"She is one of the incomparable performers of our time," Richard Watts, Jr., wrote of Lena Horne in the New York Post in 1957. This assessment continued to hold true decades later: Lena Horne, the beautiful, elegant, and talented singer and actress has become a legend. Horne encountered adversity throughout her career: first from her family, who disapproved of her choice of occupation; then from white audiences and managers, who were uncomfortable with her assertiveness; and even from other African American performers, who felt threatened by her refusal to accept stereotypical roles. But her strong sense of her own identity, of justice, and of dignity forced her to struggle against this adversity--and allowed her to triumph.
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born on June 30, 1917, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, to Edwin "Teddy" Horne and his wife, Edna. Horne's parents separated by the time she was three years old, and she lived for several years with her paternal grandparents, Cora Calhoun and Edwin Horne. Her early life was nomadic: Horne's mother, who was a fairly unsuccessful stage performer, took the young Lena on the road with her, and they lived in various parts of the South before returning to Horne's grandparents' home in Brooklyn in 1931. After her grandparents died, she was sent to live with her mother's friend Laura Rollock. Shortly thereafter, her mother married Miguel "Mike" Rodriguez, and Horne moved in with them.
Horne had early ambitions to be a performer--against the wishes of her family, who believed that she should aspire to greater heights. The Hornes were an established middle-class family, with several members holding college degrees and distinguished positions in organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League. Nevertheless, Horne persisted, and in 1933 she began her first professional engagement--at the Cotton Club, the famed Harlem nightclub. She sang in the chorus, and though only sixteen years old, held her own among the older and more experienced cast members. She soon left high school to devote herself to her stage career.
In 1934 Horne had a small role in an all-black Broadway show called Dance with Your Gods. The next year, she left the Cotton Club and began performing as the featured singer with Noble Sissle's Society Orchestra under the name "Helena Horne," which Sissle thought more glamorous than "Lena." In 1937 Horne quit her tour with the Sissle Orchestra to marry Louis Jones, a friend of her father, and live with him in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During this short and troubled marriage, Horne went to Hollywood to appear in an all-black film called The Duke Is Tops. In 1939 she had a role in the musical revue Blackbirds of 1939 at the Hudson Theatre in New York City; it ran for only eight nights. Before her marriage to Jones ended in divorce, she had two children, Gail and Edwin ("Teddy").
Horne left Jones in 1940, taking a job as a singer with Charlie Barnet's band and going out on tour with him. Horne was the only black member of the ensemble, and the kind of racial discrimination she encountered from audiences, hotel managers, and others was so unsettling that she decided to quit the band. In 1941, she began performing at the Cafe Society Downtown, a club in New York City that catered to intellectuals and social activists, both black and white.
At the Cafe Society, Horne learned about black history, politics, and culture and developed a new appreciation for her heritage. She rekindled her acquaintance with Paul Robeson, whom she had known when she was a child. In her autobiography entitled In Person: Lena Horne, she said that through her conversations with Robeson, she realized "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 this point on, Horne became a significant voice in the struggle for equality and justice for blacks in America.
In the summer of 1941, Horne moved to California after getting an offer to appear at an as-yet-unbuilt club on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood called the Trocadero. Although the plans for the Trocadero fell through, another, smaller club, the Little Troc, opened in February of 1942, and Horne was featured there. In the same year, she signed a seven-year contract with MGM--the first black woman since 1915 to sign a term contract with a film studio. "They didn't quite know what to do with me," she told Leonard Maltin of Entertainment Tonight regarding the studio's resulting dilemma: she wasn't sufficiently dark skinned 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. Her first film under contract was Panama Hattie, a 1942 motion picture version of Cole Porter's Broadway musical, in which she had a small singing role in one scene.
Several of Horne's roles in subsequent films were similar. James Haskins, in his book Lena: A Personal and Professional Biography of Lena Horne, wrote: "The image of Lena, always elegantly gowned, singing while draped around a marble column in a lavishly produced musical sequence, would become virtually standardized. Only her ability to appear enigmatic prevented her from being completely exploited in these stock sequences; she managed to carry them off with a dignity that, coupled with her aloof and detached delivery, enhanced both her mystery and her audience appeal." The sad footnote to this is that Horne's scenes were purposely constructed so that they could be cut out with ease when the films were shown to white audiences in the South.
Horne appeared in the all-black film musicals Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, both released in 1943, but she refused to take on any roles that were demeaning to her as a woman of color. This led to an uproar among the black Hollywood "extras," who represented what Horne's daughter, in her book The Hornes: An American Family, called "a kind of stock company of stereotypes." These actors felt threatened and accused Horne of being a tool of the NAACP. In her own defense, Horne wrote in her 1965 autobiography Lena: "I was only trying to see if I could avoid in my career some of the traps they had been forced into."
During World War II, Horne went on USO tours along the West Coast and in the South. She appeared on the Armed Forces Radio Service on programs such as Jubilee, G.I. Journal, and Command Performances and helped Eleanor Roosevelt press for antilynching legislation. After the war, she worked on behalf of Japanese-Americans who faced discrimination because Japan had been an enemy of the United States.
In the fall of 1947, Horne went to Europe with Lennie Hayton, a white musician she had met in Hollywood. They were married in December in Paris because interracial marriages were against the law in California. Back in Hollywood, she appeared in more film musicals, among them, Till the Clouds Roll By in 1946, Words and Music in 1948, and The Duchess of Idaho in 1950.
