Before Halle Berry, Diana Ross and even Diahann Carroll, Lena Horne changed the world with her talent, beauty and fearlessness. She broke down what was thought to be solid barriers, becoming an international legend. Born in Brooklyn on June 30, 1917 and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Horne got her start in 1933 when she joined the chorus line of the Cotton Club in Harlem. She was mainly a nightclub performer until she was discovered by a talent agent. In 1941, Horne was the first African-American performer to sign a long-term contact with a major movie studio, which was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Her first film was in 1942, but because she was African American, most of her scenes were cut to stand-alone performances. Film after film, Horne endured her performances being cut down due to racism. However, in 1943, Horne starred in the all-Black musical, Cabin in the Sky, which also included Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
By the mid-1950s, Horne was disgusted with Hollywood. She was turned down for more roles than she was offered, and then Hollywood blacklisted her for her political views. Horne fought anti-lynching laws, she refused to perform for segregated audiences during World War II and was such a powerful force for civil rights she met President John F. Kennedy two days before he was assassinated. In regard to the way she was treated by the powers that be in Hollywood, Horne said, “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 was asked by several Hollywood heavyweights to just pass for White to get better roles, which she never did. She also refused to play a maid — a role to which most Black actresses at that time were relegated.
Horne didn’t let Hollywood defeat her. She appeared on several television shows, was nominated for a Tony Award in 1957, and also toured the world with several concerts. For her 1981 one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, she holds the record for the longest-running solo performance in Broadway history. In the 1990s, Lena Horne released several studio recordings, winning a Grammy in 1995 for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
In 1997, Horne had a resurgence of popularity among the younger generation when she appeared in a Gap commercial. By 1998, Horne officially retired from show business. Lena Horne died Sunday, May 9 at 92 years old in New York City.
Check out this clip below from Horne in Cabin in the Sky!