G. Paul Burnett/AP
The Hornes: An American Family, charts her family's roots.
Gail Lumet Buckley (left) and her mother, Lena Horne, at an awards ceremony in 1987. Buckley's book,
Gail Lumet Buckley (left) and her mother, Lena Horne, at an awards ceremony in 1987. Buckley's book, The Hornes: An American Family, charts her family's roots. G. Paul Burnett/AP
Lena Horne, Hollywood's first glamorous black star — who was given few starring roles because of racial discrimination and blacklisting — died last Sunday in New York City. She was 92.
Known for her signature song, "Stormy Weather," and her civil rights activism, Horne often lamented her exclusion from the ranks of leading stars because of the color of her skin. But her career, which spanned more than 60 years and consisted of mainly bit parts, ended on a high note: In 1981, she received a Tony Award for her one-woman Broadway show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.
Horne is survived by her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, and six grandchildren. In 1986, Buckley joined Terry Gross on Fresh Air to trace the Horne family's roots, from slavery in the Deep South to their move north, where they became one of the most prosperous and influential black families in Harlem — and then west to Hollywood, where Horne began performing on stage and screen. In the early 1940s, Horne became the first black performer signed to a long-term MGM contract. Prior to that, Buckley explains, roles for black actors in Hollywood were limited to domestic servants or jungle extras.
"She was Walter White and Paul Robeson's test case," explained Buckley. "She was a test case for the NAACP which had decided that they were going to change the image of Hollywood. ... That made her the enemy of a lot of black actors in Hollywood, who were very upset. They said, 'You're trying to take work away from us. There will be no more jungle movies. There will be no more old plantation movies. What are you trying to do?' And Paul Robeson said to her, 'These people aren't important. The people who matter are out there — the Pullman porters, those people. And they want to see a new image. And you have to do it.' "
Shortly after signing her contract, Horne screen-tested for her first film role: a maid. Immediately, her father, Teddy Horne — a notorious gambler who made his money in the 1921 Black Sox scandal — flew to Hollywood to talk with MGM's management.
"He said, 'I can afford to hire a maid for my daughter. She doesn't need to play a maid,' " said Buckley. "And they were bowled over by this. They'd never seen anything like Teddy Horne — or heard anything like that from a black man."
During her MGM contract, Horne performed in Panama Hattie, Stormy Weather and a number of MGM musicals, including Cabin in the Sky. Her scenes were often filmed separately, so that they could be completely cut out of movies screened in the South.
"[In Words and Music] they would cut out 'The Lady Is a Tramp,' which she sang in it. They would just snip it out," said Buckley. "Take scissors and snip snip when it got south of the Mason-Dixon Line. She could never be in anything that furthered the plot or was a crucial moment in the movie."
Horne compensated, her daughter said, by building a hugely successful nightclub career. She headlined at clubs throughout the United States and Europe — and guest-starred frequently on TV.
In Horne's one-woman Broadway show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, she openly discussed the discrimination she faced as a performer in Hollywood. The show ran for over a year, bringing Horne both critical acclaim and the Tony.
She then focused on her recording career. She released an album, We'll Be Together Again, in 1993 — and paired with Frank Sinatra for a recording of "Embraceable You." She received lifetime achievement awards from the Grammys and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts — and was named to the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in 2006.
This interview originally aired Nov. 25, 1986.