Page last updated at 09:10 GMT, Monday, 10 May 2010 10:10 UK

Obituary: Lena Horne

The life and career of Lena Horne

Lena Horne's singing career spanned more than 60 years. With her passionate voice and good looks, she became the first black sex symbol in the 1930s.

She was born in Brooklyn. Her mother was an actress and her father ran a small hotel.

Horne's parents separated when she was three, and she was boarded out. She did not live with her mother again until she was 15.

A year later she became a chorus singer in Harlem's fashionable Cotton Club. Her mother used to chaperone her there every night.

At 19, she ran away from home, got married and went on to raise two children.

Musical numbers edited

By now she had begun to sing regularly on radio and toured with Noble Sissle's orchestra in the mid-1930s, and sang with the Charlie Barnett band in the early 1940s.

After conquering New York's Cafe Society club, she was snapped up by Hollywood on the coming of sound.

She appeared in a cluster of musicals including Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, the title song of which became her signature tune.

Her mixed ancestry - she was part white, Blackfoot Indian and Senegalese - affected her career.

During a period when black women were cast as menials, not stars, Lena Horne found many of her numbers edited out of the versions shown in southern states.

The studios lightened her appearance with special white make-up. But she refused to play stereotyped roles.

On one occasion for a film musical, she refused to be cast as an exotic Latin American.

"I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become," she later said. "I'm me, and I'm like nobody else."

On tour, she often slept on the coach when hotels refused to rent her a room. She became active in the civil-rights movement and was blacklisted in the McCarthy era.

In the 1960s she became increasingly vocal, once throwing a lamp at a fellow customer in a Beverley Hills restaurant for making a racial slur.

Horne also marched on Washington DC in 1963 along with 250,000 other people to hear Martin Luther King deliver his "I have a dream" speech.

Catalogue of tragedy

She was happily married for 24 years to a white man, Lennie Hayton, musical director of MGM in Paris. But this only added to her emotional pressure.

By the 1950s, in musicals like Jamaica, black artists were beginning to gain acceptance.

Lena Horne went on to win international fame, finding her niche giving jazz renditions to popular songs such as Honeysuckle Rose and The Lady is a Tramp.

For 13 months in 1971-72 she suffered a catalogue of tragedy. First she lost her father. Then her son from her first marriage died of kidney failure. Soon afterwards, Lennie Hayton had a fatal heart attack.

Shattered, she went into retirement but, after a time, friends persuaded her to resume her career.

It reached a late climax in 1981 when her one-woman show, the award-winning The Lady and her Music, based on her life and career, ran for more than a year on Broadway and, subsequently, in London.

US singer Lena Horne dies aged 92
10 May 10 |  Entertainment

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