Despite all the odds against her, Lena Horne became an enduring superstar. Her career as an entertainer, which spanned over 60 years, began with her debut as a teenage chorus girl at Harlem's Cotton Club and climaxed in the early 1980s with her one-woman show The Lady and Her Music, which ran for over a year on Broadway. Reviewing her appearance at the London Palladium in The Sunday Times in April 1964, the jazz critic Derek Jewell said, "She may not belt out songs with the classic brashness of Merman, nor recreate them as magically as Ella, nor sweet-and-sour them like Peggy Lee. But no singer of popular music so dominates a song, stamps it with so distinct and vivid a character, charges the most banal phrase with such histrionic glitter. With Lena Horne you feel the authentic electricity at the nape of the neck."
Lena Calhoun Horne was born in 1917 in Brooklyn, New York and was raised by her grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne, one of the first black suffragettes and an early campaigner for the rights of African-Americans. At 16, Lena's stagestruck mother took her away from Cora and found her a job in the chorus of Harlem's Cotton Club. This led to a singing job with Noble Sissle's Society Orchestra, and her first recordings (in 1936), before an early marriage, and two children, interrupted her career.
In 1940 Lena separated from her husband Louis Jones and joined Charlie Barnet's Orchestra, becoming one of the first black vocalists to sing with a white band. In 1941 she sang at New York's chic nightclub, Cafe Society Downtown in Greenwich Village and, having made a name for herself, in 1942 Horne accepted an offer to sing at a club called the Little Troc in Hollywood.
It was here that she was seen by MGM's musical supervisor, Roger Edens. He arranged for an audition at the studio, but Horne was not too impressed. She later said that all MGM knew about black people was what Tarzan had told them! In spite of her reservations, Horne signed a long-term, seven-year contract with MGM and made her first appearance in Panama Hattie (1942), singing Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things".
In an attempt to avoid distribution problems in the Southern states, MGM tried to persuade Horne to pretend she was a Latin American, but the proud singer refused. Most of her subsequent film roles were, like Panama Hattie, brief, isolated "speciality" appearances in musical extravaganzas such as Thousands Cheer (1943), Ziegfeld Follies (1945), Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) and Words and Music (1948).
Though given equal billing with the likes of Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, Horne had to be segregated from the (white) casts of these films to make it easier for distributors in the Southern states to delete her appearances. In spite of this, Horne successfully broke away from the traditional Hollywood stereotype of black women as mammy or maid and established a new image: a lavishly gowned chanteuse with classy songs to perform in strikingly beautiful surroundings.
In 1943 MGM gave Horne a leading role in the screen version of the black-cast Broadway musical-fantasy hit Cabin in the Sky. She played the beautiful Georgia Brown sent by the devil to seduce Eddie "Rochester" Anderson away from his home-loving wife, Ethel Waters. Under Vincente Minnelli's stylish direction, Horne gave an entrancing performance. By the end of 1943 she had also been featured in her second all-black cast musical, 20th Century Fox's Stormy Weather.
During the war she became the pin-up girl for thousands of black GIs who, she later explained, "couldn't put Betty Grable in their lockers." In later years, Horne reflected, "I was always told to remember I was the first of my race to be given a chance in the movies, and I had to be careful not to step out of line, not to make a fuss. It was all a lie. The only thing that wasn't a lie was that I did make money for MGM. If I hadn't, they wouldn't have kept me under contract."
In 1947 Horne upset her relationship with MGM, and some members of her family ("My father wouldn't speak to me for three years"), when she married a white man, Lennie Hayton. He was one of MGM's top musical directors (he won an Oscar for On the Town). However, black/white marriages were illegal in Hollywood, so the couple flew to Paris for the ceremony.
Horne then faced the biggest disappointment of her career when MGM decided not to cast her as Julie, the chanteuse who passes for white, in their lavish remake of Show Boat. Said Horne's daughter, Gail Buckley, "I just think it was a racist situation. In 1951 MGM couldn't have sold a film with Lena in the South unless they cut her out. This couldn't be done with a film like Show Boat in which she would have played scenes with white co-stars like Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel. But MGM was the least racist studio in Hollywood. They didn't hesitate to put her under contract."
In the early 1950s Horne found herself boycotted in the American entertainment industry because of her long-standing friendship with the Communist sympathiser and political activist Paul Robeson. After her MGM contract ended she mostly worked abroad as a concert artiste, with Hayton as her personal musical director. The boycott ended when, in 1957, she triumphed on the Broadway stage in the musical Jamaica, for which she was nominated for a Tony. She was also nominated for three Grammy awards for the RCA albums Porgy and Bess (1959), Lena at the Sands (1961) and Lena... Lovely and Alive (1962).
In 1969 Horne returned to Hollywood to play a rare dramatic role in the off-beat western Death of a Gunfighter and in 1978 she made a brief appearance in the film version of the Broadway hit The Wiz. After another long absence from the screen, Horne returned as one of the narrators of That's Entertainment III (1993), a glorious celebration of MGM musicals.
During much of the 1960s Horne dedicated herself to civil rights causes. She said, "I went to Jackson, Mississippi just before they murdered Medgar Evers, to sing in a church there. The people listened to me, they took me in and they treated me beautifully. I hadn't been in a black church for a long time. I wasn't raised in the church, but they knew I was there to be part of what was happening and they let me be a part of it. That was most impressive, it was the greatest audience I ever had in my life." In 1965 she published a best-selling autobiography, Lena.
In 1971 Lennie Hayton died of a heart attack and soon afterwards she lost her father and son, Edwin ("Teddy"), aged 29. She later said, "I started to change when everybody left me, when I found out that the worst had happened to me and I was surviving. I began to think about myself, to look back at what I had been given and what I hadn't had. And I slowly grew into my other self."
In 1981 Horne returned to Broadway in a one-woman show called Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, performing many of the songs associated with her. The opening night included New York's toughest critics in the audience, but the next day the reviews were nothing short of sensational. Within a month of her opening night Horne received a special Tony award for Distinguished Achievement in the Theatre and many other honours flooded in, including her first Grammy award, for the best-selling soundtrack album.
During its 14-month, standing-room only engagement, The Lady and Her Music broke box office records and became the longest-running one-woman show in American theatre history. She later said, "When I appeared in that show it all came together because I had great music to sing, I made up the script, and I said what really happened, so there was no artifice." In 1984 Horne brought The Lady and Her Music to the Adelphi Theatre in London and, later that year, received the Kennedy Center Honors Award for Lifetime Achievement.
After a long absence, Horne made a comeback in 1993 at a tribute to her "soul mate", Duke Ellington's collaborator Billy Strayhorn, in the JVC Jazz Festival in New York. In 1994 she released We'll Be Together Again, her first album in more than a decade, and this was followed by An Evening with Lena Horne (1994) and Being Myself (1998).
In 1998 Horne, as the subject of the PBS television special Lena Horne: In Her Own Voice reflected, "My identity is very clear to me now; I am a black woman, I'm not alone, I'm free...I don't have to be a symbol to anybody. I don't have to be a first to anybody, I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become. I'm me, and I'm like nobody else."
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne, singer and actress: born Brooklyn, New York 30 June 1917; married 1938 Louis Jones (divorced 1944; one daughter, one son deceased;); 1947 Lennie Hayton (died 1971); died New York City 9 May 2010.