Friday, February 19, 2016


   Lena Horne - so many beautiful and talented and complex women have passed through our world.  A load of questions have passed through my mind as I write these short biographies of famous and not so famous African Americans.  Why aren't they better known? How did they manage in such a negative world to project their talent and beauty and leave us all with lasting memories of them? Why didn't they give up in despair?  All of these women were fighters, not just for themselves, but for all African Americans - and therefore, all people.
   Lena Horne was born in 1917 and died in 2010, a long life truly!  Not only was she a talented and beautiful singer and actress, she was also a civil rights activist. How many people knew that about her?   That she refused to accept roles that were stereotypical about African Americans meant that her career was much more difficult for her.  Success while there was not fulfilled.

   Ms Horne became part of a well known white swing band that was one of the first to integrate, yet she had to quit due to the fact that she couldn't stay with them when she traveled.  In 1941 she returned to New York to work at the Cafe Society nightclub, a popular venue for both Black and white patrons and artists.  [My parents told me how they went to see Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Art Tatum and more.  Billie Holiday debuted her song "Strange Fruit" at Cafe Society. Located at One Sheridan Square, it was opened precisely to give a venue for ordinary people by Barney Josephson, brother of Leon Josephson, a communist friend of my parents.  Most vividly they told me they took their shell-shocked friends who had returned from the Spanish Civil War in order to help them feel better, if possible.]
   Lena Horne's career began to take off -- "A long run at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel nightclub in 1943 gave Horne’s career a boost. She was featured in Life magazine and became the highest-paid black entertainer at the time. After signing a seven-year contract with MGM Studios, she moved to Hollywood, where she filmed movies like Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky. Producers quickly realized that she was a difficult woman to cast, however. She could only get limited roles in films with whites, and her light skin made it difficult to cast her alongside popular African-American actors in full-color films. Horne also refused to accept parts that stereotyped African-American women, and she was shunned by the community of black actors."

   Now that we have a President who is half African-American, half white we can perhaps one day talk about the difficulties of "mixed race" people such as Lena Horne.  Generally shunned by both Blacks and whites, their lives were so much more fraught with loneliness and pain.  I will never forget taking my daughter to a movie at the African American Movie Festival in Los Angeles which was basically about how the one mixed-race person was the traitor on the plantation, working in the master's house, having an easier life.  The movie was ground-breaking in many ways - Sankofa - because it openly detailed slavery. But I felt to put the blame on a mixed race person was egregious at the least.

   Lena Horne suffered this type of discrimination - shunned by both sides. "By the end of the 1940s, Horne had sued a variety of restaurants and theaters for discrimination and become an outspoken member of the leftist group Progressive Citizens of America with Paul Robeson. McCarthyism was sweeping through Hollywood, and Horne soon found herself blacklisted. Since she was unable to work in film, television, theater or recording, she performed primarily in posh nightclubs around the country. The ban eased in the mid-1950s, and Horne returned to the screen in the 1956 comedy Meet Me in Las Vegas."   She was still active in the civil rights movement despite being blacklisted.  She participated in the March on Washington in 1963.

   From the NY Times Obituary -
“The whole thing that made me a star was the war,” Ms. Horne said in the 1990 interview. “Of course the black guys couldn’t put Betty Grable’s picture in their footlockers. But they could put mine.”

"Touring Army camps for the U.S.O., Ms. Horne was outspoken in her criticism of the way black soldiers were treated. “So the U.S.O. got mad,” she recalled. “And they said, ‘You’re not going to be allowed to go anyplace anymore under our auspices.’ So from then on I was labeled a bad little Red girl.”

   In 1970 and 1971 Lena Horne's son, husband, and father all died and she spent much time in mourning. "Horne made her final film appearance in the 1978 movie The Wiz. The film was a version of The Wizard of Oz that featured an entirely African-American cast including Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, and Horne played Glinda the Good Witch."  She made a triumphant return to Broadway in a one-woman show for which she won a Drama Desk Award, a Tony, and two Grammy Awards for soundtrack.
   "In 1994 Horne gave one of her last concerts, at New York’s Supper Club. The performance was recorded and was released in 1995 as An Evening With Lena Horne: Live at the Supper Club, which won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Though she contributed occasional recordings after this, she largely retreated from public life."
   "Lena Horne died of heart failure on May 9, 2010, in New York City."

   As IMDB states in its biography of Lena Horne - "Had it not been for the prevailing racial attitudes during the time when Lena was just starting her career, it's fair to say that it would have been much bigger, and come much sooner, than it was. Even taking those factors into account, Lena Horne is still one of the most respected, talented and beautiful performers of all time--and she's still singing!"
   From Notable biographies  - "In the 1990s Horne cut back on performing. She was drawn back from semiretirement to do a tribute concert for a long-time friend, composer Billy Strayhorn, at the JVC Jazz Festival. At age seventy-six she released her first album in a decade, We'll Be Together Again. In 1997, on the occasion of her eightieth birthday, Horne was honored at the JVC Jazz Festival with a tribute concert and the Ella Award for Lifetime Achievement in Vocal Artistry. In 1999 she was honored at the New York City's Avery Fisher Hall with an all-star salute."
   "Lena Horne is an amazing woman. Her pride in her heritage, her refusal to compromise herself, and her innate elegance, grace, and dignity has made her a legendary figure. Her role as a person who has helped to improve the status of African Americans in the performing arts has provided a permanent legacy."
Read more:

Lena Horne Biography - 
Ephemeral Cafe Society -  
IMDB lists 55 soundtracks - 
IMDB biography - 
Notable biographies - 
NY Times Obituary - 

Buckley, Gail Lumet. The Hornes: An American Family. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Haskins, James, and Kathleen Benson. Lena: A Biography of Lena Horne. Chelsea, MI: Scarborough House, 1991.

Palmer, Leslie. Lena Horne: Entertainer. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.

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