Lena! Just Lena–and the Horne automatically followed. There was only one Lena Horne and her angelic voice and stunning beauty are now part of the ages. She died May 9, 2011 at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. She was 92 and lived in Manhattan–though Queens, according to Councilman Leroy Comrie, has some claims on her fame.
But Harlem and the rest of the world can also claim Lena. Since the early ’40s, when her gorgeous face and her sonorous voice first appeared on the screen, she belonged to the world.
“In 1940, she became the first African-American performer to tour with an all-white band,” said President Barack Obama. “And while entertaining soldiers during World War II, she refused to perform for segregated audiences–a principled struggle she continued well after the troops returned home. Michelle and I offer our condolences to all those who knew and loved Lena, and we join all Americans in appreciating the joy she brought to our lives and the progress she forged for our country.”
Lena Horne at a glance
- Born June 30, 1917 in Brooklyn, NY
- Joined the chorus line of the Cotton Club in 1933 at age 16
- Career spanned over 70 years
- Winner of 4 Grammy Awards
- Starred in 23 films
That progress took place on a number of cultural and political fronts. And it began almost before she was out of the cradle, when, at 2 years of age, her photo adorned the cover of the NAACP’s Crisis magazine. Sixty-four years later, in 1983, she was awarded the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal for her outstanding work in civil and human rights.
Lena was one of just a few major Black entertainers who resourcefully saw no separation between their artistic careers and social and political activism. In this manner, she followed a path blazed by Paul Robeson, whom she met and befriended when she was just beginning to earn recognition as a singer.
But before her voice brought her international fame, Lena–having quit school when she was 16–was in the chorus line at the Cotton Club. Almost magically, she went from being one of the usually light-skinned dancers to standing alone behind a microphone in front of Noble Sissle’s Orchestra.
Much of Lena’s early years, both from a artistic and political standpoint, was shaped by her parents, particularly her mother, an aspiring actress, and her grandmother, Cora, who took Lena with her to all of her social and political meetings.
Gov. David Paterson, in his condolences, filled in pieces of Lena’s biography. “Born in Brooklyn, Lena Horne became the first female African-American Hollywood and Broadway star, overcoming racial prejudice and inspiring an entire generation of young African-Americans to reach for their dreams,” he reflected. “Later in life, Ms. Horne fought tirelessly against racial injustice on the national level, appearing on stage at Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in August 1963. Her work on both the silver screen and civil rights will be remembered long past this sad day.”
As President Obama observed, by 1940, Lena signed a contract with MGM. No longer the vocalist with Charlie Barnett’s all-white band, she embarked on what she at first believed was going to be an acting career that would include roles other than maids. “When my father heard about this,” Lena told Johnny Carson, “he hurried to Hollywood to make sure I wouldn’t be playing maids. He said he could hire me a maid.”
Fearing the films would not be shown in the segregated South, Lena’s roles were limited to cameos with her singing, which could be easily removed when shown in the land of Jim Crow. While most of those films are forgettable, Lena’s moments made a lasting impression.
In 1943, her appearances in “Cabin in the Sky,” the one film where she had a speaking part, and “Stormy Weather” solidified her reputation in both Black and white America. Since her death, the snippet of her singing “Stormy Weather” has been continuously played, as though that was the only thing she ever did. Fortunately, in today’s digital age, her television appearances on Flip Wilson, Bill Cosby, Perry Como shows, et al can be seen on YouTube.
Astonishingly beautiful, and called a “sepia Venus” by one columnist, Lena toured Army camps during World War II. Her expressive voice, accompanied by a well-timed twinkling of the eyes and shaping of her mouth, sent soldiers into frenzies.
Film historian and authority Donald Bogle, in his book “Brown Sugar,” recalled an incident at Fort Riley in Kansas where Lena appeared during a tour. “She spotted German prisoners of war sitting in the best seats in the front of the house. She stepped from the stage, whisked past them, and then sang to the Black soldiers in the back.”
Lena, never straying from the spotlight, got more than she bargained for in the late ’40s when it was revealed that she was married to white musician Lennie Hayton. Both Black and white Americans expressed their outrage.
Nevertheless, her talent won out and before long she had them all back in her hands during her performances on Ed Sullivan’s show and other variety shows. These appearances came to an end when her sympathies to members or associates of the Communist Party was widely circulated, especially her ties to Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois.
She was “blackballed” from television until her appearance on Perry Como’s show in 1959 with Dean Martin. This appearance helped revive sales of her numerous recordings.
During the Civil Rights Movement and throughout the ’60s, Lena lent her talent and services. She devoted much of her time and support to her relationship with the late Dr. Dorothy Height and the National Council of Negro Women.
In the ’70s, she was back on Broadway, appearing with Tony Bennett, and in 1978, she portrayed Glinda, the Good Witch, in the film version of “The Wiz,” featuring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.
She reached the pinnacle of her career in 1981 with her one-woman show on Broadway, “Lena Horne–The Lady and Her Music,” which received a number of awards, including a Tony. Such acclaim may have helped soothe the indignities of the past, when Hollywood had rejected her because of her race.
Except for an interview with the late Ed Bradley on “60 Minutes,” Lena withdrew from the public in the last decade of her life.
“For nearly two decades, Ms. Horne and her family lived in the historic Addisleigh Park community that I am proud to represent today,” said Councilman Leroy Comrie. “She was one of numerous African-American jazz, sports and literary luminaries who made their home in Addisleigh Park and built a foundation that enriches our community even now.”
Lena’s influence resonated far beyond Queens, and Roslyn Brock, chairwoman of the NAACP board of directors, caught portions of her essence. “Lena Horne’s spirit and willingness to stand for what is just transcended her accomplishments in the arts, and we are extremely grateful for her commitment to civil rights and the mission of the NAACP,” she said.
“Her long-standing relationship with the NAACP dates back to high school, while her service to the Association as a member and public advocate was invaluable,” said Brock. “Lena Horne was an excellent example of someone who used her platform as an entertainer to advocate for equal rights for African-Americans and give a voice to the voiceless, and she will be missed.”
There was clearly no separation between the artist and her politics, not between the artist and her adoring fans.