Monday, May 17, 2010

Lena Horne-A Legend Leaves Us

While I was in the process of moving last week I heard the sad news about one of my fave beauty icons, legendary singer, actress and civil rights warrior Lena Horne.

She passed away on May 9 in her hometown of New York at age 92 from congestive heart failure.

She started as a 16 year old chorus girl at Harlem's legendary Cotton Club during the Depression and parlayed that into a career spanning 60 years in movies, television, Grammy-winning records, a one-woman Broadway show and untold numbers of nightclub appearances.

In the 1940's she was a trailblazer in having a seven year MGM contract during an era in which that kind of deal was unheard of for African-Americans. But the racism she battled throughout most of her career would result in many of the scenes she shot for films during that era to be cut in prints destined to be shown in the Jim Crow South.

Horne found herself being painfully passed over by non-singing Ava Gardner for the role of Julie in the 1951 movie "Show Boat.' Julie in that movie, FYI, was a mixed-race performer who was passing herself off as white.

During World War II if you walked into African-American sections of military bases, Black GI's had pictures of the glamorous Horne posted all over the place. She reciprocated the love that brothers of that era had for her by traveling to bases along the west coast and in the South to entertain African-American troops.

She was outspoken about the treatment of Black soldiers in the then segregated US military, and quit a January 1945 USO tour when the officers in charge allowed German prisoners at a base in Little Rock, AR to witness her performance but barred African American troops from doing so.

Horne was raised by a suffragist grandmother who was an NAACP member in a free-thinking household. She refused to accept the restrictive conventions and damaging stereotypes of mid-20th-century Hollywood and brushed away attempts to cast her as a Latina.

She was a proud civil rights warrior who took part in civil rights demonstrations. Her civil rights activism and friendship with Paul Robeson and others marked her in McCarthyite eyes as a Communist sympathizer and she was blacklisted for it.

She overcame her own personal stormy weather to become an iconic American performer, a shining example of African-American womanhood, and a beloved shero and icon to millions.

She will be missed.

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