Monday, May 10, 2010


The term "class act" might not have been coined specifically for Lena Horne, who died Sunday night at age 92 in New York City. But it has suited few public figures as well.
Over a life that spanned nine decades and a career that lasted nearly as long, the singer, actress and civil rights champion remained a paragon of elegance and dignity, whether dazzling movie fans, wowing live audiences or campaigning for racial equality.

"She is a lady," Leslie Uggams, one of many female African-American performers inspired and empowered by Horne's example, said in 2007. Before Horne, Uggams noted, "Black women were only allowed to play maids in the movies, and all of a sudden, the black community had this goddess."

Horne died at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, hospital spokeswoman Gloria Chin told the Associated Press.

Horne's impact as a personality and activist took root long before her film career took flight. The great-granddaughter of a freed slave, she had relatives active in organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League.

After breaking into show business in the early 1930s as a teenage dancer at Harlem's legendary Cotton Club and appearing on Broadway, Horne sang and toured with bands of the era, experiencing firsthand the discrimination that confronted black entertainers on the road.

By the time she arrived in Hollywood in the early '40s and became the first black actress to secure a long-term contract with MGM, Horne was determined not to play roles that accommodated racial stereotypes. She appeared in screen musicals such as Cabin In the Sky and Stormy Weather; in the latter, she teamed with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Cab Calloway and Fats Waller, and sang the Harold Arlen-composed title number, which would become her signature tune.

Horne performed for U.S. troops during World War II and supported Japanese Americans persecuted after the war.

In the '50s, she was among numerous artists blacklisted for alleged ties to Communist groups but was cleared in time to nurture a successful recording career and return to Broadway, in the Arlen/E.Y. Harburg musical Jamaica, later in the decade.

Horne's dedication to combating the injustices faced by African Americans never waned. Horne took part in the historic March on Washington in 1963, appeared at rallies and served with the National Council of Negro Women and on behalf of the NAACP.

In 1981, Horne once again graced the Broadway stage in Lena Horne: The Lady And Her Music. The one-woman show was a sensation, drawing avid crowds and rave reviews and earning Horne a special Tony Award in 1982.

Horne continued to perform live and record into the late '90s, winning a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album in 1995. In 2006, her record company, the jazz label Blue Note, released a collection of rare and previously unavailable tracks.


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