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Dead At 92: Lena Horne Touched Many In A Good Way

She was born Lena Mary Calhoun Horne on June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Her family lived in the home of her father’s middle-class parents. Horne’s grandmother was active in the Urban League, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the women’s suffrage movement.

Horne’s father left his wife and daughter when Horne was 3. And her mother, unhappy living with her strong-willed mother-in-law, soon moved out to pursue an acting career with a Harlem-based black stock company.

That left young Lena in the care of her grandparents until she joined her mother on the road in the South a few years later.

Horne was living in Harlem with her mother and her out-of-work stepfather when she left school at 16 and joined the chorus at the Cotton Club in 1933.

While continuing to work at the club, she made her Broadway debut in 1934 with a small role in “Dance With Your Gods,” an all-black drama that ran for only nine performances.

Leaving the Cotton Club in 1935, she became a featured singer in the all-black Noble Sissle Society Orchestra but quit two years later to marry Louis Jones, a Pittsburgh friend of her father’s who was about nine years her senior.

At 19, she settled into domestic life in Pittsburgh and gave birth to her two children, Gail and Teddy. But she and her husband separated in 1940 and were divorced in 1944.

Although Horne gave up show business when she married Jones, money problems during the marriage prompted her to accept the co-starring role in “The Duke Is Tops,” a low-budget, 1938 African American movie musical shot in 10 days.

She also appeared in “Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1939,” a Broadway revue that had only nine performances.

Moving back to New York after her marriage broke up, Horne was hired as a vocalist for the Barnet orchestra, becoming one of the first black performers to sing with a major white band, with whom she had a hit record, “Good for Nothing Joe,”

After leaving the Barnet band in 1941, Horne began an extended engagement at Cafe Society Downtown, where she first met and became friends with singer-actor and political activist Paul Robeson.

While under contract to MGM in the ’40s, Horne met Lennie Hayton, a white staff composer and arranger at the studio who became her second husband.

Fearing public reaction when they married in Paris in 1947, they did not announce their marriage until three years later.

Horne later said she initially became involved with Hayton because she thought he could be useful to her career.

“He could get me into places no black manager could,” she told the New York Times in 1981. “It was wrong of me, but as a black woman, I knew what I had against me.” But, she said, “because he was a nice man and because he was in my corner, I began to love him.”

But being married to a white man, whom she once said “taught me everything I know musically,” took a toll — from her impatience with black critics who questioned the marriage to her sometimes using her husband as a “whipping boy” and making him “pay for everything the whites had done to us.”

Horne’s last film for MGM — a singing cameo in the musical “Duchess of Idaho,” starring Esther Williams and Van Johnson — was released in 1950, the same year she triumphantly appeared at the London Palladium.

Primarily due to her friendship with Robeson and her involvement with the Council for African Affairs and the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee to the Arts, Science and Professions, both of which were named as Communist fronts, Horne found herself blacklisted and unable to appear on radio and television in the early ’50s.

But the cabaret business remained untouched by the blacklist, and she focused on her critically acclaimed nightclub/cabaret act.

Her “Lena Horne at the Waldorf Astoria” became RCA Victor’s biggest-selling album by a female vocalist in 1957.

“Lena, for most of us, defined the art of nightclub performing,” the late cabaret singer Bobby Short told USA Today in 1997. “You can’t discount her great beauty, but behind all of that is a great deal of talent and the ability to transmit the composer’s intent to the audience.”

Horne, who was able to resume appearing on television in 1956, also starred in the hit Broadway musical “Jamaica,” which ran from 1957 to ’59 and earned her a Tony Award nomination.

Unable to stay in many of the hotels she performed in because she was black, Horne developed what she later described as “a toughness, a way of isolating” herself from the audience as a performer.

“There was no cuteness or coyness about her,” comedian Alan King said of Horne on “Lena Horne: In Her Own Voice.” “Lena came out there and stuck it right in their face — boom! She was radiantly and subtly brazen, saying to herself, You want to take me to bed, but you won’t let me come in the front door.’”

Throughout her early career, Horne experienced the injustices suffered by African Americans at the time.

While touring with the USO during World War II, she was expected to entertain the white soldiers before appearing before African American troops

A day after performing for white soldiers in a large auditorium at Ft. Riley, Kan., she returned to entertain black troops in the black mess hall.

But when she discovered that the whites seated in the front rows were German prisoners of war, she became furious. Marching off the platform, she turned her back on the POWs and sang to the black soldiers in the back of the hall.

Horne’s long-suppressed anger over the treatment of blacks in white society erupted in 1960 when she overheard a drunk white man at the Luau restaurant in Beverly Hills refer to her using a racial epithet.

Jumping up, she threw an ashtray, a table lamp and several glasses at him, cutting the man’s forehead.

When reports of her outburst appeared in newspapers across the country, Horne was surprised at the positive response, mostly from African Americans.

“Phone calls and telegrams came in from all over,” she told the Christian Science Monitor in 1984. “It was the first time it struck me that black people related to each other in bigger ways than I realized.”

In the early ’60s, Horne became more active in the civil rights movement, participating in a meeting with prominent blacks in 1963 with then-Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy in the wake of violence in Birmingham, Ala., and singing at civil rights rallies.

In the early ’70s, Horne faced three personal tragedies within an 18-month period: In 1970, the same year her father died, her son died of kidney disease; and Hayton died of a heart attack in 1971.

Horne later said she “stayed in the house grieving” until Alan King “bullied” her out of her depression, and she returned to singing and recording.

She also toured with Tony Bennett, as well as doing 37 performances on Broadway of “Tony & Lena Sing” in 1974. And she played Glinda, the Good Witch in “The Wiz,” the 1978 movie musical directed by Sidney Lumet, her then-son-in-law.

Then, in 1981, she made a triumphant return to Broadway in the hit “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.”

Horne, then 63, went on to win the Drama Desk Award and a special Tony Award for her autobiographical show that ran on Broadway for more than a year and led to a Grammy Award-winning soundtrack album and a cross-country tour of the show before going to London.

Her rendition of “Stormy Weather” was, naturally, a show-stopper.

She actually sang the song twice, first as she had in the movie when she was in her 20s and, she said in an interview, she couldn’t sing it “worth a toot.”

Then, at the end of the show, she electrified her audience by singing it again from the perspective of a woman in her 60s, who had experienced a lifetime of love and misery.

Horne was interviewed by Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes during the Broadway run of her one woman show. Bradley describes the interview as one of his best and as far as I was concerned it was. The interview moved me.

As Horne said in the documentary “Lena Horne: In Her Own Voice”: “My life has been about surviving. Along the way I also became an artist. It’s been an interesting journey. One in which music became first my refuge and then my salvation.”

Horne was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 1984, and she received a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1998.

The silky-voiced singing legend died Sunday in New York City at the Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center . Ms. Horne was 92. Although no cause of death was given, as you now know from this article Lena Mary Calhoun Horne lived a full and meaningful life that touched many other lives in a good way.

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