Lena Horne

Lena Horne

Lena Horne, Edwin Horne and Edna Scottron, was born in Brooklyn, New York City, on 30th June 1917. Her parents divorced and as a child she travelled with her mother who appeared in vaudeville in the 1920s. When her mother remarried she was left with her grandmother who lived in Atlanta.

Lena's paternal grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne, was a political activist who was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League and was active in the women's suffrage campaign. Lena shared her grandmother's views and eventually became a member of the National Council of Negro Women.

Horne left school in 1933 and became a dancer at Harlem's Cotton Club. The following year she made her Broadway debut in the chorus of the show Dance With Your Gods. In 1935 she was employed as the principal vocalist with the all-black Noble Sissle Society Orchestra. However, at the age of nineteen, she gave up her musical career to marry Louis Jones. Over the next couple of years she gave birth to two children, Gail and Teddy.

After divorcing Jones she returned as a singer at the Café Society nightclub, that was opened in 1938 in Greenwich Village by Barney Josephson to showcase African American talent. While performing at the club she became friends with Paul Robeson and Walter White, a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who urged her to use her talent for a larger cause than personal success. Another friend from this period was William Du Bois.

Horne became a popular star and was approached by several Hollywood studios. Her father accompanied Lena to an early meeting with MGM boss Louis B. Meyer. According to John Fordham: "On being told his daughter could play a film role as a maid, he informed the mogul that he could afford to hire his own maids and didn't need to have his offspring playing one." Lena later recalled: "They didn't make me into a maid, but they didn't make me into anything else either. I became a butterfly pinned to a column singing away in Movieland."

in 1944 she appeared in her first Hollywood movie, Panama Hattie (1942). This was followed by Show Business at War (1943), Thousands Cheer (1943), I Dood It (1943), Swing Fever (1943), Boogie-Woogie Dream (1944), Two Girls and a Sailor (1944) and Ziegfeld Follies (1945). Horne's musical numbers usually were shot independently of the films' narratives, making them easy to be deleted later when screened in the Jim Crow South.

During this period she had a hit song, Stormy Weather, that became her theme song. Other hits include Deed I Do and As Long As I Live. She became a Second World War pinup. Donald Bogle wrote in Brown Sugar: Over One Hundred Years of America's Black Female Superstars (1980): "In the history of American popular entertainment, no woman had ever looked like Lena Horne. Nor had any other black woman had looks considered as 'safe' and non-threatening."

In 1947 Horne married the white pianist and arranger Lennie Hayton. "He could get me into places no black manager could... but because he was a nice man and because he was in my corner, I began to love him." Interracial relationships were fairly unusual at this time and after receiving death threats the couple moved to Paris.

On her return in 1950 she found that her left-wing activities had made her a victim of McCarthyism. Along with her great friend, Paul Robeson, she was blacklisted from appearing in movies and on television. She therefore concentrated on her nightclub work. In 1955 she had another Top 20 US Chart hit with Love Me or Leave Me. Her 1959 album, Porgy and Bess was also well received.

On 11th June 1963 Horne travelled to Mississippi to speak on the same platform as Medgar Evers. That night he was murdered in the driveway of his home. Horne said: "Nobody black or white who really believes in democracy can stand aside now; everybody's got to stand up and be counted." She now began to appear regularly at rallies organized by the National Council of Negro Women.

Horne took part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on 28th August, 1963, was a great success. Estimates on the size of the crowd varied from between 250,000 to 400,000. Speakers included Martin Luther King (SCLC), Philip Randolph (AFL-CIO), Floyd McKissick (CORE), John Lewis (SNCC), Roy Wilkins (NAACP), Witney Young (National Urban League) and Walter Reuther (AFL-CIO). King was the final speaker and made his famous I Have a Dream speech.

After the blacklist was lifted Lena Horne appeared on television in The Perry Como Show (1958), The Jack Paar Program (1963), The Judy Garland Show (1963), The Mike Douglas Show (1966), The Andy Williams Show (1966), The Merv Griffin Show (1967), The Dean Martin Show (1967) and The Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (1968). In 1969 she appeared in a non-singing role opposite Richard Widmark in Death of a Gunfighter.

After the death of her husband, Lennie Hayton, in 1971, Lena Horne temporarily retired from show business. She returned in 1978 to appear in the movie, The Wiz, directed by her son-in-law, Sidney Lumet. In 1981 an autobiographical one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, ran on Broadway for over a year and then toured internationally. Her final concert appearance was at Carnegie Hall in 1996.

Lena Horne died on 9th May, 2010, at the New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

Primary Sources

(1) The Daily Telegraph (10th May, 2010)

Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born in a small Jewish hospital in Brooklyn, New York, on June 30 1917. That summer saw 10,000 blacks marching down Fifth Avenue in protest against lynchings in the South .

Her father, Teddy (said to have connections with the gangster Dutch Schultz), walked out on his wife and child in 1920. Lena’s mother, Edna, moved to Harlem, where she joined the Lafayette Stock Company, a theatrical touring group promoting black artists, among them Paul Robeson.

Lena, meanwhile, was sent to live with her grandmother, Cora, a formidable matriarch and feminist known as “The Tiny Terror”. A disciplinarian, she insisted that her charge spoke “properly” and never used slang. Lena was sent to a private kindergarten, at which she was the only “coloured” pupil. She often played with the children of Swedish immigrants, but was strictly forbidden to mix with the tenement Irish, who were frowned upon by middle-class blacks.

