Horne joined the chorus of the Cotton Club at the age of sixteen and became a nightclub performer before moving to Hollywood, where she had small parts in numerous movies, and more substantial parts in the films Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. Due to the Red Scare and her left-leaning political views, Horne found herself blacklisted and unable to get work in Hollywood.
Returning to her roots as a nightclub performer, Horne took part in the March on Washington in August 1963, and continued to work as a performer, both in nightclubs and on television, while releasing well-received record albums. She announced her retirement in March 1980, but the next year starred in a one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which ran for more than three hundred performances on Broadway and earned her numerous awards and accolades. She continued recording and performing sporadically into the 1990s, disappearing from the public eye in 2000.
Early lifeLena Horne was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Reported to be descended from the John C. Calhoun family, both sides of her family were a mixture of European American, Native American, and African-American descent, and belonged to the upper stratum of middle-class, well-educated blacks.
Her father, Edwin Fletcher "Teddy" Horne, Jr. (1892–1970), a numbers kingpin in the gambling trade, left the family when she was three and moved to an upper-middle-class black community in the Hill District community of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her mother, Edna Louise Scottron (1895–1985), daughter of inventor Samuel R. Scottron, was an actress with a black theatre troupe and traveled extensively. Scottron's maternal grandmother, Amelie Louise Ashton, was a Senegalese slave. Lena Horne was mainly raised by her grandparents, Cora Calhoun and Edwin Horne.
When Horne was five, she was sent to live in Georgia. For several years, she traveled with her mother. From 1927 to 1929 she lived with her uncle, Frank S. Horne, who was dean of students at Fort Valley Junior Industrial Institute (now part of Fort Valley State University) in Fort Valley, Georgia, and who would later become an adviser to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
From Fort Valley, southwest of Macon, Horne briefly moved to Atlanta with her mother; they returned to New York when Horne was 12 years old. She then attended Girls High School, an all-girls public high school in Brooklyn that has since become Boys and Girls High School; she dropped out without earning a diploma. Aged 18, she moved in with her father in Pittsburgh, staying in the city's Little Harlem for almost five years and learning from native Pittsburghers Billy Strayhorn and Billy Eckstine, among others.
Road to HollywoodIn the fall of 1933, Horne joined the chorus line of the Cotton Club in New York City. In the spring of 1934, she had a featured role in the Cotton Club Parade starring Adelaide Hall, who took Lena under her wing. A few years later Horne joined Noble Sissle's Orchestra, with which she toured and with whom she recorded her first record release, a 78rpm single issued by Decca Records. After she separated from her first husband, Horne toured with bandleader Charlie Barnet in 1940–41, but disliked the travel and left the band to work at the Café Society in New York. She replaced Dinah Shore as the featured vocalist on NBC's popular jazz series The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. The show's resident maestros, Henry Levine and Paul Laval, recorded with Horne in June 1941 for RCA Victor. Horne left the show after only six months to headline a nightclub revue on the West Coast at Slapsy Maxie's, and was replaced by actress Betty Keene of the Keene sisters.
She made her debut with MGM in Panama Hattie (1942) and performed the title song of Stormy Weather based loosely on the life of Adelaide Hall, (1943), which she made at 20th Century Fox, on loan from MGM. She appeared in a number of MGM musicals, most notably Cabin in the Sky (also 1943), but was never featured in a leading role because of her race and the fact that films featuring her had to be re-edited for showing in states where theaters could not show films with black performers. As a result, most of Horne's film appearances were stand-alone sequences that had no bearing on the rest of the film, so editing caused no disruption to the storyline; a notable exception was the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky, although one number was cut because it was considered too suggestive by the censors. "Ain't it the Truth" was the song (and scene) cut before the release of the film Cabin in the Sky. It featured Horne singing "Ain't it the Truth", while taking a bubble bath (considered too "risqué" by the film's executives). This scene and song are featured in the film That's Entertainment! III (1994) which also featured commentary from Horne on why the scene was deleted prior to the film's release.
Changes of directionBy the mid-1950s, Horne was disenchanted with Hollywood and increasingly focused on her nightclub career. She only made two major appearances in MGM films during the 1950s: Duchess of Idaho (which was also Eleanor Powell's film swan song); and the 1956 musical Meet Me in Las Vegas. She was blacklisted during the 1950s for her political views. She returned to the screen three more times, playing chanteuse Claire Quintana in the 1969 film Death of a Gunfighter, Glinda in The Wiz (1978), a film younger audience members recognize her from, and co-hosting the MGM retrospective That's Entertainment! III (1994), in which she was candid about her treatment by the studio.
After leaving Hollywood, Horne established herself as one of the premiere nightclub performers of the post-war era. She headlined at clubs and hotels throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe, including the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, and the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. In 1957, a live album entitled, Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria, became the biggest selling record by a female artist in the history of the RCA-Victor label. In 1958, Horne was nominated for a Tony Award for "Best Actress in a Musical" (for her part in the "Calypso" musical Jamaica) which, at Lena's request featured her longtime friend Adelaide Hall.
In 1970, she co-starred with Harry Belafonte in the hour-long Harry & Lena for ABC; in 1973, she co-starred with Tony Bennett in Tony and Lena. Horne and Bennett subsequently toured the U.S. and U.K. in a show together. In the 1976 program America Salutes Richard Rodgers, she sang a lengthy medley of Rodgers songs with Peggy Lee and Vic Damone. Horne also made several appearances on The Flip Wilson Show.
