She was one of the great Hollywood beauties, but being black meant she could perform only as torch-singer or maid.
Lena Horne died yesterday at 92, having pioneered the visibility of black performers in the entertainment industry. She was a mix of African-American and Native American with a fascinating background as a member of the middle-class black intelligentsia. Her relatives included actors, an inventor, and an adviser to FD Roosevelt.
She joined the Cotton Club as a nightclub singer in the 1930s and signed to MGM, becoming the first black artist to have a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio. Films included Stormy Weather (on loan to 20th Century Fox) for which she sang the title song, and Cabin In The Sky, an all-African-American extravaganza.
Race laws and codes prevented her from being given leading roles and her appearances were often edited out for screenings in the most backward states. Lenny Bruce had a routine contemplating the racists' choice between Kate Smith (a patriotic Valkyrie famous for glass-shattering performances of "God Bless America" and not known for pulchritude) and the divine Ms Horne.
"You are a white. The Imperial Wizard. Now, if you don't think this is logic you can burn me on the fiery cross. This is the logic: You have the choice of spending fifteen years married to a woman, a black woman or a white woman. Fifteen years kissing and hugging and sleeping real close on hot nights. With a black, black woman or a white, white woman. The white woman is Kate Smith. And the black woman is Lena Horne. So you're not concerned with black or white anymore, are you? You are concerned with how cute or how pretty. Then let's really get basic and persecute ugly people!"
She was blacklisted (pun fully intended) in Hollywood due to her progressive views: support of the civil rights movement alongside Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte and others, working on anti-lynching laws, and refusing to perform before segregated audiences when she played for American troops. Due to army bloody-mindedness, she ended up with a bizarre mix of black GIs and white German POWs.
Her movie career in the doldrums, she focused on her nightclub work and eventually did well in television.
Nevin recommends an appraisal of Lena Horne's life by Amy Goodman here
Lena Horne as the vamp, Georgia Brown, in Cabin In The Sky