Behind the dazzling smile, the goddess-like beauty, the blooming American rose voice, Lena Horne may have been the unhappiest of women. A traumatic childhood gave way to a contentious young adulthood; and her experiences as a black, female entertainer in the pre-civil rights era left indelible scars. Horne was the first black movie star to be signed to a long-term studio contract; yet MGM had no idea what to do with a leading lady of color, and relegated her to either all-black speciality pictures like Cabin in the Sky (1943), or glorified musical cameos in other films, which would be edited out for Southern consumption. She made inroads into the chic, lucrative world of nightclubs and casinos, yet was treated as a second class citizen in the very establishments she was making money for, and bringing customers to.
Not surprisingly, then, Horne has been described as a distant mother, a dispassionate wife, and a mercurial friend; and, unlike other complicated, troubled divas, Horne didn't even necessarily find solace in her art or her audience, often feeling hostile and contemptuous of the moneyed, white elite who came to see her strut her stuff at the Copacabana or the Waldorf. That she masked her pain and anger so well, for so many years, seeming as if she were having the time of her life on stage or on screen may also qualify Lena Horne as one of the all time great actresses. We can only hope that when Miss Horne passed away this past Sunday, time had burnished her pain, and she could reflect on the joy and inspiration she'd passed on to others.
1917 - 2010
1917 - 2010