Reluctant barrier-breaker, one might say:
Horne spoke of her  one-woman show as the most liberating moment of her life, saying her identity was clear to her 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.”
Lena Horne died Sunday at a hospital in New York City, aged 92. Her son-in-law, Kevin Buckley, announced her death but didn’t reveal a cause.
Horne was always a great performer who insisted on being accepted on her own terms, not on terms imposed by anyone else of any color. Still, those battles were naturally most often with whites — white promoters, producers, and even audiences.
Clifton Fadiman, in his excellent 1985 Book of Anecdotes, tells two Lena Horne stories that have always stuck with me. The first involves jazz legend George Jessel:
Jessel arrived at the Stork Club one day with the beautiful and talented Lena Horne. Sherman Billingsley, the owner of the Stork Club, and his headwaiters were not fervent believers in racial equality, but Jessel was a regular customer. The headwaiter stalled, paging through his reservation book, pretending that all the tables were filled. Finally, the headwaiter said to Jessel, “Mr. Jessel, who made the reservation?” And Jessel answered, “Abraham Lincoln.” Billingsley signaled the headwaiter from across the room, and Mr. Jessel and Miss Horne were seated.”
The second, as told to Fadiman by journalist Al Duckett, is all Horne:
“She had been sent to a camp in the south to entertain the troops. She was scheduled to do a performance for the white troops and a separate performance for the black troops and the German prisoners of war. When I was in the service in Fort Dix, the German prisoners would be in the mess line with black troops and you’d have a separate line for white troops. Lena entertained the blacks and the German prisoners and then she left.