Honoring the memory of Lena Horne, born 100 years ago June 30.
Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington treated her like a little sister. She went on dog dates with Billie Holiday. In 1919, at two years old, she was named the youngest member of the NAACP. She was the first Black woman to front a big swing band full of white men. She sang “It Ain’t Easy Being Green” with Kermit the Frog. Lena Horne was a force so subtle and sophisticated, people never saw her coming.
“Big Like an Ocean, Important Like a River”
Lena Horne during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom political rally in DC, August 28, 1963. Getty Images
Lena Horne descended from freedom fighters, artists and government officials. Many in her family were the first of their kind, making changes in a closed-minded and prejudiced America.
Her uncle Frank Horne was a Harlem Renaissance poet and an optometrist who advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt on unethical racial segregation in public housing. He shaped a number of public policies through his position as Director of Race Relations for FDR.
Lena’s grandmother Cora played a big part in raising her. Cora was a suffragist and feminist who raised her granddaughter to be educated, poised and tough. Cora was married to Edwin Horne, a Native American who ran his own store and became a politician and teacher.
Edna Horne, Lena’s sometimes overbearing mother, spent her life trying to pursue a career as a performer and traveled all over the United States. Due to prevalent racism, Edna had little success finding work. When Lena was three years old, her father left the family. He was a successful gambler and had tight-knit mob connections, which had pull in the industry Lena would become involved in. Later in life, Lena formed strenuous yet strong bonds with her parents.
Lena’s family legacy would continue with her son, an avid civil rights activist, and her daughter, a published author.
Performing for the “Caviar and Martini Crowd”
As a child, Lena Horne lived a double life. One month she would be on the road with her mother, scouring vaudeville for work and sleeping on trains. Another month, she’d be in her grandmother Cora’s Brooklyn home attending an all-girls’ school and minding her manners.
But at the age of 16, after the Great Depression, everything changed for Lena. She quit school and moved in with her mother and stepfather. To help pay the bills, she learned a few dancing and singing basics from her mother and auditioned for a highly scrutinized role on the chorus line at the Cotton Club. At 18, she earned a place as the youngest member on the line. But the Cotton Club was no dream job. Owned by a notorious white Manhattan gangster nicknamed “The Killer,” the club put the all-Black cast in plantation settings, giving them identities as barbarians while an all-white audience, coined the “caviar and martini crowd,” sat and watched. Black artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson endured this racism because this was one of the few venues where they could make a meager living. Despite being degraded, this was the avenue many Black performers used to have their music heard. These circumstances and the threads of mob “ownership” led to a dramatic moment when the cast distracted certain higher-ups while Lena and her mother escaped to a taxi waiting outside, one that ultimately took Lena to Hollywood.
The Cotton Club did allow Lena to recognize her own talents and magnetism in the face of discrimination, but the events that followed would be the ones to lead her to fame.
Big Bands and Big Roles
Lena Horne started getting roles in movies at 18 years old. She also sang as the front woman to several swing bands, but life on the road still exposed the deep-seeded racism in America.
After the typical gig where Lena lit up a stage, she was not served a meal at a restaurant or allowed to sleep in the hotel where the band was booked to stay. She returned to her life of sleeping on buses and trains. Her bandleader, Charlie Barnet, was passionate about integrated bands and would often relocate the entire group to make sure Lena was accommodated, but these efforts fell short. Solutions came in the form of having Lena try to pass as Cuban, which went against every value her family had fought for.
Lena went on to perform at the first “political cabaret,” called Cafe Society, where she met Billie Holiday and learned to sing the blues. With an audience and cast that was completely integrated and treated equally, it was a direct contrast to Lena’s time at the Cotton Club.
After years of performing, Lena eventually landed a seven-year contract with MGM. The NAACP backed her during this time, which gave her leverage for insisting on better roles for Black actors. Her contract ensured she would not be given a role as a too-long-played-out stereotype as a maid or jungle woman. Instead, she would play aptly representative roles of Black women who were powerful, intelligent and talented.
“A Butterfly Pinned to a Column”
Lena Horne at the Chicago Servicemen’s Center, proving she could handle an electric guitar as well as those talented vocal cords. Bettmann / Getty Images
During her time as an actress, her photo was pinned inside many a World War II army man’s locker. She was flown all over through the USO to perform for soldiers and experienced the contradiction of discrimination in the army. She was refused a cup of coffee but was asked to sign autographs. When Black soldiers were denied entry, she insisted that they be included in the audience, but they were forced to sit behind German prisoners of war.
So she canceled the tour and started one of her own. In 1945, she paid her own way to perform for the Tuskegee Airmen, who called her “Queen of the 99th.” This is where her life of activism took off.
In 1947 Lena fled to Paris to secretly and illegally marry a man of a different race.
Lena returned to the United States and, despite performing for President Harry S. Truman’s second inaugural ball, she was blacklisted around 1950 for having ties to the Progressive Citizens of America movement. As a result, she was barred from roles in movies, though she still played nightclubs.
Lena later marched on Washington and spoke alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who praised her son for his tireless contributions to the young Black community. When she learned about the Greensboro sit-ins, she later told Ebony: “I felt so bad and so pained. I knew I was awake again… I wasn’t just reacting automatically. I had been dead for so long, but these students made me live again.”
Believe in Yourself
Lena Horne dining backstage with her son Teddy and daughter Gail before her show. Photo by Leonard Mccombe / The LIFE Images Collection / Getty Images
Lena Horne was so much more than a singer and actress who moved people to tears with her voice and presence. Books upon books detail every aspect of her life. Through every moment of her difficult career, she also had two children and two turbulent marriages. Later in life, in a short span of time, she lost her husband, son, and father. She endured everything.
And through all this, a woman as powerful as Lena eventually made her own musical, became Glinda the Good Witch in the all-Black cast of The Wiz alongside Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, and sang the same lesson with Kermit: that no matter what you face, no matter how hard it is, you must always first believe in yourself.