The epitome of Black Beauty, a Great Musical Icon, an Actress and Civil Rights Activist
By Joy Childs
Sentinel Contributing Writer
Lena Horne was there long before Dorothy Dandridge and Halle Berry symbolized African American beauty. Born Lena Mary Calhoun Horne, the legendary singer, actress, dancer and civil rights activist, who was born on June 30, 1917, died on Mother’s Day, May 10, at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan.
It’s widely agreed that Horne was one of the most beautiful women in the world. But that’s not what she has left behind. Kenny Burrell, premier jazz guitarist and director of UCLA’s Jazz Studies Program, passionately sums up her impact: “Lena Horne was a brilliant artist. She was a soulful and talented singer and a fine actress, whose depth and conviction were often overlooked by the public because of her extraordinary good looks.”
Having worked with her-once at Carnegie Hall, and on another occasion when she and Harry Belafonte starred on a television show–Burrell knew of Horne’s many obstacles as a Black woman and an entertainer but, as he noted, “she triumphed at the end, becoming a legend and a role model for many who followed.”
In remembrance of her, President Barack Obama stated, “Michelle and I were deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Lena Horne–one of our nation’s most cherished entertainers. Over the years, she warmed the hearts of countless Americans with her beautiful voice and dramatic performances on screen. From the time her grandmother signed her up for an NAACP membership as a child, she worked tirelessly to further the cause of justice and equality. In 1940, she became the first African American performer to tour with an all white band. 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.”
The earliest days
Horne was born in the ‘Bed-Stuy’ neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, to a father who, according to some reports, ran the numbers. He left the family when she was three and moved to Pittsburgh. She would later reconnect with him, spending formative years there. Her mother, an actress in a Black theater troupe, traveled extensively, which resulted in Horne being raised by grandparents. She lived with her mother briefly in Atlanta, but returned to Brooklyn at the age of 12. There, she attended an all-girls high school, but dropped out before earning her diploma.
Her journey to stardom began in 1933, when she became a chorus girl in Harlem’s storied Cotton Club. That was followed by a touring stint with African American bandleader Noble Sissle’s Orchestra. At 18, Horne found herself with her father in Pittsburgh, where she met her first husband, a Black man named Louis Jones. The city also bore her, her daughter, Gail (now a best-selling author), her son, Eddie (who died in 1970), and a close and enduring friendship with Billy Strayhorn.
One of Horne’s fellow nonagerians, 91-year-old renowned bandleader Gerald Wilson, recalls meeting a “very nice” Horne in nearby McKeesport, PA., just after he had joined the Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra as a trumpeter. Horne, who had previously been with the orchestra, and Wilson, a newbie to the group, sat at the bandstand, chatting.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, released the following statement on the passing of Lena Horne: “On behalf of the Congressional Black Caucus, I extend my deepest condolences to the family of Lena Horne, a woman who always exemplified style and grace whether in song, on stage or in the fight for civil rights. As the first Black performer to be signed to a long-term contract by a major Hollywood studio, Lena Horne was an extraordinary talent and paved the way for today’s Black actors. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Horne family as America celebrates her life and legacy.”
Her movie career
After she and her first husband separated, Horne toured with another band but, disdaining travel life, left the band to work at CafÃ© Society (where she performed with Paul Robeson) and at various other night clubs.
It was during a club date in Hollywood that talent agents approached her to work in pictures. She opted for MGM, the most prestigious studio during that period. Horne became the first Black performer to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio.
She embarked on a movie career, during which time she had minor roles in a number of movies and major roles in two, both in 1943: “Stormy Weather,” which she made at 20th Century Fox, on loan from MGM. Ethel Parks, 90, recounted one of her fondest memories of Horne, which involved going with a girlfriend from Topeka, Kansas, to the Music Hall in Kansas City, Missouri, to see her perform: “I remember when she sang ‘Stormy Weather,’ it brought the house down!”
