Hollywood says farewell to its first black sex symbol

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The Independent Culture

Lena Horne, the jazz singer who became the first black actress to sign a long-term contract with a major film studio, but whose very public opposition to racial segregation slowed her rise to Hollywood superstardom, has died. She was 92.

Horne was perhaps best known for the hit song "Stormy Weather", from the film of the same name. But she will also be remembered for using her standing as cinema's first black sex symbol to campaign for equality, in both the entertainment industry and beyond.

She joined the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King made his "I have a dream" speech, and spoke at rallies with the civil rights activist Medgar Evers. She joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) aged two and was a staunch friend and ally of Paul Robeson.

Horne appeared in a string of hit films in the 1940s, but her Hollywood prospects suffered when she was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. The remainder of her 60-year career was devoted to music, rather than film. Ironically, for a woman who was to become one of the most prominent celebrities in the civil rights movement, Horne candidly admitted that her relatively light skin colour was central to her original success. "I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept," she once said. "I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way that I looked."

Horne enjoyed a comfortable, middle-class childhood, but began singing at 16 to earn money to support her ill mother. She first appeared at the Cotton Club in Harlem, a jazz venue where the singers were largely black and the customers were all white, in 1933.

She signed a contract with MGM after moving to Hollywood in the late 1930s. Though she starred in the all-black film Cabin in the Sky, many appearances were limited to musical numbers, which could be cut before films were screened in the South.

Her reputation for political activism was born during the Second World War. Entertaining US troops in Arkansas, she reluctantly agreed to give one performance for white soldiers and one for black soldiers, but walked off stage when she discovered her black audience had been forced to sit behind white German POWs. After the war, Horne married a white MGM employee, Lennie Hayton. She further scandalised the establishment by throwing a table lamp at a customer in a Beverly Hills restaurant, who had made a racial slur.

Her contract with MGM was cancelled in 1950, forcing her to devote herself to music. She became one of the most successful nightclub performers of the era, releasing 32 albums, winning eight Grammies, and appearing regularly on TV variety shows and in Broadway musicals.

Horne carried on recording well into her eighties, releasing her last album, Being Myself, in 1998, but remained part of the national conversation for longer. Halle Berry recognised her contribution in her speech after becoming the first black woman to win the best actress Oscar in 2002.