Lena Horne died this week at 92.
It was a loss.
Born Lena Mary Calhoun Horne June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York, she claimed in her biography that on the day she was born, her father was in the midst of a card game trying to get money to pay the hospital bill.
Ah, health care!
Her folks divorced when she was a toddler, her mother left to become an actress, and she was left in the care of her grandparents. When Lena was seven mom came home, picked her UP, and Lena traveled with her. She bounced from school to school. Back in Brooklyn, she quit school at 14.
She landed her first job as a dancer at the age of 16 at the Cotton Club, in Harlem. No one knew she could sing – at first.
How’d that happen?
Once Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington heard her sing and smoothed out a few rough edges, she was singing to a packed house. The Cotton Club catered to White Audiences, but the performers were Black.
She had enough talent and beauty to make it to Broadway. In the early 1940s she was hired to sing for Charlie Barnet’s orchestra. She was discovered by producer John Hammond and performed in a solo show at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Hollywood knocked on the door. She was 21.
She was the first Black Actress to sign a contract with Hollywood that assured her she would never play a maid; Lena did not want to appear in stereotyped roles. Hattie McDaniel and Juanita Moore made a fortune playing maids, but Lena had higher hopes. She was a ground breaker and a role model.
Her scenes were cut in re-edited versions show in certain areas of the country.
She made The Duke is Tops in 1938, Panama Hattie in 1942. She played a nightclub singer. Her first contact was with MGM, who in 1943, loaned her to 20th Century Fox for Stormy Weather. Her version of the title song is a classic, and the first thing most people think of when they hear her name. The movie was a success, both critically and financially. And it defined her.
Her first love was entertainment.
But she wasn’t oblivious to the world around her. Miss Horne was noted for her work with civil rights and political organizations. Some of her ideals and associations found her blacklisted in the Hollywood of the McCarthy Era.
She was a critical success as well as a commercial one. Her one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music (1981), won several awards, including a Drama Critics’ Circle Award and a special achievement Tony Award. In 1984 Horne received a Kennedy Center honour for lifetime contribution to the arts, and in 1989 a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.
Now, I’m just waiting for Halle Berry to play the staring role in the movie bio!