In the early 1950s, Horne, along with many of her colleagues, was a victim of the anti-Communist "witch hunts" that successfully blacklisted performers who were thought to have ties to Communist organizations or activities. The blacklisting hurt Horne's career and kept her from appearing on radio and television. By the mid-1950s, though, Horne was cleared of these charges. In 1956, she signed a recording contract with RCA Victor. Her albums included Stormy Weather, Lena Horne at the Coconut Grove, and Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria. The latter became the top-selling recording by a female artist in RCA's history. In 1957 Horne was featured in Jamaica, a Broadway musical with an all-black cast. The show had a successful run, closing in the spring of 1959.
In the 1960s, Horne was involved in the American civil rights movement, participating 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 appeared on various television programs, including several performances on the popular Ed Sullivan and Perry Como variety shows, and her own special, Lena in Concert, in 1969. In the same year she appeared in a nonsinging role in the western Death of a Gunfighter.
The 1970s began tragically for Horne: her son, Teddy, died of kidney disease in 1970, her father died in the same year, and Lennie Hayton died of a heart attack in 1971. However, the decade offered a variety of opportunities for Horne to perform. She appeared on Broadway with Tony Bennett in 1974 in a show called Tony and Lena and was featured in several television commercials. In 1978, she played the role of Glinda, the Good Witch, in the film version of The Wiz, the all-black musical based on The Wizard of Oz.
In the summer of 1980, Horne launched a "farewell tour," but her greatest success of the decade was her one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which opened in May of 1981 at Broadway's Nederlander Theatre. The show ran for two years and was a tremendous success--so much so that Horne was given a special Tony Award for her performance. She also received a Drama Desk Award and a special citation from the New York Drama Critics' Circle. The soundtrack to the show, produced by Quincy Jones, won two Grammy awards. In Lena: A Personal and Professional Biography, Haskins noted that the show was "not only the longest-running one-woman show in the history of Broadway but the standard against which every future one-person show would be measured." Horne herself, in an article she wrote for Ebony magazine in 1990, described the show as "the most rewarding event in my entire career."
In the 1990s, Horne cut back on performing, but she continued to be a favorite of audiences throughout the world. Her pride in her heritage and her refusal to compromise herself, combined with an innate ability to project elegance, grace, and dignity, have made her a legendary figure. Some observers consider her most important role to be that of a catalyst in the elevation of the status of African Americans in the performing arts. But Horne laments the sluggishness of progress in Hollywood; if given the chance to do it all again, she told Leonard Feather of Modern Maturity, "I'd be a schoolteacher."
Born Lena Mary Calhoun Horne, June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Edwin ("Teddy"; a numbers banker) and Edna (an actress) Horne; married Louis Jones, 1937 (divorced 1944); married Leonard George ("Lennie") Hayton, 1947 (died 1971); children: (first marriage) Gail, Edwin ("Teddy"; deceased). Memberships: NAACP, Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions (HICCASP), Delta Sigma Theta (honorary member). Addresses: Office--5950 Canoga Ave., #200, Woodland Hills, CA 91367.
Began singing at Cotton Club in New York City, 1933; appeared in Broadway musical Dance with Your Gods, 1934; featured singer with Noble Sissle's Society Orchestra, 1935-37, and Charlie Barnet Orchestra, 1940-41; appeared in musical Blackbirds of 1939, 1939, and at Cafe Society Downtown, 1941; featured performer at Little Troc nightclub, Hollywood, 1942; appeared in motion pictures, including The Duke Is Tops, 1938, Panama Hattie, 1942, Stormy Weather, 1943, Cabin in the Sky, 1943, Death of a Gunfighter, 1969, The Wiz, 1978, and That's Entertainment III, 1993; signed record contract with RCA Victor, 1956; featured in Broadway musical Jamaica, 1957-59; appeared on television, 1950s-80s, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Perry Como Show, and The Cosby Show; starred in Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music on Broadway, 1981-82.
Antoinette Perry ("Tony") Award, 1981; Drama Desk Award, 1981; Actors Equity Paul Robeson Award, 1982; Dance Theater of Harlem Emergence Award, 1982; Handel Medallion, 1982; NAACP Spingarn Medal, 1983; Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime contribution to the arts, 1984; Essence Award, 1993; Ebony 's Lifetime Achievement Award; two Grammy awards.
- (With the Lennie Layton Orchestra) Lena Goes Latin, recorded in 1963, DRG, 1987.
- (With Sammy Davis and Joe Williams) The Men in My Life, Three Cherries, 1989.
- Stormy Weather: The Legendary Lena, 1941-1958, Bluebird, 1990.
- Lena Horne, Royal Collection, 1992.
- At Long Last Lena, RCA, 1992.
- Greatest Hits, CSI, 1992.
- The Best of Lena Horne, Curb, 1993.
- Stormy Weather, RCA Victor.
- Lena Horne at the Coconut Grove, RCA Victor.
- Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria, RCA Victor.
- Buckley, Gail Lumet, The Hornes: An American Family, Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.
- Haskins, James, and Kathleen Benson, Lena: A Personal and Professional Biography of Lena Horne, Stein & Day, 1984.
- Horne, Lena, as told to Helen Arstein and Carlton Moss, In Person: Lena Horne, Greenberg, 1950.
- Horne, Lena, and Richard Schickel, Lena, Doubleday, 1965.
- Wormley, Stanton L., and Lewis H. Fenderson, editors, Many Shades of Black, William & Co., 1969.
- Ebony, May 1980; November 1990.
- Modern Maturity, February/March 1993, p. 28.
- New York Post, November 1, 1957.
- New York Times, May 4, 1981.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Leonard Maltin's interview with Lena Horne, broadcast on Entertainment Tonight, ABC-TV, March 22, 1993.