Lena Horne

  • Born: June 30, 1917
  • Died: May 9, 2010
  • Location: New York, New York


Actress and singer Lena Horne is pictured in this photograph. Horne died May 9th in Manhattan at the age of 92.

Barrier-breaking jazz star dies at 92

By VERENA DOBNIK, Associated Press Writer


Lena Horne, the enchanting jazz singer and actress who reviled the bigotry that allowed her to entertain white audiences but not socialize with them, slowing her rise to Broadway superstardom, has died. She was 92.

Horne died Sunday at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, according to hospital spokeswoman Gloria Chin. Chin would not release any other details.

Horne, whose striking beauty and magnetic sex appeal often overshadowed her sultry voice, was remarkably candid about the underlying reason for her success.

"I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept," she once said. "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."

In the 1940s, she was one of the first black performers hired to sing with a major white band, the first to play the Copacabana nightclub and among a handful with a Hollywood contract.

In 1943, MGM Studios loaned her to 20th Century-Fox to play the role of Selina Rogers in the all-black movie musical "Stormy Weather." Her rendition of the title song became a major hit and her signature piece.

On screen, on records and in nightclubs and concert halls, Horne was at home vocally with a wide musical range, from blues and jazz to the sophistication of Rodgers and Hart in songs like "The Lady Is a Tramp" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."

In her first big Broadway success, as the star of "Jamaica" in 1957, reviewer Richard Watts Jr. called her "one of the incomparable performers of our time." Songwriter Buddy de Sylva dubbed her "the best female singer of songs."

But Horne was perpetually frustrated with the public humiliation of racism.

"I was always battling the system to try to get to be with my people. Finally, I wouldn't work for places that kept us out. ... It was a damn fight everywhere I was, every place I worked, in New York, in Hollywood, all over the world," she said in Brian Lanker's book "I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America."

While at MGM, she starred in the all-black "Cabin in the Sky," in 1943, but in most of her other movies, she appeared only in musical numbers that could be cut in the racially insensitive South without affecting the story. These included "I Dood It," a Red Skelton comedy; "Thousands Cheer" and "Swing Fever," all in 1943; "Broadway Rhythm" in 1944; and "Ziegfeld Follies" in 1946.

"Metro's cowardice deprived the musical of one of the great singing actresses," film historian John Kobal wrote.

Early in her career Horne cultivated an aloof style out of self-preservation, becoming "a woman the audience can't reach and therefore can't hurt," she once said.

Later she embraced activism, breaking loose as a voice for civil rights and as an artist. In the last decades of her life, she rode a new wave of popularity as a revered icon of American popular music.

Her 1981 one-woman Broadway show, "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," won a special Tony Award. In it, the 64-year-old singer used two renditions--one straight and the other gut-wrenching--of "Stormy Weather" to give audiences a glimpse of the spiritual odyssey of her five-decade career.

A sometimes savage critic, John Simon, wrote that she was "ageless ... tempered like steel, baked like clay, annealed like glass; life has chiseled, burnished, refined her."

When Halle Berry became the first black woman to win the best actress Oscar in 2002, she sobbed: "This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. ... It's for every nameless, faceless woman of color who now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."

Lena Mary Calhoun Horne, the great-granddaughter of a freed slave, was born in Brooklyn on June 30, 1917, to a leading family in the black bourgeoisie. Her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, wrote in her 1986 book "The Hornes: An American Family" that among their relatives was a college girlfriend of W.E.B. Du Bois and a black adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Dropping out of school at age 16 to support her ailing mother, Horne joined the chorus line at the Cotton Club, the fabled Harlem night spot where the entertainers were black and the clientele white.

She left the club in 1935 to tour with Noble Sissle's orchestra, billed as Helena Horne, the name she continued using when she joined Charlie Barnet's white orchestra in 1940.

A movie offer from MGM came when she headlined a show at the Little Troc nightclub with the Katherine Dunham dancers in 1942.

Her success led some blacks to accuse Horne of trying to "pass" in a white world with her light complexion. Max Factor even developed an "Egyptian" makeup shade especially for the budding actress while she was at MGM.

But in his book "Gotta Sing Gotta Dance: A Pictorial History of Film Musicals," Kobal wrote that she refused to go along with the studio's efforts to portray her as an exotic Latin American.

"I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become," Horne once said. "I'm me, and I'm like nobody else."

Horne was only 2 when her grandmother, a prominent member of the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, enrolled her in the NAACP. But she avoided activism until 1945 when she was entertaining at an Army base and saw German prisoners of war sitting up front while black American soldiers were consigned to the rear.

That pivotal moment channeled her anger into something useful.

She got involved in various social and political organizations and--along with her friendship with Paul Robeson--got her name onto blacklists during the red-hunting McCarthy era.