Additionally, Horne played herself on television programs such as The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, and Sanford and Son in the 1970s, as well as a 1985 performance on The Cosby Show and a 1993 appearance on A Different World. In the summer of 1980, Horne, 63 years old and intent on retiring from show business, embarked on a two-month series of benefit concerts sponsored by Delta Sigma Theta. These concerts were represented as Horne's farewell tour, yet her retirement lasted less than a year.
On April 13, 1980, Horne, Luciano Pavarotti, and host Gene Kelly were all scheduled to appear at a Gala performance at the Metropolitan Opera House to salute the N Y City Center's Joffrey Ballet Company. However, Pavarotti's plane was diverted over the Atlantic and he was unable to appear. James Nederlander was an invited Honored Guest and noted that only three people at the sold out Metropolitan Opera House asked for their money back. He asked to be introduced to Lena following her performance. In May 1981, The Nederlander Organization, Michael Frazier, and Fred Walker went on to book Horne for a four-week engagement at the newly named Nederlander Theatre (formerly the Trafalgar, the Billy Rose, and the National) on West 41st Street in New York City. The show was an instant success and was extended to a full year run, garnering Horne a special Tony award, and two Grammy Awards for the cast recording of her show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. The 333-performance Broadway run closed on Horne's 65th birthday, June 30, 1982. Later that same week, the entire show was performed again and videotaped for television broadcast and home video release. The tour began a few days later at Tanglewood (Massachusetts) during the July 4, 1982 weekend. The Lady and Her Music toured 41 cities in the U.S. and Canada through June 17, 1984. It played in London for a month in August and ended its run in Stockholm, Sweden, September 14, 1984.
In 1981, she received a Special Tony Award for her one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which also played to acclaim at the Adelphi Theatre in London in 1984. Despite the show's considerable success (Horne still holds the record for the longest-running solo performance in Broadway history), she did not capitalize on the renewed interest in her career by undertaking many new musical projects. A proposed 1983 joint recording project between Horne and Frank Sinatra (to be produced by Quincy Jones) was ultimately abandoned, and her sole studio recording of the decade was 1988's The Men in My Life, featuring duets with Sammy Davis, Jr. and Joe Williams. In 1989, she received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
The 1990s found Horne considerably more active in the recording studio. Following her 1993 performance at a tribute to the musical legacy of her good friend Billy Strayhorn (Duke Ellington's longtime collaborator), she decided to record an album composed largely of Strayhorn's and Ellington's songs the following year, We'll Be Together Again. To coincide with the release of the album, Horne made what would be her final concert performances at New York's Supper Club and Carnegie Hall. That same year, Horne also lent her vocals to a recording of "Embraceable You" on Sinatra's Duets II album. Though the album was largely derided by critics, the Sinatra-Horne pairing was generally regarded as its highlight.
In 1995, a 'live' album capturing her Supper Club performance was released (subsequently winning a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album). In 1998, Horne released another studio album, entitled Being Myself. Thereafter, Horne essentially retired from performing and largely retreated from public view, though she did return to the recording studio in 2000 to contribute vocal tracks on Simon Rattle's Classic Ellington album.
Civil rights activismHorne was long involved with the Civil Rights movement. In 1941, she sang at Cafe Society and worked with Paul Robeson. During World War II, when entertaining the troops for the USO, she refused to perform "for segregated audiences or for groups in which German POWs were seated in front of African American servicemen", according to her Kennedy Center biography. Because the U.S. Army refused to allow integrated audiences, she wound up putting on a show for a mixed audience of black U.S. soldiers and white German POWs. Seeing the black soldiers had been forced to sit in the back seats, she walked off the stage to the first row where the black troops were seated and performed with the Germans behind her. She was at an NAACP rally with Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, the weekend before Evers was assassinated. She also met President John F. Kennedy at the White House two days before he was assassinated. She was at the March on Washington and spoke and performed on behalf of the NAACP, SNCC, and the National Council of Negro Women. She also worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws.
Tom Lehrer mentions her in his song "National Brotherhood Week" in the line "Lena Horne and Sheriff Clark are dancing cheek to cheek" referring (wryly) to her and to Sheriff Jim Clark, of Selma, Alabama, who was responsible for a violent attack on civil rights marchers in 1965.
In 1983, she was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP.
Personal lifeHorne's second marriage was to Lennie Hayton, who was Music Director and one of the premier musical conductors and arrangers at MGM, in December 1947 in Paris. They separated in the early 1960s, but never divorced; he died in 1971.
In her as-told-to autobiography Lena by Richard Schickel, Horne recounts the enormous pressures she and her husband faced as an interracial couple. She later admitted in an interview in Ebony (May 1980), she had married Hayton to advance her career and cross the "color-line" in show business, but had learned to love him in a way.
Screenwriter Jenny Lumet, known for her award-winning screenplay Rachel Getting Married, is Horne's granddaughter, the daughter of filmmaker Sidney Lumet and Horne's daughter Gail. Horne's other grandchildren include Gail's other daughter, Amy Lumet, and her son's three children, Thomas, William, and Lena.