The Talented Lena Horne Part One
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne (June 30, 1917 – May 9, 2010) was an American jazz and pop music singer, dancer, actress, and civil rights activist. Horne’s career spanned over 70 years appearing in film, television, and theater. Horne joined the chorus of the Cotton Club at the age of 16 and became a nightclub performer before moving to Hollywood, where she had small parts in numerous movies, and more substantial parts in the 1943 films Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. Because of the Red Scare and her political activism, Horne found herself blacklisted and unable to get work in Hollywood.
Publicity photo of Horne for her stage show Nine O’Clock Revue, 1961
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne
June 30, 1917
Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
May 9, 2010 (aged 92)
Manhattan, New York City, New York, U.S.
Cause of death
Congestive heart failure
Boys and Girls High School
* Singer dancer actress activist
Louis Jordan Jones
(m. 1937; div. 1944)
(m. 1947; his death 1971)
Jenny Lumet (granddaughter)
Jake Cannavale (great–grandson)
Harlem, New York City, New York, U.S.
* Broadway Traditional Pop Vocal Jazz
* MGM RCA Victor United Artists Blue Note Qwest/Warner Bros.
* Harry Belafonte Tony Bennett Vic Damone Judy Garland Duke Ellington Billy Strayhorn Lady Day Sammy Davis Jr. Barbra Streisand Teddy Wilson Cab Calloway Noble Sissle Ralph Cooper
Returning to her roots as a nightclub performer, Horne took part in the March on Washington in August 1963 and continued to work as a performer, both in nightclubs and on television while releasing well-received record albums. She announced her retirement in March 1980, but the next year starred in a one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which ran for more than three hundred performances on Broadway. She then toured the country in the show, earning numerous awards and accolades. Horne continued recording and performing sporadically into the 1990s, disappearing from the public eye in 2000. Horne died of congestive heart failure on May 9, 2010, at the age of 92.
Lena Horne was born in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Reportedly descended from the John C. Calhoun family, both sides of her family were a mixture of African-American, Native American, and European American descent, and belonged to the upper stratum of middle-class, well-educated people. Her father, Edwin Fletcher “Teddy” Horne, Jr. (1893–1970), a numbers kingpin in the gambling trade, left the family when she was three and moved to an upper-middle-class black community in the Hill District community of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her mother, Edna Louise Scottron (1894–1976), was a granddaughter of inventor Samuel R. Scottron; she was an actress with a black theatre troupe and traveled extensively. Edna’s maternal grandmother, Amelie Louise Ashton, was a Senegalese slave. Horne was mainly raised by her grandparents, Cora Calhoun and Edwin Horne.
When Horne was five, she was sent to live in Georgia. For several years, she traveled with her mother. From 1927 to 1929, she lived with her uncle, Frank S. Horne, dean of students at Fort Valley Junior Industrial Institute (now part of Fort Valley State University) in Fort Valley, Georgia, who later served as an adviser to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. From Fort Valley, southwest of Macon, Horne briefly moved to Atlanta with her mother; they returned to New York when Horne was 12 years old. She then attended Girls High School, an all-girls public high school in Brooklyn that has since become Boys and Girls High School; she dropped-out without earning a diploma. Aged 18, she moved to her father’s home in Pittsburgh, staying in the city’s Little Harlem for almost five years and learning from native Pittsburghers Billy Strayhorn and Billy Eckstine, among others.
Road to Hollywood
In the fall of 1933, Horne joined the chorus line of the Cotton Club in New York City. In the spring of 1934, she had a featured role in the Cotton Club Parade starring Adelaide Hall, who took Lena under her wing. A few years later, Horne joined Noble Sissle’s Orchestra, with which she toured and with whom she made her first records, issued by Decca. After she separated from her first husband, Horne toured with bandleader Charlie Barnet in 1940–41, but disliked the travel and left the band to work at the Cafe Society in New York. She replaced Dinah Shore as the featured vocalist on NBC’s popular jazz series The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. The show’s resident maestros, Henry Levine and Paul Laval, recorded with Horne in June 1941 for RCA Victor. Horne left the show after only six months when she was hired by former Cafe Trocadero (Los Angeles) manager Felix Young to perform in a Cotton Club-style revue on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, and was replaced by actress Betty Keene of the Keene sisters.
Lena Horne photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1941
Horne already had two low-budget movies to her credit: a 1938 musical feature called The Duke is Tops (later reissued with Horne’s name above the title as The Bronze Venus); and a 1941 two-reel short subject, Boogie Woogie Dream, featuring pianists Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons. Horne’s songs from Boogie Woogie Dream were later released individually as soundies. Horne made her Hollywood nightclub debut at Felix Young’s Little Troc on the Sunset Strip in January 1942. A few weeks later, she was signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In November 1944, she was featured in an episode of the popular radio series Suspense, as a fictional nightclub singer, with a large speaking role along with her singing. In 1945 and 1946, she sang with Billy Eckstine’s Orchestra.
She made her debut at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Panama Hattie (1942) and performed the title song of Stormy Weather based loosely on the life of Adelaide Hall, (1943), which she made at 20th Century Fox, on loan from MGM. She appeared in a number of MGM musicals, most notably Cabin in the Sky (1943), but was never featured in a leading role because of her race and the fact that her films had to be re-edited for showing in cities where theaters would not show films with black performers. As a result, most of Horne’s film appearances were stand-alone sequences that had no bearing on the rest of the film, so editing caused no disruption to the storyline. A notable exception was the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky, although one number from that film was cut before release because it was considered too suggestive by the censors: Horne singing “Ain’t It the Truth” while taking a bubble bath. This scene and song are featured in the film That’s Entertainment! III (1994) which also featured commentary from Horne on why the scene was deleted prior to the film’s release. Lena Horne was the first African-American elected to serve on the Screen Actors Guild board of directors.
Horne in Till the Clouds Roll By, 1946
In Ziegfeld Follies (1946), she performed “Love” by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. Horne lobbied for the role of Julie LaVerne in MGM’s 1951 version of Show Boat (having already played the role when a segment of Show Boat was performed in Till the Clouds Roll By) but lost the part to Ava Gardner, a personal friend in real life. Horne claimed this was due to the Production Code’s ban on interracial relationships in films, but MGM sources state she was never considered for the role in the first place. In the documentary That’s Entertainment! III, Horne stated that MGM executives required Gardner to practice her singing using Horne’s recordings, which offended both actresses. Ultimately, Gardner’s voice was overdubbed by actress Annette Warren (Smith) for the theatrical release.