In the early 1940s, Walter White, the leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took a stand that portrayals of black American females as maids and men as coons in Hollywood had to stop. In furtherance of that motive, the NAACP took interest in the career progression of Lena Horne as an actress.
Her wealthy father connected to banking and gambling took interest in his daughter’s career and had to escort her in signing a seven-year contract with MGM Studios. On being told his daughter could play a film role as a maid, he informed the MGM boss Louis B Mayer that he could afford to hire his own maids and didn’t need to have his offspring playing one.
Having powerful forces backing her, Horne was then cast in groundbreaking films Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather (both 1943) which saw the first pivotal movie roles for African-Americans. Cabin in the Sky also featured black notable like Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
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By 1944, Horne had won the Motion Picture Unity Award for “outstanding colored actress of the year,” leaving no doubt about her acting gift. She became the highest-paid black entertainer at the time.
But racist white studio executives were not going away without a fight so in certain productions, she was given parts that were not leads. In one MGM musical after another, she showed up in small roles – musical interludes that had little to do with the main story. In some states, where theaters couldn’t show black performers, her scenes were edited out altogether.
In a career spanning seven decades, Horne became a film, music, television and stage star as well as a formidable force for civil rights.
In 1981, the singer/actress made a triumphant return to Broadway with her one-woman show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. The acclaimed production ran on Broadway for 14 months, then toured in the United States and abroad. The show won a Drama Desk Award and a special Tony, as well as two Grammys for its soundtrack.
Two years later, she earned an NAACP medal that had previously been awarded to Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Rosa Parks.
Horne born on June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York, was the daughter of parents who had a mixed heritage of African American, European American and Native American descent. Her peculiar background enabled whites to reject her as not being pure enough while blacks also accused her of passing for black.
It was therefore under that cloud that one night after a show, 43-year-old black stage and film star Paul Robeson came to her dressing room to pay his respects. She became a close friend of Robeson whom she confided in and who suggested union groups to join, which championed her causes including black rights.
But when Robeson was pursued for his alleged communist sympathies by the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s, they affected Horne too, and prevented her from appearing on film and television over a seven-year period when she was reaching her creative peak.
Horne who had shared stages with Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and many other legends of American music for a brief period in the early 1950s appeared to have lost her career. Her name had appeared in Red Channels, a report that listed more than 100 entertainers who appeared to have communist leanings.
Now struggling to get work in the TV or film industries, Horne continued to perform at nightclubs. After all she had joined the chorus of the Cotton Club at the age of 16 and became a nightclub performer before moving to Hollywood.
On the civil rights front, Horne remained active in the Civil Rights Movement, performing at rallies around the country on behalf of the NAACP and the National Council for Negro Women even participating in the 1963 March on Washington.
Horne made her Broadway debut in the fall 1934 production Dance With Your Gods, joining Noble Sissle & His Orchestra as a singer, using the name Helena Horne. She then appeared in the Broadway musical revue Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1939. She then joined a well-known white swing band, the Charlie Barnet Orchestra as Barnet was one of the first bandleaders to integrate his band, but because of racial prejudice, Horne was unable to stay or socialize at many of the venues in which the orchestra performed, and she soon left the tour.
Her film credits include Swings Cheer (1943) and Broadway Rhythm (1944), Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, ‘Death of a Gunfighter’ and ‘The Wiz.’
On the singing front, her albums It’s Love (1955) and Stormy Weather (1957) Feelin Good (1965) and Lena in Hollywood (1966) have proved to be enduring.
The ban had eased by the mid-1950s thanks to the instrumental work of Roy Brewer and Horne returned to the screen in the 1956 comedy Meet Me in Las Vegas. In 1970 and 1971, Horne’s son, father and brother died. She spent several years in deep mourning and was less visible.
In 1994, Horne gave one of her last concerts at New York’s Supper Club. The performance was recorded and released in 1995 as An Evening With Lena Horne: Live at the Supper Club, which won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
Horne, at age 19 married Louis Jones from 1937 to 1944 producing two children Gail and Teddy. She married Lennie Hayton, a white bandleader, in December 1947 in Paris, France, but they kept their marriage a secret for three years. They eventually separated in the 1960s but never divorced.
She died of heart failure in New York City on May 9, 2010 aged 92.