This month we look at the life and career of a woman who has many titles to her name. She was an actress, a dancer, a singer, and a civil rights activist. Despite the prejudice she encountered for being African-American, Lena Horne still managed to be one of the most popular performers of her time.
Lena Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York, on June 30, 1917, to an actress and a banker/professional gambler who separated when she was three years old. She became a performer at the age of 16 when she left school to help support her family by dancing at the Cotton Club in Harlem. She later made her Broadway debut in Dance With Your Gods in 1934 and joined the Noble Sissle and his Orchestra as a singer under the name Helena Horne.
She then appeared in the Broadway musical revue Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1939 and later joined the swing band the Charlie Barnet Orchestra – which was one of the first to welcome and include non-white artists. The racial prejudice prevented Horne from staying and socializing after she performed with the orchestra. This caused her to leave the tour, and in 1941 she returned to New York to work at the Café Society Nightclub, where both blacks and whites were welcome. Horne made strides as an activist by sueing different restaurants and theaters that were discriminant as well as becoming a member of the Progressive Citizens of America.
When Horne worked at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel nightclub, she received an opportunity she couldn’t refuse. After being featured in LIFE Magazine and recognized as the “highest-paid black entertainer at the time,” Horne signed a seven-year contract with MGM Studios and moved to Hollywood. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and her father demanded that Lena Horne should not be given the stereotypical black role as a domestic worker. As a result, the New York native was placed in films as an individual singer with her own scenes that could be cut out for Southern audiences who didn’t want to see a black woman in a role other than the stereotypical. She appeared in movies such as Swings Cheer (1943) and Broadway Rhythm (1944). She was even able to have lead roles with an all African-American cast in the 1943 films Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. Besides those films, Horne had 18 more movie credits throughout her career, including Ziegfeld Follies (1945), Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), and The Wiz (1978).
In 1947 she married white bandleader Lennie Hayton, but because of segregation and racial discrimination, they kept their marriage a secret for three years. In the 1960s, they faced racial prejudice, and they eventually separated but did not divorce. Her previous marriage was to Louis Jones from 1937 to 1944, and they had two children together. In 1970 and 1971, her son, brother, and father died, and she spent several years mourning, often out of the public eye.
Horne’s cover of the theme song for Stormy Weather became her signature tune and the one she would perform for decades at her live performances. Lena Horne at the Waldorf Astoria became the biggest-selling RCA album by a woman at the time.
Besides being a successful performer, Horne was active in the Civil Rights Movement, performing at rallies around the country on behalf of the NAACP and the National Council for Negro Women. She also participated in the 1963 March on Washington.
Continuing her career, Horne did her one-woman Broadway show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, in 1981, which later toured around the US and abroad. The show’s success won a Drama Desk Award, a “special” Tony, and two Grammys for its soundtrack. One of her last performances was recorded and released in 1995 as An Evening with Lena Horne: Live at the Supper Club, which won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album. After her concert at the Supper Club in New York, Horne did not do further live performances even though she did occasional recordings.
On May 9, 2010, Horne died of heart failure in New York at the age of 92. Lena Horne has been remembered as one of the most successful African-American actresses with a voice, talent, and activism that helped her fight racial discrimination.
A biography of her life called Stormy Weather was published in 2009, and her own memoir Lena was released in 1965.