Gorgeous, gifted and preternaturally poised, the 24-year-old actress-singer came to Hollywood in 1941 and quickly became the first African-American movie star. She was a sensation in her first leading role, as the Congo goddess Tondelayo in MGM's White Cargo. She earned an Academy Award nomination as the light-skinned black girl passing for white in Elia Kazan's Pinky, then capped her first decade of stardom playing Julie and singing "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" in the 1951 film Show Boat.
That is the Lena Horne biography that could have should have been, if Hollywood and America hadn't suffered from a corrosive racial prejudice. Horne, who died on Sunday in Manhattan at 92, was indeed under contract with MGM, but she won none of those meaty roles. Instead she was consigned to a few studio-financed "race movies" (the very enjoyable Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather) and featured-song spots in movies (Ziegfeld Follies, Words and Music and Till the Clouds Roll By, the only time she got to play Julie), for which her scenes could be removed when the films played in Southern theaters. In New York City, a supposedly more sophisticated place, Horne faced similar restrictions. She could headline at the ritzy Savoy Plaza overlooking Central Park, enthralling '40s café society, but when she took ill one night, she couldn't stay in one of the hotel's rooms.
Speaking with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in 1982, Horne recalled some of the Hollywood roles that got away. The Viennese pastry Hedy Lamarr got to play the Congo goddess in White Cargo. "I think maybe I wasn't sexy enough," the still sensuous Horne told Carson, with a sarcasm so deft, it could pass for airy banter. "They wanted someone who would be just so hot that no tree would grow where she had trod." The Oscar nomination for the character of Pinky went to Jeanne Crain, and Horne's studio pal Ava Gardner got the part of the mulatto Julie. Gardner was duskied up with makeup that MGM staff had created for Horne: "light Egyptian."
Horne might have been black America's first ambassador to the rest of the country an artist with perfect features and a sultry sweetness, who would teach the benighted to accept the glamour and talent, the full humanity, of an oppressed minority that had so profoundly enriched the official culture. But blacks in the 1940s were still second-class citizens at best, deprived of the water fountains, bus seats, voting rights and entertainment opportunities taken for granted by whites.
So Horne, as determined as she was beautiful, went ahead and fashioned one of the 20th century's most exemplary and poignant show-business careers. She triumphed on Broadway, TV and the concert stage, as well as on some 40 albums and occasionally in movies. A thrilling voice for civil rights, she refused to perform before segregated audiences on World War II tours; she collaborated with Eleanor Roosevelt in passing anti-lynching legislation; and she marched with Medgar Evers in Mississippi and Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington. Gradually, America got it. Performing into her 80s, she remained a beacon for black performers, a divinity to audiences of all colors and a lingering, stinging reproach to the attitudes that had robbed her of her Hollywood prime.
She was born on June 30, 1917, into a middle-class black family in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Her mother was Edna Scotton, a touring actress, and her father was Teddy, a "numbers banker" in the gambling business. As a teenager she joined the chorus line at Harlem's famed Cotton Club, another venue where everyone onstage was black and everyone in the audience white. At 20, she landed the lead female role in a snazzy little black-cast "race movie" The Duke Is Tops, singing "Don't Let Our Love Song Turn into a Blues" to co-star Ralph Cooper (for 50 years the host of amateur night at the Apollo); after she got to Hollywood, the movie was rereleased to capitalize on her fame, and the title was changed to Bronze Venus.
In the "real" movies of the time, as Horne noted on The Tonight Show, blacks were portrayed "as jungle people or in servitude." Her father "a sharp, beautiful dude with a diamond stickpin" would have none of that. He strode into the office of MGM raja Louis B. Mayer, the most powerful man in town, and said, according to Horne, "I wouldn't like her to be demeaned." Horne added, "And I think Mr. Mayer swallowed a frog."
Really, she wasn't demeaned in Hollywood so much as she was ignored. Mayer and his minions knew Horne spelled class, even to audiences who couldn't spell; she didn't have to play maids or fools. She also found a white man to love: MGM musical arranger Lenny Hayton, whom she married in 1947 and, though they separated in the '50s, never divorced. But that very elegance made her next to unemployable. The blacks who had fashioned specialty careers in Hollywood were dancers (Bill "Bojangles" Robinson) or comics (Eddie "Rochester" Anderson). Horne had the fine features, soprano stylings and genteel comic touch of, say, an Irene Dunne. Except Horne wasn't Caucasian. Like other black performers who might have been top stars like Paul Robeson and Nina Mae McKinney and Josephine Baker, all of whom had to go to Europe to be in movies, or like Fredi Washington, who dazzled as the light-skinned daughter in the 1934 film Imitation of Life, then got no significant work she was part of a great generation lost to a crippling national prejudice.
But after a decade in the desert, Horne came home to wow Broadway in the 1957 production Jamaica, with songs by "Stormy Weather" composer Harold Arlen and an ensemble that included Alvin Ailey, Adelaide Hall and Ossie Davis. She even got some real movie roles, first as the whorehouse madam who is Richard Widmark's love interest in the 1969 film Death of a Gunfighter, then, in 1978, as Glinda the Good in the film of the Broadway hit The Wiz, directed by her son-in-law Sidney Lumet and starring Diana Ross, the singer-actress who was allowed to achieve the stardom Horne was denied, and a kid named Michael Jackson.
And when stars her age were moldering in retirement or making Depends commercials, Horne, still impossibly radiant, continued to flourish, tacking on to the end of her career the renown that should have been hers at the beginning. She was a frequent visitor to Sesame Street, where she transformed Joe Raposo's "Being Green" into a personal testament of racial defiance and acceptance. In 1981 she was back on Broadway in the one-woman show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, telling her story, strutting her charisma and winning two Tony Awards (Best Actress in a Musical and a life-achievement citation) in the process. The anger she had repressed in her youth came out forcefully but smoothly, in anecdotes and epigrams, and was carefully modulated into irony or nostalgia.
That was the voice of Horne the entertainer. She wanted to instruct her '80s audiences, not indict them. As a child, she had wanted to be a schoolteacher, and onstage or in the talk-show-guest chair, that's what she so superbly was: the professor and the lesson, an inspiring example of outliving prejudice, turning stormy weather into blue skies and beauty into truth.