Lena Horne was an American singer, dancer, actress and civil rights activist. She was one of the most popular African American entertainers of the twentieth century and best known for films such as The Wiz and her trademark song, “Stormy Weather.”
Horne was born in 1917 in Brooklyn, New York. Her mother, Edna, was an actress and frequently on tour. In Horne’s early years, she would travel with her mother on her tours to the South but as she grew older, she was unable to accompany her mother as much and stayed with family and friends around the country, including her grandparents, Cora Calhoun and Edwin Horne. As a result, Horne attended a number of small town, segregated schools while in the South and the Ethical Cultural School, the Girls High School, and a secretarial school while in Brooklyn.
Horne was determined that she would become a performer, and in 1933 at the age of 16 she dropped out of school to begin dancing in the chorus at Harlem’s Cotton Club. In spring, 1934 she was given a featured role in the Cotton Club Parade, which starred Adelaide Hall. That same year, she began taking singing lessons and landed a small role in an all-black Broadway show Dance with Your Gods. In 1935, Horne became the featured signer with the Noble Sissle Society Orchestra and recorded her first record, a 78rpm single on Decca Records. In 1939 and 1940, she appeared in the Broadway musical revue Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds and then joined the Charlie Barnet Orchestra, one of the great white swing bands. Barnet was one of the first band leaders to integrate his bands, and Horne was the only black member. As a result, she faced racial discrimination by many hotels and restaurants which were ‘whites only’ and was unable to stay or socialise at most of the venues they performed in. As a result, she left the tour.
In 1941, Horne began a long stint at the Cafe Society Downtown, a club in New York City. While performing at the club, Horne began to develop an appreciation of her heritage and learn about African American history, politics and culture, in part due to her friendship with civil rights activist and performer Paul Robeson. Two years later, a long term booking at the SavoyPlaza Hotel boosted Horne’s fame and led to a number of movie appearances. She became the highest paid African American entertainer in the U.S. and was the first African American woman singe 1915 to sign a term contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM). Despite this, she was stuck in a difficult position as she was not dark enough to be allowed to star with many African American actors, and limited in her roles in white films as, at the time, they refused to portray interracial relationships on screen. Horne appeared with a singing role in Panama Hattie (1942), Harlem on Parade (1942), I Dood It (1943), Swing Fever (1943), and As Thousands Cheer (1943). Then she was promoted to a starring role in an Cabin in the Sky (1943), followed in Stormy Weather that same year. She also appeared in Broadway Rhythm (1944), Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), and a musical biography of Rodgers and Hart, Words and Music (1948). Horne refused to take on any roles that were disrespectful to her as a woman of colour.
By the late 1940’s, Horne had become an outspoken activist and member of the Progressive Citizens of America along with Robeson. The group opposed racism, and in fighting against racial discrimination Horne sued a variety of restaurants and theaters for who had discriminated against her. During World War II, Horne travelled to entertain the troops although she refused to perform for “segregated audiences or for groups in which German POWs were seated in front of African American servicemen.” She also worked with Eleanor Roosevelt in her campaign to bring in anti-lynching legislation. Following the war, Horne advocated for Japanese Americans who faced discrimination. Due to her political activism, Horne was blacklisted in Hollywood and performed in nightclubs around the country.
In the mid 1950’s, Horne was finally allowed to star in movies again and appeared in the 1956 comedy Meet Me in Las Vegas. She was also able to record for the first time in five years. A year later, she drew record crowds to the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria and in 1958 – 9 she starred in Jamaica, a Broadway musical. Despite the threat of being blacklisted, Horne continued her involvement in the civil rights movement. During the 1960’s, she performed at rallies for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and worked on behalf of the National Council for Negro Women (NCNW). In 1963, she spoke and performed on behalf of the NAACP, SNCC and the NCNW at the March on Washington.
Horne continued to perform and appeared on a variety of TV shows including appearances as herself on The Muppet Show and Sesame Street. In 1978, Horne appeared in The Wiz, a version of the Wizard of Oz with an African-American cast including Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. It would be her final film appearance. In 1981, Horne returned triumphantly to Broadway with her one-woman show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. The show won a Drama Desk Award, a Tony Award and two Grammy Awards and still holds the record for the longest-running solo performance in Broadway history.
During the 1990’s, Horne focused on her recording career and scaled back on her performances. In 1993, she gave her final concert performances at New York’s Supper Club and Carnegie Hall for her album We’ll Be Together Again featuring songs by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. The performance was then released as a live album, winning a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album. In 1998, Horne released the album Being Myself, and then retired from public life. She died in 2010 in New York City, with thousands attending her final including Dionne Warwick, Lauren Bacall and Vanessa Williams.
Horne received a number of awards during her lifetime, including the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. She won the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1994), Hollywood Walk of Fame; The ASCAP Pied Piper Award; Society of Singers Lifetime Achievement Award and received an honorary doctorate from Howard University. Horne has also been inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta.