Lena Horne (born 1917) was one of the most popular Black entertainers of the 20th century. A woman of great beauty and commanding stage presence, she performed in nightclubs, concert halls, movies, and on radio and television.
Lena Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York, on June 30, 1917. Her father, Edwin "Teddy" Horne, a numbers game banker, left the household when Lena was three. Her mother, Edna, was an actress with a black theater troupe and traveled extensively. Horne was raised principally by her grandparents, Cora Calhoun and Edwin Horne. Even so, her early life was nomadic since her mother often took her on the road with her. They lived in various parts of the south before Horne was returned to her grandparents home in 1931. After they died, Horne lived with a friend of her mother's, Laura Rollock. Shortly thereafter, Edna married Miguel Rodriguez and Horne moved in with them.
From an early age, Horne had ambitions to be a performer—much against the wishes of her family who felt she should have higher aspirations. The Hornes were an established middle class family, with several members holding college degrees and distinguished positions in organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League. Nonetheless, Horne pursued her own course and was hired at age 16 at Harlem's famed Cotton Club to dance in the chorus where she held her own against older and more experienced cast members. In 1934, though she had no previous singing experience, she was assigned a singing duet in the club with Avon Long (of "Porgy and Bess" fame). The success of the number inspired Lena to take voice lessons and also got a small role in an all-black Broadway show "Dance with Your Gods." In 1935 she became the featured singer with the Noble Sissle Society Orchestra, which performed at many first-rate hotel ballrooms and nightclubs, including the Cotton Club. She left Sissle in 1936 to perform as a "single" in a variety of New York clubs.
In 1937 Horne married minor politician Louis Jones, by whom she had a daughter and a son (they separated in 1940 and divorced in 1944). She gained some early stage experience in Lew Leslie's revues, "Blackbirds of 1939" and "Blackbirds of 1940, " and crossed the racial barrier later in 1940 when she joined one of the great white swing bands, the Charlie Barnet Orchestra. But in that strained context she suffered the many indignities of racial prejudice, especially from hotels and restaurants catering exclusively to whites. She left Barnet in 1941, and her career received an immediate boost from impresario John Hammond, who got her a long engagement at the prestigious Cafe Society Downtown, a club in New York City that catered to intellectual and social activists, both black and white. It was at the Cafe Society that Horne learned about African American history, politics and culture and developed a new appreciation of her heritage. She rekindled her acquaintance with Paul Robeson, whom she had known as a child. In her autobiography, In Person: Lena Horne she stated that her conversations with Robeson made her realize "that we [African Americans] were going forward and that knowledge gave me a strength and a sense of unity. Yes, we were going forward and it was up to me to learn more about us and to join actively in our struggle." From that point onward, Horne became a significant voice in the struggle for equality and justice for African Americans in America.
In 1943, a long booking at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel brought her coverage in such national magazines as LIFE and, in conjunction with a number of movie appearances, established her as the highest-paid black entertainer in America. She was signed to a seven-year contract with MGM—the first African American woman since 1915 to sign a term contract with a film studio. "They didn't know what to do with me" she told Leonard Maltin of Entertainment Tonight regarding the studios dilemma, she wasn't dark enough in color to star with many of the African American actors of the day and her roles in white films were limited, since Hollywood wasn't ready to depict interracial relationships on screen.
Given these harsh limitations imposed on blacks in 1930s and 1940s Hollywood movies (they either played menials or performed song and/or dance numbers), Horne's film career is impressive. After singing roles in "Panama Hattie" (1942), "Harlem on Parade" (1942), "I Dood It" (1943), "Swing Fever" (1943), and "As Thousands Cheer" (1943), she was given a starring role as a seductress in an all-black allegory, "Cabin in the Sky" (1943), which also starred her idol, Ethel Waters (with whom she did not get along). There followed another major role in "Stormy Weather" (1943) and then some non-speaking roles in "Broadway Rhythm" (1944), "Two Girls and a Sailor" (1944), and a musical biography of Rodgers and Hart, "Words and Music" (1948). She refused to take on any roles that were demeaning to her as a woman of color. This alienated her from other black performers and caused an uproar among the black Hollywood "extras." Horne's daughter, in her book The Hornes: An American Family called them "a stock company of stereotypes" who felt threatened by Horne's success. They accused her of being a tool of the NAACP. In her own defense Horne herself wrote in her own autobiography Lena, "I was only trying to see if I could avoid in my career some of the traps they had been forced into."
