Lena Horne on Broadway

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Hollywood called in the early 1940s, and Horne answered, eventually winding up in the office of MGM's Louis B. Mayer. She made it clear to him that she did not want to play maids, the usual role for black women then, but no one on the Culver City lot could think of any other part for a beautiful and talented woman with Horne's pigmentation. They finally decided that she was light enough to pass for a Latin. Horne insisted that she was dark enough to be what she was, a black. Perplexed, the studio bosses put her into two all-black films, Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky, and otherwise gave her bit roles so small that they could be excised easily when the movies played in the South. It was not until 1969 that she played a major character in a major movie, the madam of a whorehouse and Richard Widmark's lover in Death of a Gunfighter. But by then, she says, "I didn't care. It was too little, too late."

Despite the obvious discrimination against her, Horne broke barriers for black entertainers, and both races found in her a symbol, a proof that black actors could make it in Hollywood. She was desperate to return to New York, which she loved, and to all of her friends. Says she: "I really hated Hollywood and I was very lonely. The black stars felt uncomfortable out there." But no less a person than Count Basie persuaded her to stay. "You have to," he argued. "They don't give us a chance very often. When they do, we have to take it." She did her duty, but she did not enjoy it.

Like her mother, she married a white man the second time around, Bandleader Lennie Hayton, and she is frank enough to admit that she married him because he was white. "It was cold-blooded and deliberate. I married him because he could get me into places a black man couldn't. But I really learned to love him. He was beautiful, just so damned good. I had never met a man like him." But when they announced their marriage in 1950 — three years after it had actually occurred — Hayton had to buy a shotgun and build a wall around their house to protect them from hostile Hollywood neighbors. Those years of humiliation and rejection left angry scars that are raw to this day.

Always proud of her race, Horne joined the civil rights movement of the late '50s and '60s. When a patron in a restaurant called her "just another nigger," she threw an ashtray at him, causing headlines around the world. After that, she spoke and marched and supported the cause in every way she could. "I no longer felt alone," she explains. An unexpected series of blows, however, came in the early '70s, when, within 18 months, the three men in her life — her husband, her father and her son Teddy — died. "They were my keystones," she says. "And when I lost them, I thought that I was nothing. But the pain of loss somehow cracked me open, made me feel compassion. Now I'm kinder to myself and to other people."

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