Lena Horne

Singer/actress Lena Horne's primary occupation was nightclub entertaining, a profession she pursued successfully around the world for more than 60 years, from the 1930s to the 1990s. In conjunction with her club work, she also maintained a recording career that stretched from 1936 to 2000 and brought her three Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989; she appeared in 16 feature films and several shorts between 1938 and 1978; she performed occasionally on Broadway, including in her own Tony-winning one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, in 1981-1982; and she sang and acted on radio and television. Adding to the challenge of maintaining such a career was her position as an African-American facing discrimination personally and in her profession during a period of enormous social change in the U.S. Her first job in the 1930s was at the Cotton Club, where blacks could perform but not be admitted as customers; by 1969, when she acted in the film Death of a Gunfighter, her character's marriage to a white man went unremarked in the script. Horne herself was a pivotal figure in the changing attitudes about race in the 20th century; her middle-class upbringing and musical training predisposed her to the popular music of her day, rather than the blues and jazz genres more commonly associated with African-Americans, and her photogenic looks were sufficiently close to Caucasian that frequently she was encouraged to try to "pass" for white, something she consistently refused to do. But her position in the middle of a social struggle enabled her to become a leader in that struggle, speaking out in favor of racial integration and raising money for civil rights causes. By the end of the century, she could look back at a life that was never short on conflict, but that could be seen ultimately as a triumph.