Knowledge Session: Who Was Lena Horne?

Lena Horne (June 30, 1917 – May 9, 2010) was born in Brook­lyn, New York, on June 30, 1917. Her father, Edwin “Teddy” Horne, who worked in the gambling trade, left the fam­ily when Lena was three. Her mother, Edna, was an act­ress with an Afric­an Amer­ican theat­er troupe and traveled extens­ively. Horne was mainly raised by her grand­par­ents, Cora Cal­houn and Edwin Horne. Yet, she still moved a great deal in her early years because her mother often took her with her on the road. 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 remar­ried and Horne moved in with her mother and her mother’s new hus­band. The con­stant mov­ing res­ul­ted in Lena hav­ing an edu­ca­tion that was often inter­rup­ted. She atten­ded vari­ous small-town, segreg­ated (sep­ar­ated by race) school’s when in the South with her mother. In Brook­lyn she atten­ded the Eth­ical Cul­tural School, the Girls High School, and a sec­ret­arial school.

From an early age Horne had ambi­tions of becom­ing a performer—much again­st the wishes of her fam­ily, lena hornewho felt she should have higher goals. 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 (a group that worked to increase the eco­nomic and polit­ical power of minor­it­ies and to end dis­crim­in­a­tion based on race). Non­ethe­less, Horne pur­sued her own course and at age six­teen was hired to dance in the chor­us at Harlem’s famed Cot­ton Club. In 1934 Lena took voice les­sons, and she also landed 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. She left Sis­sle in 1936 to per­form as a “single” in a vari­ety of New York City clubs.

Exper­i­ences unequal treat­ment because of race

In 1937 Horne mar­ried minor politi­cian Louis Jones, by whom she had a daugh­ter, Gail, and a son, Edwin (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 in 1940 she joined one of the great white swing bands, the Charlie Barnet Orches­tra. But as the group’s only black mem­ber she suffered many humi­li­ations of racial pre­ju­dice, espe­cially from hotels and res­taur­ants that catered exclus­ively to whites.

Horne left Barnet in 1941. Her career received an imme­di­ate boost from enter­tain­ment man­ager John Ham­mond, who got her a long engage­ment at the fam­ous Café Soci­ety Down­town, a club in New York City. It was at the Café 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 (1898–1976), whom she had known as a child. Horne’s con­ver­sa­tions with Robe­son made her real­ize that the Afric­an Amer­ican people were going to uni­fy and make their situ­ations in life bet­ter. She felt she needed to be a part of that move­ment. From that point onward, Horne became a sig­ni­fic­ant voice in the struggle for equal­ity and justice for Afric­an Amer­ic­ans in the United States.

Film career begins

In 1943 a long book­ing at the Savoy­Plaza Hotel, which brought Horne nation­al cov­er­age and a num­ber of movie appear­ances, estab­lished her as the highest-paid Afric­an Amer­ican enter­tainer in the United States. She was signed to a sev­en-year con­tract with the movie stu­dio Met­ro Gold­wyn May­er (MGM)—the first Afric­an Amer­ican woman since 1915 to sign a term con­tract with a film stu­dio. She was not 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 was not ready to por­tray inter­ra­cial rela­tion­ships on screen.

Given these harsh lim­it­a­tions imposed on Afric­an Amer­ic­ans in 1930s and 1940s Hol­ly­wood movies, 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 in an all­black story, Cab­in in the Sky (1943), which also starred her idol, Eth­el Waters (1900–1977). Another major role fol­lowed in Stormy Weather (1943) and then some non­speak­ing 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 dis­respect­ful to her as a woman of col­or.

Works for civil rights

Horne, des­pite her great fame, con­tin­ued to exper­i­ence humi­li­at­ing racial dis­crim­in­a­tion (wrong­ful treat­ment because of race), and in the late 1940s she sued a num­ber of res­taur­ants and theat­ers for race dis­crim­in­a­tion and also began work­ing with Paul Robe­son in the Pro­gress­ive Cit­izens of Amer­ica, a polit­ical group oppos­ing racism. Dur­ing World War II (1939–45; a war in which Ger­many, Ita­ly, and Japan fought again­st France, Great Bri­tain, China, the Sovi­et Uni­on, and the United States), she used her own money to travel and enter­tain the troops. She also assisted Elean­or Roosevelt (1884–1962) in her mis­sion for anti­lynch­ing legis­la­tion (laws mak­ing it illeg­al to hang a per­son accused of a crime without a tri­al). After the war Horne worked on behalf of Japan­ese Amer­ic­ans who faced dis­crim­in­a­tion.

In 1947 she mar­ried a 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 the mid-1950s Horne 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 1960s Horne was involved in the Amer­ican Civil Rights Move­ment. She par­ti­cip­ated in the March on Wash­ing­ton in 1963, per­formed at ral­lies in the South and else­where, and worked 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 starred in the movie Death of a Gun­fight­er.

Per­sonal tragedy and con­tinu­ing success

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 determ­ined than ever. In 1973 and 1974 she toured Eng­land and the United States with Tony Ben­nett (1926–), and in 1979 she was billed with com­poser Mar­vin Ham­l­isch at the West­bury (New York) Music Fair.

In 1981 Horne had her greatest tri­umph, a Broad­way show called Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which was the talk of show busi­ness for four­teen months. It won a spe­cial Tony award, and the soundtrack won two Grammy awards.

In the 1990s Horne cut back on per­form­ing. She was drawn back from semire­tire­ment to do a trib­ute con­cert for a long-time friend, com­poser Billy Stray­horn, at the JVC Jazz Fest­ival. At age sev­enty-six she released her first album in a dec­ade, We’ll Be Togeth­er Again. In 1997, on the occa­sion of her eighti­eth birth­day, Horne was honored at the JVC Jazz Fest­ival with a trib­ute con­cert and the Ella Award for Life­time Achieve­ment in Vocal Artistry. In 1999 she was honored at the New York City’s Avery Fish­er Hall with an all-star salute.

Lena Horne is an amaz­ing woman. Her pride in her her­it­age, her refus­al to com­prom­ise her­self, and her innate eleg­ance, grace, and dig­nity has made her a legendary fig­ure. Her role as a per­son who has helped to improve the status of Afric­an Amer­ic­ans in the per­form­ing arts has provided a per­man­ent leg­acy.

Horne died on May 9, 2010, in New York City. The funer­al took place at St. Igna­tius Loy­ola Church on Park Aven­ue in New York.

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Rishma Dhaliwal

Rishma Dhaliwal

Edit­or / PR Con­sult­ant at No Bounds
Rish­ma Dhali­wal has extens­ive exper­i­ence study­ing and work­ing in the music and media industry. Hav­ing writ­ten a thes­is on how Hip Hop acts as a social move­ment, she has spent years research­ing and con­nect­ing with artists who use the art form as a tool for bring­ing a voice to the voice­less. Cur­rently work­ing in TV, Rish­ma brings her PR and media know­ledge to I am Hip Hop and oth­er pro­jects by No Bounds.

About Rishma Dhaliwal

Rishma Dhaliwal
Rishma Dhaliwal has extensive experience studying and working in the music and media industry. Having written a thesis on how Hip Hop acts as a social movement, she has spent years researching and connecting with artists who use the art form as a tool for bringing a voice to the voiceless. Currently working in TV, Rishma brings her PR and media knowledge to I am Hip Hop and other projects by No Bounds.

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