NEW YORK – Lena Horne, the enchanting jazz singer and actress who reviled the bigotry that allowed her to entertain white audiences but not socialize with them, slowing her rise to Broadway superstardom, died Sunday. She was 92.
Horne died at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, according to hospital spokeswoman Gloria Chin.
Horne, whose striking beauty and magnetic sex appeal often overshadowed her sultry voice, was remarkably candid about the underlying reason for her success.
“I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept,” she once said. “I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked.”
In the 1940s, she was one of the first black performers hired to sing with a major white band, the first to play the Copacabana nightclub and among a handful with a Hollywood contract.
In 1943, MGM Studios loaned her to 20th Century Fox to play the role of Selina Rogers in the all-black movie musical “Stormy Weather.” Her rendition of the title song became a major hit and her signature piece.
On screen, on records and in nightclubs and concert halls, Horne was at home vocally with a wide musical range, from blues and jazz to the sophistication of Rodgers and Hart in songs like “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”
But Horne was perpetually frustrated with the public humiliation of racism.
“I was always battling the system to try to get to be with my people. Finally, I wouldn’t work for places that kept us out. … It was a damn fight everywhere I was, every place I worked, in New York, in Hollywood, all over the world,” she said in Brian Lanker’s book “I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America.”
Horne was only 2 when her grandmother, a prominent member of the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, enrolled her in the NAACP. But she avoided activism until 1945 when she was entertaining at an Army base and saw German prisoners of war sitting up front while black American soldiers were consigned to the rear.
That pivotal moment channeled her anger into something useful.
She got involved in various social and political organizations and – along with her friendship with Paul Robeson – got her name onto blacklists during the red-hunting McCarthy era. By the 1960s, Horne was one of the most visible celebrities in the civil rights movement.
“I wouldn’t trade my life for anything,” she once said, “because being black made me understand.”