There are people who through talent, charisma, circumstance become giants on the Earth. Their presence among us is somehow bigger, more vivid, more intense than any of us could ever imagine. Lena Horne, the vivacious, immensely talented singer, dancer, and actress has died at the age of 92.
Horne was a woman who broke barriers and opened doors. She started her career when Jim Crow and segregation were the norm and the concept of equality was radical. Barriers might have been put in her way, but she did her best to knock them down even if the times she lived in didn’t let her quite get the career she was meant to have.
Who else should have been cast in the big budget movie musical Show Boat as Julie the bi-racial singer whose life is destroyed by intolerance but has two of the greatest songs to sing in the show?
But is wasn’t Horne who was cast. It was white actress Ava Gardner, who as beautiful and special as she was, couldn’t sing a note.
Road blocks didn’t stop Horne from having a memorable career, primarily as a singer. She became known for her rendition of “Stormy Weather” in the film with the same title. She was a high point in Vincent Minelli’s Cabin in the Sky and became a highly paid and sought after night club performer.
Lena Horne wasn’t afraid to speak her mind either. When on tour entertaining the troops during WWII she was vocal about the treatment of black Americans in the military. The USO subsequently stopped allowing her to tour with their shows. She became an active participant in the Civil Rights movement.
Her film career wasn’t what it might have been if she’d been working in films today, but she still worked in films, the last as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz in 1978.
A career that started in The Cotton Club in 1934 and spanned decades on stage and screen is no small legacy. Lena Horne said it best in an interview when she turned 80:
“My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. 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.”
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