By Brandon Wallace
Editor’s note: Lena Horne died on Mother’s Day, May 9, 2010 at the age of 92 years old. This is a tribute biography that gives a brief chronicle of her fascinating life. She was indeed one of the first African American Hollywood entertainers that used her influence to help better the life of those that followed her.
Lena Horne, actress, singer, and civil rights pioneer, was one of the most talented and influential women of her generation. Born in 1917 in an upper middle class home in Brooklyn, New York, she was raised by her grandmother and grandfather, Cora and Edwin Horne.
Lena found an early inspiration for the course she would take in life in the person of her grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne. Cora Calhoun was a seasoned political activist, recognized during her lifetime as a major suffragist and one of the pioneers of the Niagara Movement, the movement that led to the founding of the NAACP. Under her grandmother’s guidance, Lena became a member of the NAACP as a toddler. Along with her social and political activism, Cora Calhoun was also a philanthropist and an advocate of education for Blacks.
In 1917, Cora Calhoun secured a scholarship that allowed a young Paul Robeson to attend Rutgers University. This legacy inspired an intense friendship between Lena Horne and Paul Robeson in later years.
Horne’s uncle, Frank S. Horne, was an adviser in the Roosevelt administration. He maternal grandfather was the inventor, Samuel R. Scottron.
At fifteen, Horne left her grandparent’s home in order to live with her mother, Edna, an aspiring actress and former debutante. At sixteen, in an effort to support herself and contribute to the family income, she took a job performing in the chorus at the Cotton Club in Harlem. At the Cotton Club, Horne was influenced by such major figures as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. After a while, she joined the orchestra of famed band leader Noble Sissle and toured the country. Horne first earned fame and recognition with his orchestra. She has credited Sissle’s mentorship as the bedrock on which she built her future career.
In 1941, Lena Horne signed a contract with MGM Studios. She became the first Black actress to sign a long term contract with a major Hollywood studio. Considered too light to appear on screen in Black roles, the studio commissioned Max Factor to create a special make-up, known as “Dark Egyptian,” to darken her skin. Her first major role came in 1942’s Panama Hattie. In the film, she played a singer whose on screen performance had nothing to do with the plot. The reason for this was so the studios could cut out the role (as well as those of other Black performers) when the film was screened in the South, where Black performers could not be portrayed in major roles on screen. She followed Panama Hattie with her two most successful efforts in Hollywood, Cabin the Sky and Stormy Weather, both released in 1943. Both films were major Hollywood musicals that featured all Black casts.
Stormy Weather gave Lena her signature song. Since that time, the song “Stormy Weather,” has been identified with Horne and has been a hallmark of her long, illustrious career.
Beginning in the 1950s, Horne was blacklisted by Hollywood and the entertainment industry because of her friendship with Paul Robeson, her dedication to progressive politics, and her outspokenness on racial issues. Lena Horne literally embodied the turmoil of racial politics in the United States. Through the Calhoun family, Lena Horne was the great-great granddaughter of the staunchest pro-slavery senator to sit in the United States senate before the Civil War, Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Her passion for justice matched his fervent calls for human bondage. During World War II, while performing on a USO tour, Lena decisively left the front of the room where the white soldiers sat along with several German prisoners of war and moved to the back of the room to sing for the Black soldiers. Horne was one of the earliest participants in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and was a participant in the 1963 March on Washington. She was a close ally of Paul Robeson during his troubles with the United States government and the entertainment industry.
Horne has said, “Whatever petitions I’ve signed or benefits I’ve played I’ve not done because I had any broad or deep political program I was pushing. I had just learned from my father and from my grandmother not to take any nonsense from anybody.”
In 1978, Horne played Glenda the Good Witch in the Diana Ross/Sidney Lumet classic film, The Wiz.
Lena Horne was married twice, once to Louis Jordan Jones and later to MGM band director, Lennie Hayton.
She bore two children with Jones, a son Edwin, who died in 1970, and a daughter, the writer and journalist Gail Buckley Lumet. Her granddaughter is the screenwriter Jenny Lumet.