When actress Hattie McDaniel, the imposing African-American actress who played “Mammy” in the film “Gone With the Wind,” was criticized for her willingness to accept stereotypical and often degrading roles, she countered, “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7.” Not Lena Horne. Breaking into the movie business as a dynamic and glamorous singer-actress in 1942, she insisted on a long-term contract with MGM that specified that she would never have to play a maid.
Still, when Horne died this month at 92, it was striking how little of her story and struggles for human dignity was known to the general public. If you watch the definitive screen salute to MGM’s Golden Age, “That’s Entertainment!”, you will see Lena Horne for less than 30 seconds. She never had a leading role in a major film with white actors, and her moments in MGM musicals were always superfluous to the plot, so they could be easily left out when the film played south of the Mason-Dixon line. She fought for better parts, annoying MGM executives, to the detriment of her career. For example, MGM producer Arthur Freed (who is lavishly praised in “That’s Entertainment!”) was reportedly furious with Horne for refusing to perform in a Broadway show he had backed, called “St. Louis Woman.” She found the black characters offensively stereotyped, and Freed showed his annoyance (and his power) by ignoring the singer’s requests to be considered for better movie roles. Meanwhile, Horne’s rejection of the Hollywood black stereotypes won her few friends among other African-American performers, most off whom, like Hattie McDaniel, were content to play maids or shuffling comics for good money, and who saw her position as a threat to their livelihood.
Frustrated with her stalled film career, Horne began taking outside singing engagements, and again made herself a lightening rod for criticism by advocating fair employment laws and anti-lynching legislation. She even took on the U.S. military, complaining to the NAACP that when she sang for soldiers while on an MGM-sponsored tour, German prisoners of war were seated ahead of black American soldiers in the audience. Again, MGM was not pleased.
Horne intentionally favored a “white” song repertoire, largely eschewing the jazz and blues songs expected of black artists, and instead interpreting the ballads of Porter, Arlen, Rodgers and Gershwin. She cultivated a strong, defiant, almost cold stage persona, requiring her audiences to respect her and admire her while being told that they didn’t have permission to embrace her. “They get the singer, but they are not going to get the woman,” she said.
As she toured the country singing at clubs, hotels and theaters, Horne refused to accept the segregation policies that were routine at the time, requiring black entertainers to lodge in black neighborhoods. Lena Horne demanded that if an establishment wanted her, she and her musicians would stay where the white performers stayed. If they didn’t agree, she just might sue them: in the late 1940s Horne sued a series of restaurants and theaters for race discrimination. She also became politically allied with Paul Robeson in the Progressive Citizens of America, a leftist, perhaps communist, group opposing racism. This got her blacklisted for a time.
The result of Lena Horne’s adamant insistence on being treated with respect, as is so often the case with pioneers, rebels and ground-breakers, was that she never achieved the fame and success that her talent warranted. In the 1960’s, her primary visibility was as the lone black soloist on the Mitch Miller TV show, but she was quickly replaced by the younger Leslie Uggams, who went on to have the kind of success on stage and screen that was denied Lena Horne. Even near the end of her life, Horne’s insistence on dignity robbed her of a chance to remind the public of what she accomplished. A planned bio-pic was scrapped in 2004, at Horne’s insistence, after the actress who was going to play her, Janet Jackson, bared her breast on national TV in an infamous Super Bowl half-time stunt. Nobody who was that undignified was going to play Lena Horne.
Lena Horne’s life was dominated by her integrity, courage, determination and commitment to principles of fairness and justice. Her priorities sometimes made it harder for her to display her remarkable talents, but in a profession where the norm is to sacrifice ethical principles for success, Lena Horne was one of the rare stars who demonstrated that there is another, better way. Hollywood, the arts, and the United States are better because of her ethical heroism.