February 24, 2011

Feb 24 – Lena Horne: Timeless Beauty with a Golden and Outspoken Voice

Lena Horne

There are only seven days left of Black History Month; and I wanted to make sure that I profiled Lena Horne because she was a trailblazer, and she was cool.

Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York, in June, 1917. She was a descendent of 7th Vice-President, John C. Calhoun; and both sides of her family were mixed race. They were also middle class and well-educated. Lena’s father had acquired his wealth in the gambling industry, and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when Lena was three-years-old. Her mother was the daughter of an inventor, and was an actress in a traveling, Black theater troupe. Lena spent her childhood living with various relatives, including her grandparents and an uncle (who eventually became an adviser to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt); and she also traveled with her mother, for several years, while she was working. Lena’s grandmother, Cora, was especially a big influence on her life because she was a civil rights activist, and would bring Lena to meetings at the NAACP, Urban League and the Ethical Cultural Society. Cora was also a bit of a snob, and ironically, did not believe in race-mixing.

A young Lena

Lena was a stunning, natural beauty; and at the age of 16, her grandmother encouraged her to audition for the famous and glamorous, Cotton Club, in Harlem, New York. Lena was initially hired to be a dancer in the chorus, but ultimately, became a featured, solo singer, during her two-year tenure, there. While at the Cotton Club, she performed with entertainers such as, Cab Calloway and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. After her stint at the Cotton Club, Lena began singing at other nightclubs and touring with Charlie Barnet’s all-White swing orchestra. It was at that time that she was ‘discovered’ by producer, John Hammond, and he had soon booked Lena for a solo show at Carnegie Hall and for NBC and RCA radio programs. By this time, Lena had married her first husband, African-American, Louis J. Jones, with whom she eventually had a son, Ted, and a daughter, Gail. Initially, they lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Lena became a ‘traditional housewife’.

Lena as a 'housewife'

Lena and son, Ted
Lena and daughter, Gail

1942 saw Lena move to Los Angeles, California to perform in clubs and have small parts in films. The color barrier was still very strong, so Black actors were almost never able to secure long-term contracts with the film studios; and if they were, it was to play a stereotypical role of a maid or slave.  Also, in most of the films, Lena would sing a song or two; but they would not be integral to the films’ plots, so that they could be cut out of the films when they were distributed in the southern States, where White people would not go to see a film where a Black person did not play a subservient role. However, Lena’s beauty and talent won over some talent scouts; and in 1943, they signed her to a long-term contract with MGM Studios. It was the first time an African-American had signed a contract with a major studio, which would not place the actor in a role as a maid.  Lena and the family moved to Hollywood; but since Black people were not allowed to live in Hollywood, she recalls that, “a White man named, Felix Young, signed for the house, as if he were going to rent it. When the neighbors found out, they were not happy and started a petition to get them evicted. Actor, Humphrey Bogart, who lived right across the street from Lena and her family, [got very angry with the residents] and sent word over to the house that if anybody bothered them, please let him know.”

That same year, Lena starred in Cabin Fever, with Ethel Waters and Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, and was the directorial debut for Vincente Minnelli (actresses, Judy Garland’s Husband and Liza Minnelli’s father). Lena also starred in Stormy Weather (for 20th Century Fox Studio, on loan from MGM), with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson and Cab Calloway. It would turn out to be one of Lena’s most enduring and classic hits. Click here to see a short video of Lena singing the signature song in 1943’s Stormy Weather.

Lena and Eddie in Cabin in the Sky

Lena, 'Bojangles' and Cab

The next few years saw Lena star in one musical film after another, and by the mid-1940s, she was the highest-paid, Black actor in the country; but most Black performers were still being segregated at the clubs; and their African-American fans were not allowed in to see them perform. World War II had been waging since 1939, and Lena also often performed for the Army Radio program, Command Performance; as well as toured the army camps and performed with the USO, which provides morale-boosting, recreation and entertainment for the members of the U.S. military. Lena became the premier, ‘pin-up girl’ for thousands of Black soldiers.

Lena and Ricardo Montalban, performing for the USO
Lena and Sammy Davis Jr.

In 1944, Lena and Louis divorced; and in 1947, Lena married White, Jewish composer, conductor and arranger, Lennie Hayton. The studios hid their marriage for years, so as not to rock the boat with her fans – nor with her critics.  By the 1950s, Lena had become outspoken about the way Black soldiers were being treated, so the USO fired her; and she had also become friends with African-American liberal, ‘Leftists’, such as singer/actor, Paul Robeson and author, W.E.B. DuBois. Anti-communism and suspicion were high, at the time. So, the U.S. Government blacklisted Lena and included her in Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television.

Lena and husband, Lennie, at The Savoy Hotel in London

Lena's FBI File

For seven years, Lena was unable to perform in films, but managed to get a bit of TV work; and lots of recording and nightclub/hotel work in the U.S. and in Europe. In a way, the Government did Lena a favor because in 1957, she was able to record her longtime, best-selling album, Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria.

The next decade saw Lena become even more active in civil rights, and she attended the famous March on Washington, where hundreds of thousands of people – from all walks of life – gathered to peacefully demand better jobs and freedom from oppression, for African-American people. It is also where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous, I Have a Dream speech. After Lena was introduced, at The March, she walked up to the microphone and uttered one word: “Freedom!” The crowd erupted.

Lena a a civil rights protest
March on Washington

In the early 1970s, both Lena’s son and husband sadly died, on separate occasions. Throwing herself back into work, she returned to the small screen and did a lot of TV performances, working with artists, ranging from Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett to The Muppets; and she continued to tour. She also starred in the film, The Wiz, as Glenda, The Good Witch. In 1981, Lena made a triumphant return to Broadway, performing her one-woman show, Lena: A Lady and Her Music. The show ran for fourteen months and won Lena a Tony Award, and two of her career-Grammy Awards for the album, from the show. She won many other awards during her 50-year career.

Lena and The Muppets

Lena with one of her Grammys (and Quincy Jones)

In the 1990s, Lena continued to perform and record a bit, but started to live a quieter life and spend time with her grandchildren (one of whom is Jenny Lumet, award-winning screenwriter for the film, Rachel Getting Married, starring Anne Hathaway and directed by Jonathan Demme).  She also penned her memoirs. In 2002, Lena retired from public life; and last year, in May, she peacefully passed away in New York, at the age of 92. It is reported that Oprah Winfrey plans to produce a biopic of Lena’s life; and that Grammy-Award winner, Alicia Keys, will play her.

Lena Horne/Alicia Keys

I am always an admirer of someone who is ‘not just a pretty face’. Lena paved the way for so many Black entertainers and actors. She used her voice, too; and in all ways, it was unforgettable.

Sources: Wikipedia, Washington Post, The New York Times, Biography.com, PBS, Google Images, YouTube

1 comment:

  1. What a beauty! I stumbled across your blog while looking for Aunt Jemima folk art and was happily surprised to see your piece on Lena Horne. Thanks for a great blog!