Long before there was Beyonce Knowles, there was the elegant diva Lena Horne.
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born in 1917 in Brooklyn, New York, of African-American, Native-American and Caucasian lineage. Her mother Edna was a stage actress and her father “Teddy”, who abandoned the family when Lena was age 3, was a gambler. Lena was largely brought up in the home of her well-educated paternal grandparents, who were, respectively, a newspaper editor and civil rights activist, who taught her early on to take pride in her heritage.
For a short while, she went on the road with her mother, who traveled with an acting troupe. and appears to have been shuffled back and forth between her mother’s gigs in various states and her grandparents’ home in New York. Eventually, young Lena did return to New York for long term, while her mother lived in Cuba and remarried.
When Mom returned, she arranged for her 16-year-old daughter to try out for the prestigious Cotton Club chorus line. During that time, this place was a hot Harlem entertainment night spot, mostly where legendary black singers and musicians such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway performed for white audiences. Her singing talents were later recognized and she departed the Cotton Club to accept a job as a vocalist with Noble Sissle’s orchestra. Lena even had a small role on Broadway and was well on her way to being known as a top musical performer.
The thing that seals Horne’s status as a notable black entertainer, however, is that she was the first black artist to sign a long-term contract with a major movie studio. She appeared in a number of MGM musicals,such as Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather, I Dood It, Till the Clouds Roll By and Words andMusic. It wasn’t that there hadn’t been black performers in Hollywood musical films before, but her persona was totally different than the stereotype usually presented.
Always well-coiffed and dressed stylishly, Lena was cool, aloof and sophisticated, in sharp contrast to the dowdy, dialect-speaking black women customarily portrayed on screen. She was the first genuine black movie star and endeared herself to black World War II soldiers when she went to their military bases to sing for them.
Her days in Hollywood were not without problems. The studio edited out her scenes in some of the films she appeared in, in order not to “upset” Southern moviegoers. She was also denied the role of Julie in Show Boat due to the taboo of having a black actress opposite a white male actor.
Lena had no difficulty putting Hollywood aside and concentrating on her singing career. She was on Broadway, performed concert dates and recorded albums. You may even recall her appearances on episodes of the television shows Sanford and Son and The Cosby Show., as well as a memorable, quite flirty interview she gave to the late Ed Bradley.
She has been married twice, first to Louis Jordan Jones, father of her children Gail and Teddy, and secondly to renowned music arranger and conductor Lennie Hayton, whom she remained married to until he passed away in 1971. She and Hayton had one of the most enduring marriages in show business, despite the stigma attached to interracial relationships during their years together.
The most remarkable thing about Lena Horne is that she never once compromised her dignity, refusing to play demeaning roles and even turning down suggestions early on to “pass” as a Latino. She opened the door for the black movie actresses of today and, whether they realize it or not, they owe her a debt of gratitude.
Lena Horne, like her movies, is timeless.