Despite her great fame, Horne continued to experience humiliating racial rebukes, and in the late 1940s she sued a number of restaurants and theaters for race discrimination and also became politically allied with Paul Robeson in the Progressive Citizens of America, a leftist group combating racism. While entertaining troops at Fort Reilly, Kansas during World War II, she saw German POW's seated in the front row and African American soldiers forced to sit behind them. Horne left the stage immediately, went to the local NAACP office and filed a complaint. MGM Studios pulled her off the tour, so she used her own money to travel and entertain the troops. She also assisted Eleanor Roosevelt in her quest for anti-lynching legislation. After the war, Horne worked on behalf of Japanese Americans who faced discrimination.
In 1947, shortly after performing at the London Casino, she married white bandleader Lennie Hayton, a marriage that was kept secret for three years because of racial pressures. Until his death in 1971, Hayton was also her pianist, arranger, conductor, and manager.
In 1950 Horne experienced great success at London's Palladium. However, upon her return to the United States, Horne became one of the many victims of the political blacklist. Because of her leftist sympathies and her racial militancy, she was denied work in radio, television, films, and recordings, though she continued to work the posh hotel and nightclub circuit. By the mid-1950s, the anti-left freeze had thawed somewhat and she made a movie appearance in "Meet Me in Las Vegas" (1956) and recorded for the first time in five years. In 1957 she drew record crowds to the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria, and in 1958 and 1959 she starred in a Broadway musical, "Jamaica."
During the 1960's Horne was involved in the American Civil Rights movement. She participated in the March on Washington in 1963, performing at rallies in the South and elsewhere, and working on behalf of the National Council for Negro Women. During the same period, she was also very visible on television appearing on popular variety shows and in her own special Lena in Concert in 1969. In 1969 Horne also landed a straight acting role, starring opposite Richard Widmark in the movie "Death of a Gun-fighter."
Lennie Hayton's death in 1971, which followed the deaths of Horne's father and her son, plunged her into a state of depression from which she emerged seemingly more resolute than ever. In 1973 and 1974 she toured England and the United States with Tony Bennett; in 1979, on a bill with composer Marvin Hamlisch at the Westbury (New York) Music Fair, Horne's performance inspired critic John S. Wilson to observe a change in her, "an intensity, sometimes warm and intimate, sometimes ominously commanding in every syllable that she projects." She also, for the first time, shed her customary reserve, even permitting herself some patter between songs, and seemed to let the audience get emotionally closer to her.
In 1981 Horne had her greatest triumph, a Broadway show called "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, " which for 14 months was the talk of show business. It won a special Tony award, and the soundtrack won two Grammy awards. It became the standard against which all one-person shows are measured. In 1982 she took the production on a very successful cross-country tour. Horne wrote of the experience in Ebony magazine (1990) "as the most rewarding event in my entire career."
In the 1990's, Horne cut back on performing telling Time, "I went through this delayed reaction to the deaths … of my father and my son and my husband Lennie Hayton … For about nine years I went underground." She was drawn back from semi-retirement to do a tribute concert for a long-time friend, composer Billy Strayhorn at the JVC Jazz Festival "when I came back to do the concert … and it went over so well, everybody was saying 'You ought to keep singing.' So to shut them up, I did it, " Horne told Jet. At age 76 she released her first album in a decade We'll Be Together Again. In 1997, on the occasion of her 80th birthday, Horne was honored at the JVC Jazz Festival, with a tribute concert and the Ella Award for Lifetime Achievement in Vocal Artistry.
Lena Horne was a woman of great beauty and majesty: the eyes sparkled vivaciously and the mouth curled with seething emotion. "She is one of the incomparable performers of our time, " Richard Watts Jr. wrote of Horne in the New York Post in 1957. Her pride in her heritage, her refusal to compromise herself, and her innate elegance, grace and dignity made Horne a legendary figure, whose role as a catalyst in the elevation of the status of African Americans in the performing arts provide an enduring legacy.
Further Reading on Lena Horne
An early biography is Helen Greenberg and Carlton Moss's In Person, Lena Horne (1950). A more recent work is Lena: A Personal and Professional Biography of Lena Horne (1984) by James Haskins with Kathleen Benson. The best sources, however, are Lena's autobiography, Lena (1965, paperback 1986) co-authored by Richard Schickel, and The Hornes: An American Family (1986) by Lena Horne's daughter Gail Lumet Buckley.