Lena Mary Calhoun Horne (June 30, 1917 – May 9, 2010) was an African American singer, dancer, actress, and civil rights activist. Horne's career spanned over 70 years appearing in film, television, and theatre. She broke through racial barriers as the first black performer to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio.
Born Lena Mary Calhoun Horne, her grandparents were active in the NAACP and she was a cover girl for the organization's monthly bulletin at the age of two. Not long after her parents divorced, she was left in the care of her grandparents while her mother, a stage actress, pursued her career. By age seven, her mother had reclaimed her and at age 16 Lena (who attended Girls High School in Brooklyn and took dance lessons while there) dropped out of school to join the chorus at the Cotton Club in Harlem.
She achieved stardom on the nightclub circuit as a singer of blues and ballads, enhanced by her radiant beauty, vibrant voice and charismatic qualities. Broadway opportunities were found, and she made her stage debut in the short-lived 1934 play "Dance With Your Gods", followed by "Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1939" (1939). Horne married Louis Jordan Jones in January 1937 in Pittsburgh. On December 21, 1937, their daughter, Gail (later known as Gail Lumet Buckley, a writer) was born. They had a son, Edwin Jones (February 7, 1940 – September 12, 1970) who died of kidney disease.
In 1938, Lena was given one of the leads (Ethel) in The Duke is Tops at the suggestion of an agent who had seen her at the Cotton Club. She moved to Hollywood after her divorce from Lewis and was soon discovered by MGM. Lena stipulated in her contract that she would not get stereotypical black roles. In fact, MGM wanted her to look even darker on screen, so Max Factor invented "Little Egyptian" makeup for Lena to serve that purpose.
She displayed her vocal talents in the motion pictures "Cabin in the Sky" (1943), "Stormy Weather" (1943), "Thousands Cheer" (1943), "Two Girls and a Sailor" (1944), "Ziegfeld Follies" (1945), "Till the Clouds Roll By" (1946) and "Words and Music" (1948). In 1947, she married musician Lennie Hayton. Their marriage would be kept a secret for three years due to the likelihood of a backlash from it being interracial.
She scored a top 20 hit with "Love Me or Leave Me", which peaked at 19 on the pop charts in 1955, and recorded the highly-successful album "Lena Horne at the Waldorf Astoria" (1957), becoming one of the top female artists in the history of RCA Records.
In 1969 after a lengthy hiatus from the big screen, she returned with her first dramatic role opposite Richard Widmark in "Death of a Gunfighter". During a short time-span from 1970 to 1971, she suffered personal tragedies with the deaths of her father, husband and son, causing her for a period to go into a state of depression.
In 1978, she appeared in the film "The Wiz", and won a special Tony Award for her performances in "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music" in 1981.
Throughout her career, she was a passionate advocate for civil rights. She was honoured for Lifetime Achievement at the Kennedy Centre in 1984, was recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1989, and a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Artist in 1999. She received two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for music, the other for film.
Horne died from heart failure on May 9, 2010. Her funeral took place at St. Ignatius Loyola Church on Park Avenue in New York. Thousands gathered and attendees included Leontyne Price, Dionne Warwick, Liza Minnelli, Jessye Norman, Chita Rivera, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Leslie Uggams, Lauren Bacall, Robert Osborne, Audra McDonald, and Vanessa Williams. After the service, her remains were cremated.
(Compiled and edited from Wikipedia, classicmoviemusicals.com and C.S. @findagrave)