Lena Horne is a living legend in entertainment not only because of her talent but because of her refusal to bend to racial stereotypes.
Born in 1917 in Brooklyn, N.Y., to an actress and a civil rights activist, Horne got her first stage job at age 16 as a chorus line singer and dancer at Harlem's Cotton Club. A year later, she had her first feature role as Quadroon Girl in the Broadway play "Dance With Your Gods." Horne gradually gained popularity with both black and white audiences, though she was denied entrance to all-white hotels and facilities in most of the cities where she headlined.
"I was unique in that I was the kind of black that white people could accept," she said in her 1986 biography "Lena." "I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked."
Soon, the silver screen called, and Horne appeared in her first film, "The Duke Is Tops." MGM Studios signed her as a specialty performer, where, in most of her film appearances, she sang in a sequence separate from the plotline and her white co-stars so that the scenes could be edited out when the movies were shown in some theaters in the South.
Frustrated by Hollywood Stereotypes
Hollywood executives in the 1930s and 1940s had narrow views of African-American actors, believing they could only play the roles of servants and laborers. Like other black performers, Horne was allowed to have only black on-screen love interests and was allowed to be sexy, but not too sexy.
She won a leading role in "Cabin in the Sky," which featured an all-black cast and went a long way toward showcasing the African-American talent in Hollywood. But her bubble bath scene was removed from the film, not to be seen in public until the 1994 documentary "That's Still Entertainment."
Still, Hollywood's penchant for stereotyping blacks frustrated Horne. Her film career stalled and she was blacklisted in the 1950s because of her progressive political views, her friendship with Paul Robeson (who took up residence in then-Communist Soviet Union because of segregation in the United States), and her marriage to white musician Lennie Hayton. She left films in 1956 to concentrate on her music and stage career and did not return to the silver screen until 1969, when she played the former lover of a white sheriff in "Death of a Gunfighter."
Living Legend Status
Horne withdrew from public life in the 1970s when her father, son and husband all died within a 12-month period. She made a triumphant comeback in 1981 with a one-person Broadway show "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music." Horne began to be recognized as one of the great luminaries in show business and was honored at the Kennedy Center in 1984 for her contributions to American culture. She was also inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1991.
Horne's public performances and appearances have become rare as she has gotten older. At age 88, she is still beautiful and is said to be singing. She is recognized for helping to break barriers in Hollywood.