“Baby, you must not be selfish. Let the whole world benefit from your incredible radiance.”
Brief off-topic: XOXO, TARA has a new look with a nicely modified banner! While I loved the blue shade it was in before, it is finally in my favorite color, a glorious shade of purple. Feedback on the layout changes would be highly appreciated, so please leave a comment. If you’re viewing with an RSS reader, I would love for you to head on over and give me your thoughts as well.
The words quoted above were spoken by Duke Ellington about the incomparable Lena Horne. Ms. Horne passed away last night at the age of 92. To be honest, I wasn’t planning on doing another biographical post this week, but after hearing word of her death, I felt it was necessary. She was an extremely large influence for me – more than I can adequately express – as well as an inspiration to countless other people world-wide. Her timeless grace, talent and beauty will be missed.
I feel as though the word “Legend” is a term that is commonly overused and given without merit. How many people are called “Living Legends” these days, before the true impact of their life and work are seen? Other examples are the terms “icon” and “diva”. But I am fully confident that Lena Horne embodies these words and more. She is, quite simply, the cat’s meow, darling – forever a class act and an inspiration to us all. This woman is a patron saint of black beauty, along with other groundbreaking talents such as Josephine Baker, Eartha Kitt, Billie Holiday and Dorothy Dandridge. And look at that fabulous picture! While one of her most noted features was her brilliant smile, she can also pull off the vamp look better than the current crop of female stars. Can you say, “Work it, mama”?
Lena Horne was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Both sides of her family were part of what W.E.B DuBois called the “Talented Tenth” – the one in ten African-Americans who had the means and ability to become leaders in their community. She grew up in the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She attended what is now known as Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, but dropped out without receiving a diploma. She would later receive an honorary doctorate from Howard University as well as an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters at Yale University.
She entered show business in 1933 at the age of 16 when she joined the Chorus line of the Cotton Club in New York City. After ten years of work, in 1943, she was approached by talent scouts to appear in pictures and she eventually signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer the largest studio in that time. With this move, she became the first black performer to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio and paved the way for the black actresses who would eventually follow in her footsteps.
In the 1950’s, after becoming disenchanted with Hollywood – many of her movie appearances were cut or censored, often due to racial prejudice – Horne decided to focus on her nightclub and singing career. During this time she was nominated for eight Grammy awards and won four. She did return to film a few more times, one notable occasion being The Wiz, where she played Glinda the Good Witch alongside Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. She has also appeared on television, on programs such as A Different World, Sanford and Son and Sesame Street:
Lena was a talented entertainer, dazzling audiences in both film and music, but she was also a dedicated activist who was involved in the front lines of the Civil Rights movement. When she joined the NAACP in 1919, she was the youngest member at two years old. She met with civil rights leaders such as Medgar Evers and Robert F. Kennedy and also participated in the March on Washington. Like her predecessor Josephine Baker, she also refused to play for segregated audiences and helped to integrate concert halls, most notably during her USO performances for the troops during World War II.
Lena Horne continued performing for many years and was honored by the Kennedy Center in 1984 for her contributions to movies and music. She was also honored by Oprah Winfrey in 2005.
I feel that very few will disagree with me when I say that she is an ageless beauty. Even though I chose a photograph that showed Lena in her prime, she continued to be a stone cold fox until her last days.
When I was younger and stuck in my awkward, pubescent days, I was looking for a source of inspiration. Through research, a chance airing of the Wiz and some help from my parents, I discovered the greatness of Lena Horne and absorbed her music and film work like a sponge. She is truly a class act in every sense of the word, from her talent to her activism.
Lena Horne: June 30th, 1917 – May 9th, 2010