People of my generation best remember singer and actress Lena Horne, who died on Sunday at age 92, for playing herself on television, and, in a way, that's what made her career so remarkable. Even in its early days she never played anything but herself.
Horne became famous during World War II, when she parlayed her stage show at Harlem's Cotton Club into an international recording career. She was a crossover icon, appealing equally to the white crowds slumming it at the Cotton Club and African American troops, for whom Horne's voice was a tantalizing reminder of what they left behind. Her voice had a sultry, silky tone that has a way of ingratiating itself into your ears without revealing too much about the woman behind it.
When MGM signed Horne to a long-term contract in 1943, it was the most momentous deal yet issued to an African American performer by Hollywood. Her long term contract became a rallying cry for black performers across the country, and the NAACP used it as a template for including more black talent in the movies to little immediate success.
Horne starred in a skein of pictures, rarely uttering so much as a line of dialogue —her mesmerizing turn in 20th Century Fox's Stormy Weather was a notable exception— but singing show-stopping numbers that assured an immortality to otherwise forgettable movies.
It was during this period that Horne had her first high-profile opportunity to turn down a role that somebody was foisting on her. She refused to sing in segregated USO shows during the war. It was her first stand in favor of what would come to be known as civil rights and the first instance of something that would become a theme in her public life.
She had the pedigree for it. Born to a middle-class family in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Horne had appeared on the cover of the NAACP newsletter by the time she was 2.
She maintained long friendships with W.E.B DuBois and Paul Robeson, which, in addition to her "radical" anti-segregation views and her refusal to "pass" as Latina or white in the movies, led to a stint on the Hollywood blacklist during the 50s, after her landmark contract with MGM had ended.
Horne's career on the silver screen might have gone into the deep freeze, but her TV career was just taking off. She quickly became a pro at being herself, appearing on shows like What's My Line and Your Show of Shows, enjoying the sort of feedback loop that makes one famous for being famous.
Her success on TV would continue into the 1970s and 1980s, when she appeared on the Tonight Show and Sesame Street, and had cameos on Sanford and Son and The Cosby Show, always as herself.
Horne's music will always have its admirers, and Billy Strayhorn has rarely had a more elegant interpreter — listen to Horne's version of "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing" for evidence — but Horne will be remembered for who she was. A tireless advocate for civil rights who would sacrifice her career before her most deeply held principles.
Or, in Horne's own words, "I am a black woman, I'm not alone, I'm free. I no longer, I say I'm free because 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."