By the 1960s, Horne was one of the most visible celebrities in the civil rights movement, once throwing a lamp at a customer who made a racial slur in a Beverly Hills restaurant and in 1963 joining 250,000 others in the March on Washington when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Horne also spoke at a rally that same year with another civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, just days before his assassination.

It was also in the mid-'60s that she put out an autobiography, "Lena," with author Richard Schickel.

The next decade brought her first to a low point, then to a fresh burst of artistry.

She had married MGM music director Lennie Hayton, a white man, in Paris in 1947 after her first overseas engagements in France and England. An earlier marriage to Louis J. Jones had ended in divorce in 1944 after producing daughter Gail and a son, Teddy.

In the 2009 biography "Stormy Weather," author James Gavin recounts that when Horne was asked by a lover why she'd married a white man, she replied: "To get even with him."

Her father, her son and her husband, Hayton, all died in 1970 and 1971, and the grief-stricken singer secluded herself, refusing to perform or even see anyone but her closest friends. One of them, comedian Alan King, took months persuading her to return to the stage, with results that surprised her.

"I looked out and saw a family of brothers and sisters," she said. "It was a long time, but when it came I truly began to live."

And she discovered that time had mellowed her bitterness.

"I wouldn't trade my life for anything," she said, "because being black made me understand."

Condolence & Memory Journal

Saw her perform in Palm Springs, Ca when a young person probably 1953-54 OR EARLY 1960s. Never forgot it.

Posted by J. A. Harris - Riverside, CA - fan   February 04, 2015


You are a pillar of the Black experience in America and a rock of Black entertainment. I 'MISS' U.

Posted by Kahlil Crawford - Child.   December 09, 2010


Ms Lena Horne, Always a Lady, you gave so much to the world. My family and I thank you for sharing your gift. my God comfort your family and friends during this time of loss.

Posted by Katrina Roberts - fan   June 03, 2010


Goodbye Lena we greatly admired you..Your class and style gave us all promise. Thank you, for taking care of yourself and being with us as long as you could...Now you are home..goodbye..

Posted by Eliaine Moore - Fan; Admirer   June 02, 2010


To the family of Lena Horne I am so sorry for your loss, she was a great lady. She will be sorely missed by all

Posted by ALMA SASSER - fan   May 22, 2010


Posted by NECCY - FAN   May 22, 2010


sorry for the family

Posted by odessa    May 19, 2010


The genuine beauty and stunning talentof a true lady. I loved her elegant irreverant sense of humor. I will miss her but the heavenly host has one dynomite soloist to glorify the Lord!

Posted by KK - fan   May 18, 2010


RIP Lena. You had such a beautiful, unforgettable voice! You will be missed very much!

Posted by Ann Chicoine    May 16, 2010


What a wonderful, talented, classy lady!
The world is so fortunate to have had you with us for so long.

Posted by Ron - fan   May 16, 2010

Lena, I grew up with my family watching and talking about you as a actress,jazz star, you music is very different. My late uncles and aunts play your music every weekend. So all of my life I feel as thought our paths cross. Rest in Peace, Bud,Al,Pearl,rever

Posted by rever lee - lithonia, GA - fan   May 16, 2010


You are a legend that will never be replaced!!!

Posted by Robyn - Fan   May 14, 2010


Dear Lena (Horne)

Lena dear Lena.
Sing sweetly with the angels above.
Sing sweetly songs of love.

Lena dear Lena.
Lie peacefully in the Lord's arms.
The world has lost a great singer.
So full of beauty, grace, and charm.

Lena dear Lena.
Float lightly on the angels' wings.
Lena dear Lena.
In the heavens always sing, sing, sing.

Posted by Lamar Cole    May 13, 2010


To the Family of Our Dear Sweet LENA HORNE: May her precious memories forever bring you love, joy, peace, and comfort, now and forever. We thank God for blessing us with a such a beautiful, sweet spirit, jazz singing woman like her. God bless you.

Posted by Lisa C Jenkins - Baltimore, MD - Fan   May 12, 2010


An amazing singer will be missed

Posted by Paul Hoffmann - Fan   May 12, 2010

We have lost an amazing legend. The heavens are brighter.

Posted by Deborah Ellis Favors - Sachse, TX - Fan   May 12, 2010


love you lena, may your beauty shine in heaven,, we love you ..the nickels family in fayetteville arkansas

Posted by debbie - admirer   May 11, 2010

Lena, I heard of your passing on Monday it's just too sad to handle. I love it when you sang the alphaabet on Sesame Street when I was little and my parents praise your music and talent. I hope you're singing to the angels in the sky and God is holding you. RIP Lena....

Posted by Oliver Miller - Greenwood, IN - male   May 11, 2010


When you think of Lena Horne, you say Fred G Sanford.

