desk Award for her performance.

In 1989, Horne was presented a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award; she had earlier garnered a trophy for the Jones-produced recording of "Lady." She had other Broadway triumphs, including "Blackbirds of 1939" and Harold Arlen's "Jamaica" opposite Harry Belafonte.

In 1991, Horne was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame and three years later was honored by the Kennedy Center.

Lena Calhoun Horne was born June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn. Her parents divorced when she was 3, and she lived mostly with her grandmother in the South while her mom, an actress, toured with road companies. Horne returned to New York and began dancing at age 16 at the Cotton Club.

Horne made her way to Broadway and soon was cast in her first film, "The Duke Is Tops" (1938). Soon afterward, she began at association with Barnet, and she cut her first record, "Love Me a Little, Little." She signed with Columbia Records and sang for big-band luminaries like Artie Shaw.

Her 1957 best-selling album of jazz standards, "At the Waldorf-Astoria," captured her at a peak -- at the New York hotel where she long performed, backed by an orchestra conducted by her husband, Lennie Hayton.

She later returned to film in "Death of a Gunfighters" (1969) and one last time in the all-black musical "The Wiz" (1978), which was directed by her son-in-law, Sidney Lumet.

Among her many awards, she has received honorary doctorate degrees from Howard University and Spelman College. She also received the Governor's Arts Award from the state of New York, the NAACP's Springarn Medal and the Frederick D. Patterson Award from the United Negro College Fund. The Parsons School of Designs also honored her for her contribution to the world of fashion.

Survivors include a daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, and six grandchildren.
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