Lena Horne, the ground-breaking singer, actress and civil rights activist who, in 1942, became the first African-American performer to be put under contract by a major studio, died on Sunday, May 9, at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She was 92. According to the New York Times, Horne’s death was announced by her son-in-law, Kevin Buckley.
Though her movie career spanned nearly six decades and included a smattering of well-regarded films, like Stormy Weather (1943), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), and Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956), Horne was best known for her singing. Her music highpoints include blockbuster collaborations with Tony Bennett, Grammy-winning recordings of her Vegas nightclub act (1981’s The Lady and Her Music, Live on Broadway, and 1995’s An Evening With Lena Horne), and her Tony-nominated performance in the Broadway musical, Calypso.
Horne grew up in an upper-middle-class African American enclave of Brooklyn, raised primarily by her grandparents after age 3, when both her parents left the family. By the time she was 16, Horne had scored a regular singing gig at Manhattan’s Cotton Club. Her knack for dramatic flourish and romantic renditions of jazz standards led to appearances on TV variety shows including The Ed Sullivan Show and The Dean Martin Show, as well as a role in the big-screen musical, The Duke Is Tops (1938). Though she never found the substantial, satisfying work she sought on film, Horne did make an impact, later in life, on TV in recurring roles on The Muppet Show and The Cosby Show.
Throughout her career, Horne was equally dedicated to her advocacy for civil rights. She was an early pioneer in the movement for equality, fighting for desegregation alongside such legends of the movement as Paul Robeson and Medgar Evers. She also fought with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws. The combination of Horne’s disarming talent and fierce individuality created a powerful force in breaking down racial barriers in Hollywood and beyond.
Horne is survived by her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley. Horne’s husband and her son both died in 1971, the latter of kidney failure.
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