Clay Cane is a New York City-based writer who is recognized for his contributions in journalism. Clay is a regular contributor for various print and online publications such as The Advocate and BET.com. He is the author of the highly anticipated novel Ball-Shaped World, which is a fictionalized account of the black and Latino ballroom scene. Also, he is the Entertainment Editor at BET.com and a member of New York Film Critics Online.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The iconic Lena Horne passed away at 92 years-old in Manhattan on Sunday, May 9th.
By the way, does anyone ever wonder why when someone older passes they use the most recent image they have them? Damn -- why not use a pic when they were young and luscious? I am using an image of Lena when she was the cat's meow -- mama sits down all these girls of today and yesterday with this look!
Today, we casually toss around words like "icon" and "legend," barely understanding what it means to break barriers, set the standard and create a new standard. Anyone of any race, gender, orientation, era, or class can break barriers. But, being a black female entertainer during a tumultuous time in an American history and not ending in tragedy like many others (Josephine Baker, Dorothy Daindridge, Billie Holiday)... that is a legend.
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1917. Having grown up with the likes of Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, it was destiny for her to become an entertainer. By 17 years-old she had a featured role in the Cotton Club Parade and would go on to join several other orchestras and bands.
Nonetheless, Horne was not receiving the respect she deserved in the entertainment industry, mainly because she was a black woman. Lena endured immense pressure from management and industry insiders (black and white) to "pass" for white or Hispanic. Horne aggressively refused and when she finally came to Hollywood she also refused to play a maid.
Over ten years after Horne debuting in the jazz clubs of Harlem, Lena got her big break in 1943's Cabin in the Sky. Still, outside of those two films, Horne was never featured in a leading role.
Lena Horne was considered to play the lead role in 1951’s Showboat, but Ava Gardner was chosen because interracial relationships were banned in films. However, according to Wikipedia, "MGM executives required Gardner to practice her singing using recordings of Horne performing the songs, which offended both actresses." Ain't that something?
It was in 1947 when Hollywood truly began to turn on Lena Horne. She married a white man, composer/conductor Lennie Hayton, in France because they could not be legally married in California. Hollywood was mortified.
By the mid-1950s, Horne was an activist more than ever. She worked closely with the NAACP, the Urban League and was close friends with Paul Robeson, which resulted in her being banned in Hollywood and branded a Communist. Hollywood was intent on destroying another black woman who had too much resiliency, pizazz, and intelligence.
Horne survived. Venturing to Broadway, winning a Tony for her one-woman show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which holds the record for the longest-running solo performance in Broadway history. Her last major film appearance was in 1978's The Wiz and by 1995 Horne was a four-time Grammy winner.
Sidenote: By all accounts, Lena Horne was supportive of the gay community. She was extremely close to Billy Strayhorn, openly gay and Duke Ellington's right-hand man. Lena has said Strayhorn had a huge influence on her career.
For over ten years there has been talk of who play Horne in a biopic.Janet Jackson was the main pick but supposedly after the Superbowl incident Lena Horne refused (I heard this was not Lena herself but her management), now I heard Oprah handpicked Alicia Keys... I like Alicia, but I don't see it, maybe a lil' remix for the soundtrack.
I hope in choosing who will play the great story of Lena Horne they will select an actual actress, not a singer. Some great choices would be: Jurnee Smollett, Thandi Newton, Nicole Ari Parker, Paula Patton, or maybe even Vanessa Williams—hell, at least let them audition!
Rest in peace Lena Horne!
Check out this clip of Lena showing Judy Garland how it should be done.