Entertainment Profile: Lena Horne
by Kenney Dennard
At 92 years old, Lena Horne had seen it all and had come full circle in her life. She had gone from playing in live bands with greats such as Count Basie to touring around the world as a jazz singer to marching with Dr. Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. She lived a full life and has left a lot for people to view and enjoy listening to of her life and music.
Coming from the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn NY, Horne's parents had intended on raising her in an affluent neighborhood. They were both mixed with European American, African American and Native American. Her father was a numbers kingpin and had a lot of money as he hustled the streets of NY. Her mother was an actress and traveled extensively.
Because her parents moved so much, as a little girl, Lena was sent to Fort Valley, Georgia, where she was raised by her uncle, Frank Horne. At the time, he was the Dean at Fort Valley Junior Industrial Institute. At 12, she moved to Atlanta to be with her mother and the two would then move back to NY. She then attended an all-girls high school but would drop out before graduating.
In the fall of 1933, Horne would join the chorus line of the Cotton Club in New York City. In 1934, she had a featured role in the Cotton Club Parade. She stayed there until around 1940 when she decided to move west. She borrowed money from her father for the trip.
While in California, she was called to do a movie. Lena called her father out to help advise her and he flew out there the very next day. He told the producers of the show that the only people he had seen in the movies that are colored are jungle bunnies or in servitude. He then let them know that he had enough money to hire servants for Lena and he would not like for her to be demeaned. They would not know exactly what to do with Lena, but she would never play those demeaning roles. A lot of times in the beginning she was in the backgrounds. She would eventually sing but only to have white actresses like Ava Gardener lip sync her songs on the big screen.
Lena Horne made her debut with MGM in "Panama Hattie," in 1942. She performed the title song, "Stormy Weather," which became one of her signature songs. She performed in a number of MGM musicals as well, such as "Cabin in the Sky," but wasn’t featured as a leading role because of her race and the fact that films featuring her had to be re-edited to be shown in states that could not air movies that had black actors and actresses in them. "Unfortunately I didn't get much chance to act," she would later say. "Cabin in the Sky," and "Stormy Weather" were the only movies in which I played a character that was involved in the plot."
By the 1950's Horne was blacklisted in Hollywood for her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. She became disenchanted with Hollywood and decided to focus more on her nightclub career. For seven years the attack on her person and her political beliefs continued. She recorded several albums during that time and also headlined clubs and hotels around the U.S, Canada and Europe, including the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas and the Waldorf-Astoria in NY. In 1957, a live album entitled, "Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria," became the biggest selling record by a female artist in the history of the RCA-Victor label. In 1958, Horne was nominated for a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for her part in the Calypso musical "Jamaica."
During World War 2, Horne refused to perform for segregated audiences or for groups of White German POW's where they were seated in front of African American soldiers. Although married to a white man herself, she would later tell Ebony Magazine in May of 1980 that she only did it to further her career, although she learned to love her husband.
In 1963, Lena participated at the March on Washington and performed at several rallies. She followed this with a decade of singing, performing and acting in movies and television, appearing on everything from Ed Sullivan, Dean Martin to The Andy Williams Show. Then, in 1970, during a period of 12 months, Horne's father, son and husband died. She retreated almost completely from public life.
Horne would slowly make her way back into television and movies. She co-starred with Harry Belafonte in the hour-long, "Harry and Lena," on ABC in the early 70's. In 1973, she co-starred with Tony Bennett in, "Tony and Lena," and also made several appearances on the "Flip Wilson Show." Then in 1978, Lena played the good witch Glinda on the made for TV movie, "The Wiz."
Lena continued to make brief appearances on Television throughout the 80's and 90's but had retired from it mostly throughout the 2000's. She died last month on May 9, 2010 in NYC of heart failure. Her funeral was on May 14 at St. Ignatius Loyala Church on Park Avenue in NY. Thousands gathered to mourn her including singer Dionne Warwick and actresses Vanessa Williams, Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson. Lena Horne was an extraordinary talent of African American culture and will be surely missed.
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June 30, 1917 - May 9, 2010