“My life has been about surviving. Along the way, I also became an artist.”
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was destined for stardom. In The Hornes: An American Family, an inspiring record of family history and achievement, Lena’s daughter Gail Buckley maintained that Lena inherited her star potential. The Hornes were already stars. They weren’t athletes or entertainers, but politically and socially active members of the black bourgeoisie, the sons and daughters of former slaves who rose to prominence on the strength of their ambitions and talents. They were the Talented Tenth. This was the legacy Lena Horne was born into 100 years ago today, on June 30, 1917.
Lena Horne deserves to be remembered and celebrated, not only for her contributions to film and her tremendous voice, but because she lived and worked in a time where her star power was taken for granted. She was active in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s, which invigorated her with renewed meaning and purpose. She was one of the most dazzling and remarkable people to grace this planet of ours.
Lena knew struggle and hardship from her childhood. Her parents Edna and Teddy divorced when she was only three years old. When she wasn’t being shuttled back and forth between relatives down south, she was raised in Brooklyn by her grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne. A formidable woman of many accomplishments, Cora was the stabilizing force of Lena’s childhood. She was an activist committed to improving the lives of black people and was responsible for Paul Robeson’s admittance to Rutgers University. (Robeson, who greatly admired Cora as many others did, would later become a mentor and friend to Lena). It was Cora who instilled in Lena her values, but she wasn’t a woman prone to emotional displays. Lena learned to conceal her hurt and pain as a result of this upbringing. Nevertheless, she adored her grandmother.
Cora’s involvement with the NAACP extended to Lena as well. In 1919, at the age of two, Lena appeared on the cover of the organization’s bulletin and was heralded as their youngest member. The NAACP was also partly responsible for Lena’s MGM contract years later. But before she journeyed out west, Lena was already rising to become a star. She was performing at Harlem’s Cotton Club by the time she was 16. It was there that she got the nickname Brooklyn.
When she toured with bandleaders Noble Sissle and Charlie Barnet, and continued on the nightclub circuit, she was always turning heads.
Everyone who saw and heard her perform recognized that star quality.
Her beauty got her noticed too, of course. There’s just no denying how stunning she was. When Lena sang, she sang with her full mouth, and all those teeth on display. According to composer and arranger Phil Moore, she had “fresh, snow-white teeth – for days…” As Gail Buckley relates in The Hornes, a family friend once remarked that Lena was the only one who didn’t need an orthodontist.
When she was spotted at the Little Trocadero by MGM composer Roger Edens, she was brought to the studio to sing for producer Arthur Freed. At first, Freed was dismissive and allowed Lena just fifteen minutes of his time. But she impressed him so much that the fifteen minutes turned to four hours. After she sang for studio chief Louis B. Mayer, she was offered the standard seven year contract. Walter White of the NAACP helped to negotiate the terms of Lena’s contract. She was meant to alter the negative perception of blacks that Hollywood had presented for so many years. She wasn’t going to play servants or other demeaning roles.
MGM did attempt to pass her off as Latin, but she flatly refused to be passed off as anything other than a black woman.
Her time at MGM was frustrating. In Lena’s own words, “They didn’t make me into a maid, but they didn’t make me into anything else either.” Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather were two all black musicals from 1943 in which her character had an effect on the plot. All her other film appearances were limited to musical numbers that could be easily cut from the films for southern audiences. But as Phil Moore noted, she was the first black actress to be glamorized by a major film studio.
Being the first of anything proved to be very lonely for her. Her unique contract bred resentment among other black actors who had made careers for themselves playing the roles she would not. Hattie McDaniel was a good friend however, and told her she had to work in order to support her two young children, Gail and Teddy. It is so easy to take Lena for granted, to overlook how lonely and isolated she oftentimes felt. She was deemed acceptable for white audiences, but couldn’t appear opposite white actors as equals or even as a romantic partner. The role of Julie LaVerne, a black woman who passes for white in the glossy technicolor musical Show Boat (1951) was a role she coveted, but the studio gave it to her “best white girlfriend,” Ava Gardner.
I didn’t want to focus on the struggles she faced. I thought this could be a much happier post celebrating her centenary. But to ignore the hard facts of her life would do a disservice to her memory. She lived in the Jim Crow era. She fought against the stereotypes, was outspoken against segregation, refused to perform for segregated troops. She was blacklisted in the 1950s for her liberal politics, even had to denounce Paul Robeson, a communist, in order to work. She was able to appear on television and performed in cabaret. Working in Europe also proved to be a boon for her. Lena did overcome, but it was a wearying battle. She was angry. Let me repeat that. She was an angry black woman. And she had every right to be.
I’m not sure if I can even articulate the depth of my admiration and gratitude for Lena Horne. What I also love about her, is that she really seemed to come into her confidence later in life. Watch her one woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music (1982). Those powerhouse vocals, the unbridled vitality, the sheer life force as she vigorously sings and moves about the stage. Of course she was destined to be a star. To echo other writers, imagine if she hadn’t been born so soon.
If you’d like to learn more about Lena Horne, I also recommend Donald Bogle’s Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood. It’s essential reading for any fan of Classic Hollywood, and illuminates the triumphs and struggles of numerous black performers.
“My identity is very clear to me now. I’m a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a credit. I no longer have to be a symbol to anybody. I no longer have to be a first to anybody. I no longer 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.”
Happy birthday, Brooklyn. And thank you.