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Monday, May 10, 2010

Lena Horne

“My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.” - Ms Lena Horne

The first black performer to be signed to a long-term contract by a major Hollywood studio and who went on to achieve international fame as a singer, died on Sunday night, aged 92.

The person she always credited as her main influence was not another singer but a pianist and composer, Duke Ellington's longtime associate, Billy Strayhorn. “I wasn’t born a singer,” she told Strayhorn’s biographer, David Hajdu. “I had to learn a lot. Billy rehearsed me. He stretched me vocally … and taught me the basics of music, because I didn’t know anything.” Strayhorn was also, she said, “the only man I ever loved,” but Strayhorn was openly gay, and their close friendship never became a romance. “He was just everything that I wanted in a man,” she said, “except he wasn’t interested in me sexually.”

Blacks, in those days, were not allowed to live in Hollywood, so Felix Young, a white man, signed for the house as if he was going to rent it. “When the neighbors found out, Humphery Bogart who lived right across the street from me, raised hell with them for passing around a petition to get rid of me.” Bogart, she said, “sent word over to the house that if anybody bothered me, please let him know.”

“The whole thing that made me a star was the war,” Ms. Horne said in the 1990 interview. “Of course the black guys couldn’t put Betty Grable's picture in their footlockers. But they could put mine.”

RIP, Ms Horne. You bought tons of jazz and laughter into our house …

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