She was the pinup poster for thousands of black GIs in World War II and a fixture of the nightclub and cabaret scene of the 1940s. Lena Horne, a beautiful daughter of Brooklyn, whose career was limited by the apartheid of her time, died Sunday at age 92. Horne grew up in an upper middle class homes in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh but found herself a chorus girl at the legendary Cotton Club by the time she was 16.
Horne’s beauty and her velvet voice should have made her a major star. She was the first black performer signed to a long-term contract by a Hollywood studio. She appeared in a number of films, often in cameo roles that could be cut out before the movie was shown in the South. “They didn’t make me into a maid, but they didn’t make me into anything else either,” she wrote in Lena, her 1965 autobiography. “I became a butterfly pinned to a column singing away in Movieland.” At a time when portrayals of blacks in Hollywood films focused on buffoonery, Horne was a classy, dignified presence. Her first studio role was in Panama Hattie, starring Red Skelton and Ann Sothern. Her most important performance was “Stormy Weather,” which she sang in the all-black musical by the same name. It became her signature song.
Horne became a civil rights activist while performing for U.S. troops during World War II. She saw German prisoners of war sitting in front while black troops were forced to sit in the back. Horne’s political views led to her being barred from even those limited Hollywood roles in the 1950s.
Horne was the first black singer to have a contract with a white band, the hard-driving Charlie Barnet, but she found she did not enjoy life on the road and focused on nightclub and cabaret performances, including the prestigious Cafe Society Downtown in New York.