By Kristinah Session, Carol Stabile, and Laura Strait
Lena Calhoun Horne was born in 1917 in Brooklyn, New York. Her parents were Edwin “Teddy” F. Horne, a civil servant, numbers runner, and gambler, and Edna Scottron Horne, an actress. After her parents’ divorce in 1920, Horne lived with family in Florida and Georgia, before returning in 1929 to live with her paternal grandmother, later moving in with her mother and stepfather. A self-identified feminist, Horne credited her grandmother, Cora Calhoun, as being her political role model. Calhoun graduated from Atlanta University at a time when very few African American women were able to attend college.1 Calhoun had been “active in the Urban League and the NAACP, the Suffragette movement, and all kinds of social-work activity.”2
“The part of me,” Horne later wrote, “that responds to causes or to injustices, or issues fighting statements on all kinds of issues, that part of me is the creation of my proud, activist grandmother, who never seemed to be afraid of anything.”3
Horne’s first media appearance was as a two-year-old in the pages of the NAACP’s Branch Bulletin.4 After leaving school at the age of 16, Horne’s career as a performer began in earnest, with a job as a chorus girl at the Cotton Club in Harlem. In 1935, Horne joined Noble Sissle’s orchestra, touring with his band throughout the US. She joined bandleader Charlie Barnet’s orchestra in 1940 as lead vocalist.5
Like many Black actresses of her generation, Horne established herself as a nightclub entertainer before a Hollywood studios would consider her for a film. In 1942, she became the second Black actress to receive a long-term contract with a major motion picture studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Later that year, she was cast in a small role in Cole Porter’s Panama Hattie (1942).6 Her racially ambiguous role in Panama Hattie (which hinted that she was not Black, but rather a “Latin singer”), led to charges that she was trying to “pass” as white, denying the reality that this identity was created to pacify white supremacist viewers. Horne was also cast in Broadway Rhythm (1944) as a “Latin performer.”7
During an era when it was uncommon to see Black women on screen as anything other than “mammies” and servants for white protagonists, on one hand, or hyper-sexualized and exotic characters on the other, Horne understood herself as a powerful agent for change. NAACP Executive Secretary, Walter White, a Horne family friend, was said to have seen Horne as “an interesting weapon” to depict “the Negro” as an average person in film.8 Both White and Horne’s father Teddy encouraged Horne to refuse to play stereotypical roles. Horne herself worried that her MGM contract “would force me to play roles as a maid or maybe even as some jungle type,” roles “that most Negroes were forced to play in the movies at that time.”9
- 1. Gwen Gibson, “At 71, Lena Horne Isn’t Exactly the Retiring Type,” Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1988, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1988-12-15-8802240927-story.html.
- 2. Gail Buckley, The Hornes: An American Family, New York, NY: Knopf, 1986, 60.
- 3. Ibid.
- 4. Megan E. Williams, “The Crisis Cover Girl: Lena Horne, the NAACP, and Representations of African American Femininity,” American Periodicals 16, no. 2 (2006): 200.
- 5. Charlene B. Regester, African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900-1960, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010, 176.
- 6. Regester, 180.
- 7. Regester, 195.
- 8. Williams, 50.
- 9. Lena Horne and Richard Schickel, Lena, New York: Limelight Editions, 1986, 134-135.
Horne had her first major role in Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Stormy Weather (1943). As she had expected, her options as a performer who refused to take roles as maids or prostitutes restricted her film career. Although Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather established her as a star, her subsequent film roles were limited to musical numbers that could be cut when films were distributed in the South, like I Dood It (1943), where she starred with Hazel Scott, Swing Fever (1943), and Ziegfeld Follies (1946). In 1946, MGM passed over Horne for the role of Julie in the third film version of Showboat, casting Ava Gardner instead, who ironically donned the make-up that had been created by Max Factor for Horne herself. Horne later observed of MGM, “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.”1
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Horne performed outside of Hollywood--in nightclubs in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York; on television variety shows and entertainment specials; and on Broadway, where in 1974, she appeared in her final film role, playing the Good Witch, Glinda, in The Wiz. In 1982, her one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music took Broadway by storm. Scheduled to run for six weeks, the show opened to critical and popular acclaim, running for 333 performances and earning Horne a Tony award and two Grammy Awards before closing on her 65th birthday.
Horne married Louis S. Jones, a friend of her father’s, in 1936. Jones was active in Democratic politics in the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He and Horne had two children: Gayle in 1937 and Teddy in 1940. The couple separated in 1940 and divorced in 1944. In 1947, Horne married Lennie Hayton, a musician who also worked at MGM. They kept their relationship secret for several years, concerned that their interracial relationship might damage their careers. Horne and Hayton separated in the early 1960s, although the couple never divorced. Horne died at the age of 92 in Manhattan, New York on May 9, 2010 from heart failure.
- 1. Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, New York, NY: Continuum, 2001, 127.