Lena Horne sang from her heart since she made her first recordings in the early '40s. Her career since — in film, television, stage and cabaret — was marked by jagged peaks of success, achievement and loss.
Always atypical, never easily definable or predictable, either as an artist or as a personality, Horne nonetheless belongs in the pantheon of great female musical artists that includes Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae.
The first African American actor to be featured on the cover of a major magazine (Motion Picture), she appeared in her early films only in rigidly proscribed roles reflecting the segregated U.S. society of the '40s. Praised for her beauty, she was viciously condemned when she married a white man — Lennie Hayton, a well-known MGM musical director.
In the early '40s, she screen-tested for MGM, and became the first African American woman to become a glamorous presence in mainstream pictures.
It was, however, an odd film career at best. Although she appeared in such classic musicals as "Ziegfeld Follies," "As Thousands Cheer" and " 'Til the Clouds Roll By," her numbers were usually done in a fashion that allowed them to be deleted from distribution in the then-Jim Crow South. She rarely had the opportunity to play roles except in all-black pictures such as "Stormy Weather" (which produced one of her signature songs in the title number) and "Cabin in the Sky."
The year 1947 was to become an even more momentous one for Horne when, with hundreds of others, she was blacklisted as a result of the hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. She spent most of that period (she seemed to move off the blacklist in 1955) working in nightclubs and concert halls, becoming one of RCA Victor's bestselling female artists in the '50s and '60s, and starring in Broadway shows such as the musical "Jamaica."
In the '60s, she found herself irrevocably drawn to the civil rights struggle and became an active participant, touring the South, giving speeches, placing her career on the line.
Then, in the early '70s, personal tragedy was added to the mix as her father, husband and son all passed away within a span of 18 months.
Despite the problems and the pain of these years, Horne experienced the decades as a kind of personal epiphany in which the disparate aspects of her persona finally came together: the elegant beauty, the underappreciated talent, the angry activist, the dedicated artist.