Lena Mary Calhoun Horne
Groundbreaking actor, dancer, and vocal stylist Lena Horne made her transition at the age of 92. Lena Horne, with her smoldering voice, lithe dancer’s body, and flawless beauty, is the Mother of Black Hollywood: its glamour; its contradictions, its fighting spirit. Before Dorothy Dandridge, Lonnette McKee, Vanessa Williams, Halle Berry, or Paula Patton, there was Lena. If you are a woman of color in the business, and you elect to pursue a living performing on stage, using a microphone or appearing before a camera, you owe a debt of thanks to Lena Horne.
If Hattie McDaniel put Black female actors on the map with her Oscar win in 1939, Lena Horne took Black female actors around the world with her sultry, timeless performances in musicals like Stormy Weather and Cabin In The Sky.
She blazed a trail for actors of color upon signing her 7-year Hollywood contract with MGM in 1942, a deal that was unheard of for Black stars. The irony of this milestone is that as close to white as she may have looked, she was still enough of a threat to white audiences for her work to wind up on the cutting room floor of Southern edits of films in which she starred. She flatly refused to play a mammy or a maid. She also refused to be cast as a Latin siren.
Horne, a native of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, New York, was proud to be Black. She’d danced in The Cotton Club in Harlem as a teenager. She would later take a prominent role in the Civil Rights movement, advocating for equality of Black citizens and soldiers alike, the latter for whom she became an undisputed sex symbol as a frequent World War II USO performer–until she spoke out about mistreatment of Black servicemen.
She was not satisfied to serve as the sepia window dressing in movies that could be moved back at any time. She directed her attention to recording, the stage and live performance, the styles of entertaining she preferred.
She enjoyed successful long-term runs at clubs and hotels from the 1930s until the 1990s. Before Celine Dion had an arena built for her in Vegas, Lena Horne sold out the Waldorf-Astoria night after night. The live recording of that show remains among her signature LPs.
Her one-woman show The Lady and Her Music enjoyed 333 performances on Broadway from 1981-1982, with Lena commanding the stage and bending lyrics to her will at the age of 65. She garnered Drama Desk Award as lead actress for the show and won two Grammy Awards for its soundtrack. Horne was also honored with a special Tony Award for a lifetime of career achievement, which included 28 albums (she was a top-selling RCA Victor artist), 18 feature films (her most memorable recent role being that of Glenda the Good Witch in The Wiz), and many short films in addition to numerous plays and her one-woman show.
Truly a Sister Swan who made the difficult look easy while on screen or at center stage, Lena Horne is an extraordinary example of one’s integrity holding one steadfast during a tumultous time in a bigoted business. By honoring herself, she managed to keep her sanity and build a powerful legacy at a time when her many of her contemporaries were prevented from doing the same.
At the age of 80, Horne had this to say about her journey, and her sense of self:
“My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”
She was absolutely right. I recognize that I would not be in a position to voice a single commercial had she not blazed her iconic trail in the arts. Thank you for your song, Lena. And thank you for your stand.