At 16, her mother put Lena into the chorus line of Harlem’s famed Cotton Club. There she earned $25 a week. By 1940, she was hired by Charley Barnet, who headed one of the swing era’s top big bands. Touring during pre-civil rights days wasn’t easy. She worked with young White men and easily became a target of insults for Whites not ready for integration.
Horne, who had fair skin and silky, long hair, often said she felt caught between two worlds. Too light for Black parts and too dark for White parts, she often did musical scenes that didn’t connect with the plot. The scenes in which she appeared could easily be “clipped,” as she called it, for Southern audiences. Her starring roles were in all-Black movies like Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky.
Never one to stand for injustice, Horne believed in equality. She participated in the March on Washington and professionally she refused to entertain White troops on USO tours unless Black soldiers were admitted. Later, during her peacetime engagements, she also insisted on contractual assurances that Blacks be admitted to all of her performances.
Born Lena Mary Calhoun Horne, the Brooklyn-born native once told Ebony she really never had a mother. Horne explained that her mom, Edna Horne, and dad, Edwin “Teddy” Horne, separated when she was three. Her mother went to work as an entertainer with a black stock company and was away from little Lena a lot. Her mother, according to Lena, didn’t allow her father to be with her.
“So their relationship colored my life,” Horne told Ebony. “I wanted them both and I couldn’t have either. Finally when my mother came back to be with me when I was 15, she brought a White husband with her. But I always had been with Black people. So it was a rough go for me and I withdrew.”
Horne lived with several relatives after her parents divorced. She had a strained relationship with her mother; she absolutely adored her father. In fact, it was her father who encouraged her to only play positive roles. He once said, “I don’t see what the movies have to offer my daughter. I can hire a maid for her, why should she act one?”
Her first marriage to Louis J. Jones ended in divorce in 1944. They had two children, Teddy and Gail.
Long before it was cool for entertainers to separate their personal and professional life, Horne was leading the way. She proved her ability to remain silent about her private life when in 1950 it was learned that she had married Lennie Hayton three years earlier. She married the Oscar-winning, White musical director at a time when interracial marriages were still illegal in California.
The toughest year of her life was in 1971 when tragedy struck three times within a 13-month span. Her 29-year-old son, Teddy, died of a chronic kidney ailment. Her father, Edwin “Teddy” Horne, died and her husband of 25 years died. Horne and Hayton shared one of Hollywood’s most durable unions. She lovingly called her husband “Daddy,” and said he never understood “color prejudice.”
Horne took the deaths hard and left the spotlight. When she wanted to grant an interview and talk, Ebony was always there for her and the media outlet where she exhaled. The deaths didn’t leave her helpless, she said. Surprisingly, they left her stronger. “Professionally, the pain really opened me up to my audience,” she told Ebony. “From then on, I was as one with my audience.”
The graceful Horne won a new following in the 1978 movie The Wiz where she sang “If You Believe.” The film was directed by Sidney Lumet, her former son-in law.
Horne, who always believed in doing things her way, was never traditional. She turned heads by selecting a 37-year-old woman, Linda Twine, to be her musical conductor for a 15-man band for her 1982 one-woman Broadway musical, the autobiographical Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. The show earned her two Grammy awards, a special Tony and a Drama Desk honor.
Her musical influences included Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Strayhorn and Luther Henderson. She paid tribute to the music men in her life in 1988 with the album, The Men in My Life. Sammy Davis Jr. and Joe Williams performed duets with her on the project. Those were among her highlights.
When it came to music men, they were always her first love. “Let’s put it this way, I never fell for a man from the real world,” she said. “My loves, literally have been music men.”
She recorded the 1994 album We’ll Be Together Again and shocked some by admitting that she hated singing, because she secretly hoped her voice would sound like Aretha Franklin or Ella Fitzgerald.
An insanely private person, Horne rarely granted interviews. Throughout the years, she granted exclusive interviews to Ebony, having graced its cover more than 10 times! Later she totally retreated from the spotlight. Horne enjoyed spending time at home, harvesting oranges and planting trees.
An honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the organization once sponsored what was supposedly her farewell tour, though she continued to perform. Never one to dwell on her good looks, at 71 Horne once said, “People don’t know what to do with an old broad like me…Someone called me the foxy grandma––I like that!”
Of her rise from meager beginnings to international acclaim, Horne once summarized it best. “I have proven to the world that somebody named God is taking care of me.”
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Senior Editor, EBONY Magazine