According to numerous reports, jazz singer and—according to Vogue, anyway—America’s “first black sex symbol” Lena Horne died Sunday night. She was 92.
Horne came up as a chorus girl at the famed Cotton Club before breaking out on her own as a cabaret star, touring in a headlining nightclub revue that eventually found its way to Hollywood. There, the glamorous Horne quickly found herself deluged with film offers, appearing on screen as early as 1938 and eventually landing a long-term contract with MGM—the first black performer to do so. It would prove to be a rocky marriage, as Horne—who refused to play the typical servant roles offered to black females at the time—was mostly relegated to walk-on, stand-alone scenes in the studio’s all-star musicals, and occasionally even found herself edited out completely for distribution in states that could not show films prominently featuring African-Americans. Despite these setbacks, she became famous for her renditions of songs like “Stormy Weather” from the film of the same name, which remained her signature tune throughout her career.
Horne naturally became disillusioned with her role as—as she said in her 1965 autobiography, quoted today in the L.A. Times—“a butterfly pinned to a column singing away in Movieland,” especially after being turned down to reprise her role in the 1951 version of Show Boat, a part she lost to Ava Gardner due to the ban on interracial relationships on film. (She later spoke candidly—and not a little bitterly—about this and similar incidents at MGM in the 1994 documentary That’s Entertainment III.) After ending her time with MGM, Horne drifted away from making movies in the 1950s—a move she said was partially involuntary, and based on her being “blacklisted” during the Red Scare, due to her outspoken views on the treatment of black soldiers during WWII and her friendships with people like Paul Robeson.
However, her New York Times obit notes that this was not entirely true, as despite the supposed “blacklist,” Horne managed to appear frequently on television during that time (nearly more than any other black performer), and throughout the ’50s and ’60s, continued to be one of the most in-demand nightclub attractions in the country. And her 1957 live album, Lena Horne At The Waldorf-Astoria, became the highest-selling record by a female artist in RCA-Victor’s history, so obviously somebody still loved her.
This dichotomy between Horne’s fiery activist side and her huge crossover popularity would come to define Horne’s career, as she became an outspoken member of the civil rights movement off screen while (unlike more provocative singers such as Nina Simone) still hewing closely to the safe, romantic standards that made her a favorite of TV variety shows. In the ’70s and ’80s, it was television that introduced her to a whole new generation, as she turned up playing herself on everything from Sesame Street to The Muppet Show to Sanford And Son and—the place where many an ’80s kid learned about jazz—on The Cosby Show.
Horne continued to perform and record well into the ’90s, contributing a memorable duet with Frank Sinatra on his Duets II album, and releasing 1998’s Being Myself at the remarkable age of 81. In recent years she had mostly retired from public view, although she made the news in 2004 when she asked that Janet Jackson—who had just come through her Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction”—be removed from a possible biopic about her life. (Despite intimations from Oprah that she might produce it, said biopic has yet to be made.) Most recently, Blue Note released the 2006 compilation Seasons Of A Life, which compiled outtakes from various sessions recorded during the last decade of Horne’s performing career.