She also made “Cabin in the Sky.” The next time Gerald Wilson saw her, she was divorced from her first husband and had moved to Hollywood. The two worked on the music for “Cabin” at former movie studio, MGM. Wilson remembers that he was hanging out with Horne’s voice coach and accompanist, the very much underappreciated Phil Moore. Duke Ellington was slated to arrange the music for what would be one of Horne’s biggest starring roles, but when Ellington had to unexpectedly leave, Moore stepped in and-with a big orchestra that featured Wilson on trumpet, Red Callendar on bass, Lee Young on drums and Duke Ellington’s own Barney Bigard on clarinet and other Ellington band members who were living in Los Angeles at that time-completed the project “just like Duke [would have]!”
Sadly, Horne was never featured in a leading role because of her race and the fact that films featuring her had to be re-edited for showing in states where theaters could not show films with Black performers.
During her Hollywood days, Horne would drop in to see Gerald Wilson’s Big Band perform at the former Oasis Club on Western Avenue. Ninety-four-year-old Los Angeles resident Sollie Wilson (no relation), who grew up along Central Avenue during its halcyon jazz days when the Dunbar Hotel was the only place Blacks could stay, says his buddy Billy Strayhorn, who was staying at the Dunbar, introduced him to Horne in the mid ’50s. Wilson recalls that day very well: Horne, who at that time was one of the chorus girls at the Dunbar’s Club Alabam, had broken her leg, which was in a cast.
Her second marriage was to a Jewish American musical conductor and arranger at MGM, Lennie Hayton, in 1947. They separated in the early 1960s but never divorced. (He died in 1971.) Horne and Hayton faced tremendous pressures as an interracial married couple; Horne is said to have admitted that she married him to advance her career.
As the former head of the Hollywood NAACP, Willis Edwards knows a thing or two about the entertainment world and he most certainly wanted to say a few memorable words about Horne. Edwards said, “She was an activist with all her heart; she believed in integrity and had integrity in the entertainment industry. If it wasn’t for Lena Horne a lot of people would not have jobs today.”
By this time, Horne became disillusioned with Hollywood. She was becoming more and more political: She marched in Selma with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During World War II, she refused to perform for segregated audiences. She participated in an NAACP rally with Medgar Evers in Jackson, MS, the weekend before he was killed. She spoke at the March on Washington and performed on behalf of the NAACP, SNCC and the National Council of Negro Women. She worked with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws.
Rep. Laura Richardson (CA-37) issued the following statement:
“Despite the latent racism she faced as a screen actress, with her scenes and musical numbers filmed so they could be cut for segregated Southern audiences, she still managed to break barriers by being one of the few Black actors under contract by Hollywood studios and the first such singer to headline an all white orchestra. By leading the way, Lena Horne has inspired generations of young African American women that have followed her, regardless of the careers they choose, be it acting and singing like her or business, law and politics. It is undeniable to say that her legacy of music, grace and integrity will continue to endure long after she has gone.”
Re-emergence to the world of entertainment
In the early1970s, Horne appeared as herself on television shows like “The Muppet Show,” “Sesame Street” and “Sanford and Son.” In 1978, Horne played Glinda the Good in “The Wiz” on Broadway. Then, in 1981, she received acclaim and a special Tony Award for her one-woman show, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. During that time she made guest appearances on “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World,” and in 1989 she got a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Ever speaking the truth about her entertainment history, she co-hosted the 1994 MGM retrospective “That’s Entertainment! III,” in which she was candid about her treatment by that studio.
Kenny Burrell speaks for all who knew and loved Lena Horne, from up close to from a distance, when he says: “She was a great performer who captivated an audience like no other. Her spirit, her legacy and her wonderful music will live on. She was truly unique, and she set a very high artistic standard for herself and others who followed. She will be missed by people worldwide.”
The late Ed Bradley of “60 Minutes” once said, “If I arrive at the pearly gates and St. Peter asks, ‘what have you done to deserve entry,’ I’d say, ‘did you see my Lena Horne story’?” That was Bradley describing one of his best interviews.
Horne is survived by her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, granddaughters Jenny and Amy Lumet, Lena Jones, and grandsons, William and Thomas Jones.