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Lena Horne, Singer And Actress, Dies At 92

Lena Horne (photographed in the 1950s) broke barriers for African-Americans in film and television, as well as on stage.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Lena Horne (photographed in the 1950s) broke barriers for African-Americans in film and television, as well as on stage.

One of America's legendary entertainers, singer and actress Lena Horne, died Sunday in New York City. She was 92.

In a career that spanned 60 years, Horne broke barriers for African-Americans in film and television, as well as on stages from Las Vegas to Broadway. It was a career that began with frustration and ended in triumph.

In 1981, after more than 40 years in show business, Horne took the Broadway stage for what would be her most triumphant role in Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which ran for more than a year and earned her a Tony Award.

In the show, the singer unburdened herself of the unique difficulties of being one of the first black movie stars.

For example, studio executives didn't think she appeared dark enough on screen. So they went to the legendary makeup artist Max Factor to come up with something.

"He said, 'OK, I'll take a chance,' " Horne said in an interview. "He went away. He came back about two weeks later with this makeup they created for me. They named it 'Light Egyptian.' They took this Light Egyptian; they put it all over Ava Gardner -- and gave her my part, Julie [in the film version of Show Boat] that I really wanted to play."

Losing the role of Julie to her friend Gardner was just one of the many opportunities that passed Horne by in Hollywood. She refused to take parts as sidekicks and servants, which curtailed her movie career. But when Hollywood failed her, she always had music to fall back on.

To The Blacklist And Beyond

Horne began her career in 1930 in the chorus of the legendary Cotton Club. She went on to become the first black singer to front Charlie Barnet's all-white band. Then, she landed a cameo in a 1942 film. The following year, she starred in the movies Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather.

But Horne got few leading roles. Her activism, and her friendship with Paul Robeson, got her blacklisted.

The actress and singer Diahann Carroll was one in a generation of black actresses who followed Horne to Hollywood. She says the disappointments and the anger of being the first was enough to crush lesser women.

"I knew that she had to carry that while trying to overcome it constantly," Carroll says. "And I respect every effort to do so."

If she couldn't conquer Hollywood, Horne did conquer the nightclub stage and television. She was a frequent guest on nearly every variety show in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.

Wall Street Journal jazz critic Will Friedwald says Horne ended her career in the '90s at the top of her game.

"In the early work, she's always trying to prove everything, trying to establish things, really working to gain your attention," Friedwald says. "And in the later work, she just kind of lays back and lets it happen."

At one point in Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, she admits, "I felt bad for a while, about 12 years. I got over it. I knew life would go on. History was going to try to play catch-up."

History did play catch-up, eventually.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sonari Glinton
Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.