Later her mother retrieved her child and moved to Miami, where Lena’s schoolfriends made fun of her accent and her skin colour, calling her a “little yellow bastard”.

In 1934 Lena was hired as a dancer at the Cotton Club in Harlem, the most famous speakeasy in New York; it had been started by the British-born gangster Owen “Owney” Madden, whose henchmen “persuaded” a Philadelphian club owner to lure Duke Ellington to the Cotton Club or face the consequences. “Be big or be dead” was their argument. All the showgirls who accompanied Ellington were light-skinned black girls billed as “tall, tan and terrific”.

When the star among the girls, Aida Ward, was taken ill, Lena was given a solo spot – prompting a swift recovery by Miss Ward when she saw how well her understudy was being received.

In 1936 Lena Horne toured with Noble Sissle’s band (which included the great soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet). In her autobiography, published in 1950, Lena Horne recounted harrowing stories of the indignities suffered by black performers, especially in the South. When their coach pulled up at a traffic light, for example, street corner loafers were liable to shout: “Look at all the niggers!”, and spit at the coach windows.

(2) Los Angeles Times (10th May, 2010)

"Stormy Weather" was Lena Horne's signature song as well as a chillingly apt metaphor for her career. Long celebrated for her striking beauty and silky voice, she overcame profound racism on her way to becoming one of the best-known African American performers in the country.

At MGM, she had a seven-year contract in the 1940s when no other African American had such long-term deals. But her movie scenes were filmed so they could be easily excised for release in the Jim Crow South.

As a singer in the 1950s, Horne often performed for white audiences in supper clubs then cursed the audience under her breath as she took her bows, her biographer wrote last year.

The glamorous Horne would go on to be "one of the legendary divas of popular music," jazz critic Don Heckman wrote in The Times in 1997, with a voice that almost caressed "with its warm timbre and seductive drawl."

Horne, whose career spanned more than 60 years, died Sunday of heart failure at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, said her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley. She was 92.

(3) Ed Pilkington, The Guardian (11th May, 2010)

It was the early 1940s and Lena Horne, the singer and rising Hollywood star, was making a morale-boosting appearance in front of the troops at Fort Riley in Kansas. As was the case in the days of segregation, she had to perform first in front of the white US soldiers, irrespective of the fact that she herself was black.

She was only permitted to repeat her act on behalf of the African-American troops the following day, in a separate black mess hall. To her bemusement, she found them sitting behind several rows of white soldiers, and when she inquired she discovered that the front seats were occupied by German prisoners of war.

At first, she tried turning her back on the PoWs and directing her voice to the black soldiers. But when that failed, she stormed off in a rage.

In an equal world, Horne, who died in New York on Sunday night aged 92, would be remembered primarily for her silken voice and the beauty and poise with which she commanded the stage and screen. Things not being equal, particularly during the years when she rose to fame, she will also be remembered for her fiery pride and her refusal to kowtow to the small-mindedness of the times.

In 1960, at a restaurant in Beverly Hills, she overheard a drunken white man who was angry that he had to wait while she was being served. "She's just another nigger. Where is she?" he said.

Horne replied: "Here I am!" and proceeded to hurl a table lamp, glasses and an ashtray at him.

The actress Liza Minnelli paid tribute to Horne. "I knew her from the time I was born, and whenever I needed anything she was there. She was funny, sophisticated and truly one of a kind. We lost an original. Thank you Lena," she said.

At the start of her Hollywood career, Horne made it clear to executives that she would not play the stereotypical role normally assigned to black actresses: that of maid. She was granted her wish, but still had to struggle to acquire leading roles.

As she famously complained: "They didn't make me into a maid, but they didn't make me anything else either."

The list of her humiliations and disappointments was familiar to any black artist at work in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Many of her films, such as Swing Fever in 1943 and Ziegfeld Follies in 1946, ringfenced her performances as discrete songs easily cut out in versions shown in the segregated south.

She regularly performed cabaret in hotels where she was not permitted to stay. When she first moved to Hollywood in 1941, her home had to be rented for her by a white friend. Neighbours drew up a petition to remove her from the area, until Humphrey Bogart, who lived next door, stepped in and put a stop to the protest.

She even had to marry her second husband in secret. When, three years later in 1950, she revealed she had married a white man, Lennie Hayton of MGM, she faced heavy criticism from both whites and blacks.

From her first performance aged 16 in Harlem's Cotton Club – where black artists appeared before a white audience – she gathered around her close friends who gave her strength. Count Basie once told her: "They don't give us a chance very often, and when they do, we have to take it." Billie Holiday gave this advice: "You got babies. You gotta pay your rent. Sing anything you want, the way you want."

Friendships with politically outspoken figures such as WEB Dubois and Paul Robeson brought difficulties during the McCarthy era and her film career almost ground to a halt. The 1960s saw her rebound as a prominent figure in the civil rights movement, attending the March on Washington in 1963.

Through it all, she consistently smashed glass ceilings. She was among the first black performers to sing with a big white band, and to acquire a long-term Hollywood contract. Through it all, the glorious voice resounded too, not least her signature tune, Stormy Weather, which she sang in the film of the same name made in 1943 with an all-black cast.