Lena Horne, who graced our planet with her exquisite beauty, smoky sensuality, and stunning musicality, died yesterday at age 92.
Ms. Horne was the first African-American to sign a major studio contract, in the 1940′s. It specifically provided that she would never have to play a maid. She started singing at the Cotton Club when she was only sixteen years old. She had major roles in the earliest studio films featuring an all-black cast, “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather,” named for her signature song. She was a star of movies, television, night clubs, theater, and recordings, and was awarded both four Grammys, an Emmy, a Tony, and a Kennedy Center Honor.
Wikipedia notes that she
was never featured in a leading role because of her race and the fact that films featuring her had to be re-edited for showing in states where theaters could not show films with black performers. As a result, most of Horne’s film appearances were stand-alone sequences that had no bearing on the rest of the film, so editing caused no disruption to the storyline; a notable exception was the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky, although one number was cut because it was considered too suggestive by the censors. “Ain’t it the Truth” was the song (and scene) cut before the release of the film Cabin in the Sky. It featured Horne singing “Ain’t it the Truth”, while taking a bubble bath (considered too “risquÃ©” by the film’s executives). This scene and song are featured in the film That’s Entertainment! III (1994) which also featured commentary from Horne on why the scene was deleted prior to the film’s release.
And during the Red Scare, she was black-listed and not allowed to appear in films. But she continued to work for civil rights, and refused to perform for segregated audiences. Her example of courage and integrity and her matchless voice will continue to inspire us.