Now considered a jazz icon, Lena Horne was one of the top African-American entertainers during the 1940s and 1950s, and in 1981 her Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music became the longest-running one-woman show on Broadway. However, her career has been marked by the discrimination she faced as an African American, and in 1969 she wrote, “When I look back over my life, my sharpest impressions are of the many ways in which I have been segregated, the many kinds of prejudice I have experienced.”1
As a child, Horne was abandoned by her parents and was raised by her grandmother, a civil rights activist who enrolled her granddaughter in the NAACP at age two. Horne’s first professional job was at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club; she was hired less for her singing ability than because her youth, beauty, light skin, and “good hair” were appealing to the club’s white clientele. Nevertheless, she landed a job with Noble Sissle in 1935. Touring with Sissle’s all-black orchestra opened her eyes to racial prejudice, and in her autobiography she wrote, “I didn’t like sleeping in the bus at night because there were cities in which we couldn’t get rooms in a white hotel, and there were no hotels for colored.”2 Five years later, traveling with Charlie Barnet’s all-white band, she faced equal discrimination. Restaurants often refused to serve the band if Horne was with them, and audiences sometimes objected to her singing onstage with the white musicians.
In 1941, Horne began to sing at Café Society Downtown in New York. The club catered to an intellectual and integrated clientele, and for the first time, she was allowed to sing as herself and not according to a stereotype. She also became close to Paul Robeson, who shared her interest in the Civil Rights movement. In 1963, she participated in the March on Washington, and in 1969 she wrote, “The Civil Rights movement, more than any other one thing, has given me the urge to find out who I am and what I’m doing here.”3
In 1942, MGM Studios offered Horne a film contract. Familiar with the discrimination prevalent in Hollywood, she considered refusing it, but friends such as Duke Ellington convinced her to accept it and work to improve the Hollywood image of African Americans. Horne’s seven-year contract was only the second term contract signed by an African-American woman, and the first since 1915. Once she started making films, however, the studio considered her too light-skinned to play opposite black actors, but was unwilling to feature her with white actors. Her film appearances were therefore limited mainly to “specialty sequences,” in which she sang, elegantly dressed and leaning provocatively against a pillar, which could be cut when the films were shown in the South. Her major films were the 1943 all-black musicals Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. The song Stormy Weather became her trademark.
Although Horne sometimes claimed that she did not like her singing voice, John McDonough wrote of her 1998 album Being Myself, “Her voice is an aristocratic combination of mature luster and fine grain, and the phrasing is soaked in the honey-combed drawl and still crackles with open vowels that have always been her signature.”4 Now recognized as an accomplished performer and singer on her own terms, Horne is said to have claimed, “In my early days I was a sepia Hedy Lamarr. Now I’m black and a woman, singing my own way.”