Lena Mary Calhoun Horne received a special Tony Award for distinguished achievement in the theater for her one-woman Broadway hit Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music which opened to rave reviews in 1981 and played to capacity audiences there for 14 months before going on tour. She reached that pinnacle of her 50-year-career via a road that started in the Harlem of the 1930s and was bombarded with stormy weather.
In the early days, she was referred to as a “cafe au lait Hedy Lamarr” and a “chocolate chanteuse.” Even after she achieved stardom as a singer, she was refused a room at the hotels where she was performing–even in New York City as late as 1942–because she was black. In the Hollywood of the 1940s, she says she was invited to parties only with the unwritten understanding that she provide the entertainment.
But Lena Horne fought back–and she fought her way to the top of her profession. When Horne was a child, her parents were divorced, and her mother, an aspiring actress, took her south and boarded her with various families while she attempted to find work. By the early 1930s, she returned to New York with her re-married mother and briefly entertained the idea of becoming a teacher, a dream the depression helped to shoot down. She quit Girls High School in Brooklyn and took her first steps into show business as a dancer in the chorus at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club, where blacks entertained a strictly white clientele. If the performers’ relatives or friends tried to gain admittance, they were bounced. Although she was not allowed to sing, she did get to meet and observe such renowned artists as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Ethel Waters, and Billie Holiday.
When her stepfather was physically abused by the club owners for pushing the idea of her singing there, she decided that she “had to get out.”
After a brief marriage at the age of 19 to Louis Jones, the college-educated son of a minister, during which she lived in Pittsburgh and had two children, Gail and Teddy (Teddy died in 1970 from a kidney ailment), Horne returned to New York and jazz and the Big Band sounds. She began singing with Noble Sissle’s Society Orchestra, honing her distinctive vocalizing style and elegant manner as she toured amidst applause and racism, having to sleep in tenement boarding houses, the bus, and once in circus grounds in Indianapolis.
In 1940, she became the first African American to tour with an all white band, Charlie Barnet’s outfit, a move she considers to be the real beginning of her success as a singer. She was the featured singer.
It was while she was singing at a New York nightspot that an MGM talent scout caught her act and arranged a screen test for her which landed her a contract to the studio, where she faced more hurdles.
She recalls serving, however, as “window dressing” in such films as Panama Hattie, Thousands Cheer, Two Girls and a Sailor, and Duchess of Idaho, after having refused to try to “pass as a Latin” because of her light coloring.
She starred in two memorable black musicals : Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. The studio sent her on a tour of its theaters to promote the films in song. As a result she became one of the top nightclub and theater box office attractions in the country.
While entertaining the troops during World War II, Horne got into another battle of her own. She refused to sing for segregated audiences or to groups in which German POWs were seated in front of African American servicemen. She also became the pin-up girl for thousands of African American G.I.s. She was later to take her fight for integrated audiences out of the war zone and onto the nightclub and theater stages.
Her second marriage, to musical arranger Lennie Hayton, took place in 1947 but was not announced for three years because he was white, which offended both blacks and whites to the extent that the couple received hate mail and threats of violence.
Horne admitted that she married Hayton not because she loved him, but because “he had more entree than a black man.” But as their married years went by–and there were 24 of them before his death in 1971–she “learned to love him because of how good he was to me and patient.”
She had become a ranking international star playing to SRO audiences throughout the world, sharing the stage with the likes of Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstein, Vic Damone, and Harry Belafonte.
She also starred in musical and television specials with such giants as Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra.
Long before her triumph in Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, for which she also won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and Drama Desk Award, the distinctive star tested her soon-to-become formidable talent on the Broadway musical stage in Blackbirds of 1939. She later scored a major triumph in Harold Arlen’s Jamaica.
Horne has also always found time to devote to the causes in which she truly believes, and starting with the civil rights movement in the 1960s, she had company in her battles for equality.
Her paternal grandmother, a suffragette and activist, enrolled her in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People when she was two, and she has worked with it and with such organizations as the National Council of Negro Women, the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Urban League, speaking at rallies and singing at demonstrations.
In 1978, Horne returned to films as Glinda the Good Witch, in The Wiz.
One of the achievements about which she is proudest is an honorary doctorate she received from Howard University in 1980. “I had been offered doctorates earlier,” she said, “and had turned them down because I hadn’t been to college. But by the time Howard presented the doctorate to me, I knew I had graduated from the school of life, and I was ready to accept it.”