Lena Horne

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Lena Horne, who died May 9 at 92, was a ferocious yet curiously vulnerable woman, trying first to be a good, obedient girl before she became, later in life, simply a good woman. Her hauteur derived from her birth into a black bourgeois family, her vulnerability from her hard years traveling the racist South, where her mother was a stock-company actress.

Her fate, however, was largely--unfairly--determined by her astonishing beauty. She was a showgirl, a band singer, a nightclub performer and finally (nominally) an MGM movie star. Or as she sometimes put it, "a butterfly pinned to a pillar," in sequences that could be cut from films when they played below the Mason-Dixon Line. She was rarely allowed to be bluesy or soulful; she was, in the '40s and '50s, a white guy's very limited idea of what a black woman might be--exotic, sexy, tempting, untouchable. She chafed at that definition. And overcame it.

To know Lena (as I came to when I helped write her autobiography) or to witness one of her astonishing one-woman shows was to ride in the eye of a weather system always verging on stormy. She was eventually able to confront her lucky-unlucky early years ironically, speak out for civil rights and--best of all--sing her songbook with a forcefulness untrammeled by the cautions and calculations of people who once tried to tame this passionate woman into a bland symbol of racial accommodation. Finally, she visibly became what she'd always been inside: a complex, entrancing woman.