Lena Horne was an African American singer, performer, and actress. She was not just an entertainer whose career spanned over seven decades, Horne was also a passionate civil rights activist. She released a number of well-received record albums and Despite retiring officially in 1980, Horne starred in Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, a one-woman show that ran for over 300 performances on Broadway. With her beauty and commanding stage presence, she crafted a legacy for herself in the 20th century.
Lena Horne’s Biography
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was the only child born of her parents, Edwin Fletcher Horne and Edna Luise Scottron on June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York. After her father who worked in the gambling trade left the family when she was three years old, Horne lived with paternal grandparents.
Her mother was an actress working with an African American theater troupe and usually traveled a lot. Thus, young Horne was practically raised by her grandparents, Cora Calhoun and Edwin Horne. Yet her mother would often bring her along on her trips and they lived in various parts of the South.
By the year 1931, after her paternal grandparent died, Horne lived with a friend of her mother’s for a while before she went to live with her mother and new husband. Horne’s unstable life interrupted her primary education. She attended various small-town, segregated schools while in the South with her mother. In Brooklyn, she attended the Ethical Cultural School, the Girls High School, and a secretarial school.
What Was She Known For?
Known as a Jazz legend, Lena Horne is described as an amazing woman who took pride in her heritage and one who would never compromise. It was said that her innate elegance, grace, and dignity had made her a legendary figure. She played major roles as a one who helped to improve the status of African Americans in the performing arts, which provided a permanent legacy for the Afro-Americans.
Civil Right Activism
Lena Horne’s number one enemy was racial discrimination, not just to the people of color. After the World War II (1939-1945), she worked on behalf of Japanese Americans who faced discrimination. Already a passionate civil right activist, during the war in which Germany, Italy, and Japan fought against France, China, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States, Horne would travel on her own expense to entertain the troops.
According to her Kennedy Center bio, while Horne was contracted to entertain the troops for the USO, she’d refuse to perform for segregated audiences or for groups where German prisoners of wars were given the front sits over African American servicemen.
She campaigned against lynching, side by side with Eleanor Roosevelt in a mission to achieve a legislation, making it illegal to execute persons accused of crimes without a trial. Horne, a registered Democratic Party member, along with the party committee met President John F. Kennedy at the White House two days before his assassination. She also lent her voice and performance on behalf of the National Council of Negro Women, NAACP and SNCC during the march on Washington in 1963.
Did She Have Children?
Horne and her first husband, Louis Jordan Jones (1933 – 1944), had two children, Gail Buckley and Edwin Jones. She’s also a grandmother to her son’s four children, Thomas, William, Samadhi, and Lena; and her daughter’s two children, Jenny and Amy Lumet. One of her great-grandchildren is Jake Cannavale.
Life and Death of Lena Horne
Growing up, Horne was determined to take up her mother’s line of work and become a performer, much to the chagrin of her family. The Hornes are well established, educated middle-class people with distinguished positions in political organizations such as the Urban League (a group that worked to increase the economic and political power of minorities and to end discrimination based on race) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Not one to be dissuaded from her course, Horne accepted an offer at age 16, to dance in the chorus at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club. The voice lessons she took in 1934, aided her singing career start with the Noble Sissle Society Orchestra, which performed at many high-rated nightclubs and hotel ballrooms. After two years in Sissle, Horne left to perform solo in a number of New York City clubs.
As an Africa-American, Horne suffered racial prejudice in the 1940s when she joined the Charlie Barnet Orchestra, an all-white swing band. She would often endure humiliations especially from hotels and restaurants catering exclusively to white people.
She left Barnet in 1941 and quickly rose to a new level of her career when entertainment manager John Hammond, got her a long engagement at a famous club in New York City Known as Cafe Society Downtown. It was there Horne learned to embrace her African American heritage, she joined a movement in the struggle for equality and justice for the people of color in the US.
Lena Horne merged her civil right activism with her career. She became the highest-paid African American entertainer in the United States following a long booking at the SavoyPlaza Hotel which brought her national coverage and a number of movie appearances. Her seven-year contract with the movie studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer, MGM, also made her the first African American woman since 1915, to sign a term contract with a film studio.
Despite all limitations imposed on interracial people in the 1930s and 40s, Horne a made significant mark in Hollywood. One thing about her that stood out above all, was her refusal to take on any roles – singing or acting, that was disrespectful to her as a woman of color.
A “live” album capturing her Supper Club performance was released in 1995. It won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album. In 1998, Horne released another studio album, Being Myself and later made a studio come back in 2000 to contribute vocal tracks on Classic Ellington album.
The Jazz Icon died at age 92, on May 9, 2010. She suffered a congestive heart failure shortly before her demise and was cremated after her funeral viewing. Thousands gathered at the venue to mourn her including top Hollywood celebrities.