By Joan Amenn
In her life, she witnessed the Jazz Age, two World Wars and the Civil Rights Movement to which she devoted so much of her formidable energy. Lena Horne was fierce in her self-respect when it was not socially recognized that people of colour should receive any at all. Ahead of her time, she lived her life on her terms even when it could prove dangerous to do so.
Born into a performing family, Lena was raised mostly by her grandparents until she dropped out of high school to be a dancer at the Cotton Club, the famous jazz night club in Harlem, New York. From there she just kept working on her career, eventually touring with various big bands around the country. This was not as glamorous as it sounds since African Americans were denied access to most restaurants and hotels in the 1930’s. Lena would see first-hand the hardships endured on the road by her fellow musicians due to prejudice and segregation. An offer to perform on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood was Lena’s ticket out of the touring busses. In a very short time, she had a contract with MGM.
The two films she is best known for are “Cabin in the Sky” (1943) and “Stormy Weather” (1943). The first was an adaptation of a successful Broadway musical and was the debut of Vincente Minnelli as a film director. Years before Lola got whatever she wanted in “Damn Yankees” (1958), Horne smoldered onscreen as Georgia Brown, tempting vixen and occasional agent of demonic corruption. It is a much smaller role than her co-lead in “Stormy Weather” but she makes the most of vamping and posing seductively. In “Stormy Weather” she sings the title song which she would be identified with for the rest of her life.
Success on screen and onstage, she was the first African American woman nominated for a Tony in 1958, did not translate into a mitigation of the institutionalized racism Horne had to endure.
It is hard to sit through some of the painful stereotypes of African Americans in both films, but it is equally amazing to see a fantasy ballet sequence in “Stormy Weather” years before “An American in Paris” (1951). The production values of the jaw dropping closing number are incredible, especially since this was an all African American cast and story which film studios did not typically invest money in. Horne shines like a diamond through every scene with an electric smile and flashing eyes.
Success on screen and onstage, she was the first African American woman nominated for a Tony in 1958, did not translate into a mitigation of the institutionalized racism Horne had to endure. She fought back, first by insisting that racially segregated troops in WW2 sit in front of POWs in her USO performances. Then, she joined the NAACP and advocated for anti-lynching laws. She met with the Kennedy administration and participated in civil rights marches.
Secretly, Horne had married Lennie Hayton, a Caucasian musician and conductor in 1947. The stress of the social pressures of their interracial marriage as well as his alcoholism led to a rocky relationship but they never divorced. Horne admitted she grew to love Hayton, although she originally married him to advance her career.
In her sixties, Horne began what was supposed to be a limited run of a one woman show in New York called, “Lena Horne: The Lady and her Music.” It was such a smash it continued for a year, won a Tony and Grammy awards and then led to a world tour. Lena Horne never compromised her principles for the sake of social acceptance. The world fell in love with her, as much for her voice and her stunning poise as her steely commitment to the cause of equality. She was one in a million.