Posted by Melvin - NO   May 11, 2010

It was less than three weeks ago I was sitting at my desk and started day dreaming about Lena Horne (how odd). I thought to myself, she is really getting up there in age, I hope she hangs in there so that I can have the chance to sit and have lunch with her someday. I have always admired her so because she reminded me so much of my grandma. My grandma is the one who got me started on those old black and white movies and of course Stormy Weather was my favorite. From my childhood through my adult life whenever I saw Lena on TV my mouth would drop and eyes light up. There would be this warm feeling inside for she was so sophisticated, elegant and graceful. Her voice, her beauty was just complementary to her determination to push forward despite racial barriers against her. What an awesome woman, what a courageous woman just like my grandma. I shouldn't be sad that she has passed on for how great is it to live 92 years on this earth. Her legacy will live on forever and I pride myself in knowing that I too can follow in her great footsteps and make the world a better place. The heavens are truly blessed to have an angel like you shinning down upon us.

Posted by MDW - dallas, TX   May 11, 2010


Believe it or not! I was watching Stormy Weather & A Cabin In The Sky with my whinnying 2yr old set of twin granddaughters & their 4 yr old sister! Not thinking that looking at a movie that wasn't Disney or in color would peek their interest! It did! Especially Stormy Weather! I want my grandkids to know and understand our great Actresses that wasn't given their just rewards because of small minded thinking back then! Plus to show others that didn't let Hollywood take away from whom they truly were as Ms Lena Horne! Sorry for this lost She knows of a better place not here on earth! Bless Her Family during their grief.....

Posted by Jeneice - Milwaukee, WI - devoted fan   May 11, 2010


she will truly be missed i loved to see and listen to her music

Posted by willie mae holcomb    May 11, 2010


Lena Horne was one of a kind. She had style and class.

Posted by Angela Butz    May 10, 2010

To the family of Lena Horne: Please accept my sincere condolences for your loss. May Jehovah, the God of comfort who comforts us in all our tribulation, continue to bless and strengthen you at this time of sorrow. (Please see 2 Corinthians 1:3-4) The Bible calls death an enemy. But Jehovah God and his son, Jesus are stronger than the enemy and they have assured us that sickness, human suffering and even death will be brought to an end. They have also guaranteed that our dear loved ones who lie asleep in death will be resurrected - literally awakened back to life on a paradise earth! May these and all scriptures give you a measure of comfort, strength and hope in the days ahead. (Please see 1 Corinthians 15:26; Isaiah 25:8; Revelation 21:4; Acts 24:15; John 11:11-44; Matthew 5:5; Psalm 37:11, 29) With heartfelt sympathy for your loss, Ms. Weston (Beaverg2009@yahoo.com)

Posted by "Bea" Weston    May 10, 2010


Such a tragic loss.She was a beautiful person and will always be remembered.My condolences and prayers are with the family.Rest in Peace Ms.Lena Horne.....

Posted by Sheila Jessup - a devoted fan   May 10, 2010


I was just listening to Lena Horne earlier this evening and now I hear the news of her passing. What a marvelous voice and a unique talent. She will be missed.

Posted by Kimmie G.    May 10, 2010

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Actress and singer Lena Horne is pictured in this photograph. Horne died May 9th in Manhattan at the age of 92.
Ginny Mancini, left, and Lena Horne, center, hold the Ella Award which was given to Lena Horne, on Monday, June 23, 1997, during the Society of Singers' Lena Horne 80th Birthday Gala in New York.
Performer Lena Horne, left, celebrates her birthday with actor Roscoe Lee Browne, right, at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, in this 1980 file photo.
Jazz great Lena Horne, right, speaks with musicologist Johnathon Schwartz during a tribute to the late Ella Fitzgerald at Carnegie Hall Tuesday July 9, 1996.
In an Oct. 12, 1955 file photo singer and actress Lena Horne and her husband Lennie Hayton are photographed in their hotel room at the Savoy in London, England.
In a March 7, 1982 file photo Grammy Award winner Lena Horne, center, is flanked by record producer Quincy Jones, left, holding his Grammy, and Dan Morgenstern, of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences

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his is a March 29, 1993 file photo of singer-actress Lena Horne at the 65th Annual Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, Calif.
Entertainer Lena Horne smiles and waves as she returns to the Yale University president's office in New Haven, Conn., Monday, May 25, 1998, after commencement ceremonies at the university. Horne was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters during the commencement.
In a March 1954 file photo singer Lena Horne performs at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, Nev. Singer Lena Horne, who broke racial barriers as a Hollywood and Broadway star famed for her velvety rendition of "Stormy Weather," has died at age 92.
This is a April 7, 1994 file photo of singer-actress in New York City. Singer Lena Horne, who broke racial barriers as a Hollywood and Broadway star famed for her velvety rendition of "Stormy Weather," has died at age 92.