I remember many conversations about Hollywood beauty: “Who’s the most beautiful women on stage/screen?” The typical names come up like Halle Berry, Angelina Jolie, Pam Grier, Audrey Hepburn etc etc etc. But we haven’t seen beauty like Lena Horne in many years. Her grace, elegance, talent, and strength all wrapped up together was something that always stood out. Plus I always thought she reminded me of my late grandmother, a woman who I only WISH I can emulate just a fraction of. So I was saddened to hear about her death on Mother’s Day. Although very happy she got to live 92 years on earth, I felt like we could of used another 10 years or so of her here.
A bulk of her life’s work was done during times that most people today would probably roll over and die in. She couldn’t stay in the hotels she performed at; she had to perform for whites only first and THEN to blacks on another day; she risked not getting any work because of her refusal to play a maid, which was basically the only character black women could play during that time; she had to sneak and marry her second husband who was white; people in her Hollywood neighborhood treated her like she was nothing and were adamant about getting her out of “their” community until Humphrey Bogart stepped in and put an end to the harassment; and her association and friendship with the likes of valiant leaders such as WEB Dubois and the great Paul Robeson almost ended her career. Born, Lena Mary Calhoun Horne in 1917, she broke racial barriers in her music and film career that some tried their hardest to keep up. Blacks during that time were supposed to “stay in their place” and keep quiet. They were supposed to sit by idle and do nothing as they were treated like 2nd class citizens in a country that was built off the free labor of most of our ancestors. Her political views and activism got her blacklisted in Hollywood. There was a time Ms. Horne couldn’t even get a part. But her love for music didn’t stop her from standing strong in her convictions.
She was involved heavily in the Civil Rights movement. She marched, she rallied, she refused to perform at segregated audiences during World War II. One audience had German POW’s front and center while blacks sat in the back. Lena worked effortlessly with Eleanor Roosevelt on the anti-lynching law. All these things made her lose some backing in Hollywood. But she didn’t care. That’s commitment and strength.
Best known for her role in Panama Hattie, her performance of the title song Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky, Lena actually never had a leading role. Her race prevented that. Most, if not all, of her movies had to be re-edited for showings in states that did not allow movies with blacks in it to play in the theaters. She went through all of this so that the Janets, Beyonces and Alicias would not have to.
Lena Horne died at the wonderful age of 92, on Sunday, May 9, 2010 in New York. What a huge huge loss to entertainment and the world.
‘My identity is very clear to me now,’ …’I am a black woman. I’m free … I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else’
Lena Horne, 1917-2010