April 28, 2010
The National Portrait Gallery wraps up their nod to Jazz Appreciation Month this Thursday at 6:00 in gorgeous fashion, with a Face-To-Face Portrait Talk featuring multi-racial beauty Lena Horne (b. 1917). Curator Ann Shumard will be hosting the third and final event in front of American portraitist Florence Meyer Homolka’s 1950 silver gelatin print of the multitalented and multiracial singer, dancer and actress.
Horne got her start in show business at the tender age of 16, joining the chorus line at the famous Cotton Club jazz night club in 1933. After touring and performing with orchestras, she returned to the nightclub circuit, only to catch the eye of Hollywood talent scouts during a gig. Horne signed a seven-year deal with MGM studios in 1942, becoming the highest-paid African-American actor at the time. Stipulated in her contract were conditions that she wouldn’t get stereotypical African-American roles. Ironically, MGM wanted the light-complexioned actor to appear darker on screen, and commissioned cosmetician Max Factor to create a custom make-up for that purpose that was called “Light Egyptian. This make-up was later applied to white actresses, which conceivably allowed them to take roles that might otherwise have been played by Horne.
Horne was of mixed ethnic descent, including European, African and Native American ancestry. “I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept. I was their daydream.” said Horne regarding her appearance. “I had the worst kind of acceptance, because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked.”
Horne’s first major film debut was in 1942 in MGM’s Panama Hattie. She then hit it big on her next go-round in the 1943 film, Stormy Weather (made while she was on loan to 20th Century Fox). She gained further fame for her performance of the film’s title track. Horne appeared in a number of musicals during her time at MGM, yet never in a leading role, save for the all-African American musical Cabin in the Sky. Because many theaters refused to show films with African American actors, Horne appeared mainly in stand-alone, nonessential scenes that were easy to edit out, if necessary.
By the 1950s, Horne’s career, held in check by racial prejudices was now also stymied by political ones. During the Red Scare, she was blacklisted. But the indomitable Lena Horne conducted a triumphant return to the nightclub circuit, headlining all over Europe and North America. In later years, she eventually became a popular television performer.
At 93, Horne is retired, but she continued her vibrant career into her 70s, picking up three Grammys and capping off her career with a Special Tony Award in 1981 for her performance in the one-woman Broadway show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.
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