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Entertainer Lena Horne dies at 92

NEW YORK — Her luminous beauty — seen in doelike eyes set against perfectly chiseled cheekbones — helped make her one of the first black women to triumph in Hollywood.

Her radiant vocals — tinged with the sorrow of the blues — placed her in an elite class of singers known globally by their first names alone,.

Her unblinking defiance of the racism of her era — which once inspired her to hurl a table lamp at a bigoted heckler — established her as an impassioned figure of the civil rights era.

Lena Horne, 92, an electrifying performer who shattered racial boundaries by changing the way Hollywood presented black women and who enjoyed a six-decade singing career on stage, television and in films, died Sunday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

In her first big Broadway success, as the star of Jamaica in 1957, reviewer Richard Watts Jr. called her "one of the incomparable performers of our time."

Horne came to the attention of Hollywood in 1942. She was the first black woman to sign a meaningful long-term contract with a major studio, a contract that said she would never have to play a maid.

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 most famous tune.

In other films, she shared billing with white entertainers such as Gene Kelly, Lucille Ball, Mickey Rooney and Red Skelton but was segregated on screen so producers could clip out her singing when the movies ran in the South.

Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born in Brooklyn on June 30, 1917, to a leading family in black society.

She was largely raised by her grandparents as her mother, Edna Horne, and father, Teddy Horne, separated. Lena dropped out of high school at 16 and joined the chorus line at the Cotton Club, the fabled Harlem nightspot. She left the club in 1935 to tour with Noble Sissle's orchestra, billed as Helena Horne, the name she continued using when she joined Charlie Barnet's white orchestra in 1940.

The movie offer from MGM came when she headlined a show at the Little Troc nightclub in 1942.

Her success led some blacks to accuse Horne of trying to "pass" with her light complexion. Max Factor even developed an "Egyptian" makeup shade especially for her. But she refused to go along with the studio's efforts to portray her as an exotic Latina.

Horne was only 2 when her grandmother, a prominent member of the Urban League and the NAACP, enrolled her in the NAACP. But she avoided activism until 1945 when she was entertaining at an Army base in Fort Riley, Kan., and saw German prisoners of war sitting up front while black American soldiers were consigned to the rear.

"I just walked off the stage and went up and sang to the back of the room," she remembered.

By the 1960s, Horne was one of the most visible celebrities in the civil rights movement, once throwing a lamp at a customer who made a racial slur in a Beverly Hills restaurant and, in 1963, joining 250,000 others in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Horne also spoke at a rally that year with another civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, just days before his assassination.

Horne appeared on television and at major concert halls in New York, London and Paris. She starred on Broadway twice, and her 1981 revue, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, set the standard for the one-person musical show, reviewers said. The performance also netted her a special Tony Award and two Grammy Awards.

Horne had married MGM music director Lennie Hayton, a white man, in Paris in 1947. An earlier marriage to Louis J. Jones had ended in divorce in 1944 after producing daughter Gail and a son, Teddy.

Her father, her son and Hayton all died in 1970 and 1971, and the singer secluded herself. One of her closest friends, comedian Alan King, persuaded her to return to the stage, with results that surprised her.

"I looked out and saw a family of brothers and sisters," she said. "It was a long time, but when it came I truly began to live."

And she discovered that time had mellowed her bitterness.

"I wouldn't trade my life for anything," she said, "because being black made me understand."

The Chicago Tribune, Associated Press and Washington Post contributed to this report.

Entertainer Lena Horne dies at 92 05/10/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 10, 2010 11:00pm]

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