The legendary and iconic Lena Horne has died at age 92, reports the New York Times.
Horne was the first black performer to be signed to a long-term contract by a major Hollywood studio. But when Horne was signed by MGM in the 1940s, the singer and actress still suffered major discrimination.
"Ms. Horne was stuffed into one “all-star” musical after another to sing a song or two that could easily be snipped from the movie when it played in the South, where the idea of an African-American performer in anything but a subservient role in a movie with an otherwise all-white cast was unthinkable. 'The only time I ever said a word to another actor who was white was Kathryn Grayson in a little segment of ‘Show Boat'' included in “Till the Clouds Roll By” (1946), a movie about the life of Jerome Kern, Ms. Horne said in an interview in 1990. In that sequence she played Julie, a mulatto forced to flee the showboat because she has married a white man.
"But when MGM made “Show Boat” into a movie for the second time, in 1951, the role of Julie was given to a white actress, Ava Gardner, who did not do her own singing. (Ms. Horne was no longer under contract to MGM at the time, and according to James Gavin’s Horne biography, “Stormy Weather,” published last year, she was never seriously considered for the part.) And in 1947, when Ms. Horne herself married a white man — the prominent arranger, conductor and pianist Lennie Hayton, who was for many years both her musical director and MGM’s — the marriage took place in France and was kept secret for three years."
Horne's 1943 performance in Stormy Weather was triumphant and the title song became her signature. At the time she was described as "the nation’s top Negro entertainer". Horne earned an MGM salary of $1,000 a week, plus $1,500 for every radio appearance and $6,500 a week when she played clubs. Horne's popularity soared during WWII. " 'The whole thing that made me a star was the war,' Ms. Horne said in the 1990 interview. 'Of course the black guys couldn’t put Betty Grable’s picture in their footlockers. But they could put mine.'"
Of the many men in her life, Horne said only one was her "soulmate": Billy Strayhorn, the composer and arranger for Duke Ellington, who was openly gay during the 1930s, 40s and 1950s. "A rare feat for an African American man during that time", noted PBS in its recent documentary Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life. Horne said:
'I wasn’t born a singer,' she told Strayhorn’s biographer, David Hajdu. 'I had to learn a lot. Billy rehearsed me. He stretched me vocally.” Strayhorn occasionally worked as her accompanist and, she said, 'taught me the basics of music, because I didn’t know anything.' Strayhorn was also, she said, 'the only man I ever loved,' but Strayhorn was openly gay, and their close friendship never became a romance. 'He was just everything that I wanted in a man,' she told Mr. Hajdu, 'except he wasn’t interested in me sexually.' "
The Philadelphia Inquirer adds: For decades after his death in 1967, she kept his photo by her bedside."
The singer with the big smile and expressive voice has always been a favorite among gay audiences. Horne's role as Glenda in The Wiz cemented her iconic status among gay men—especially among a generation of black gay men who used her song "If You Believe in Yourself" as an anthem. Horne was also re-introduced to a new generation with her Tony Award-winning, one-woman show "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music."
Ironically, on May 17th, an off-Broadway tribute will open: "To Lena...A Tribute to the Lady & her Music." And in recent years, it's been reported that Alicia Keys would star in an upcoming biopic about the legendary entertainer.
Lena set the gold standard with 92 years of elegance, grace and class. Watch the legend sing "Stormy Weather", "If You Believe" and her fabulous GAP commercial AFTER THE JUMP ...