Wednesday, May 12, 2010

a barrier-breaker worth remembering.

ladies and gentlemen, miss lena horne

has passed.

she of the flashing eyes and teeth
was the great-granddaughter of a freed slave

who became the first black performer to sign
a significant contract with a big hollywood studio
[seven years with mgm],

a contract that specified that she would never have to play a maid.

lena was born in brooklyn on june 30, 1917.

her parents - a gambler father and an actress mother - split, and lena was reared by a suffragette maternal grandmother and paternal grandparents who were early members of the national association for the advancement of colored people [naacp].

at 2, lena was the covergirl for the organization's monthly publication - a sign of times to come.

at 16, she became a chorus girl at harlem's cotton club.
she was briefly a broadway dancer.

at 19, she married her first boyfriend, louis jones.
she was briefly a pittsburgh housewife.
they had a daughter and a son, and divorced.

lena returned to performing as a singer,
eventually and accidentally landing her mgm deal.

the studio typically put her in movies just to sing a song or two,
so they could easily cut her colored self
from the picture whenever it played in the south.

two 1943 movies gave her a name - "stormy weather," in which she sang the title tune which became her signature song, and "cabin in the sky."

world war II gave her superstar status - black soldiers couldn't put betty grable's picture in their footlockers, but they could put up miss lena.

she married again in 1947, this time to mgm musical director and white jew lennie hayton. they wed in france, and kept their interracial union a secret for three years.

she was briefly blacklisted by hollywood in the '50s, but continued to thrive via cabaret gigs and records.

1957's lena horne at the waldorf-astoria became rca victor's best-selling album ever by a female singer.

lena was a vocal civil rights activist, beginning with her insistence that she and her band be allowed to stay wherever they entertained, including upscale whites-only hotels.

she was at the civil rights march on washington, and was a key fundraiser for the naacp and the national council of negro women.

lena's final film role was as glinda the good witch in 1978's "the wiz," an all-black adaptation of "the wizard of oz."

in 1981, she set the standard for the one-person musical show with her tony-winning lena horne: the lady and her music.

lena died in manhattan on sunday night at the age of 92.
she leaves behind her daughter and five grandchildren,
her husband and son both having died in 1971.

[lena once confessed the only man she ever really loved was openly gay pianist and composer billy strayhorn.]

she was stunning and fierce and elegant.
she was one-of-a-kind, and not about to let you forget it.

here's lena, upon turning 80:
"my identity is very clear to me now.
i am a black woman. i am free.
i no longer have to be a credit.
i don't have to be a symbol to anybody.
i don't have to be a first to anybody.
i don't have to be an imitation of a white woman
that hollywood sort of hoped i'd become.
i'm me, and i'm like nobody else."

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