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LENA HORNE

SINGER / ACTRESS (1917-)

Even in her eighties, the legendary Lena Horne has a quality of timelessness about her.  Elegant and wise, she personifies both the glamour of Hollywood and the reality of a lifetime spent battling racial and social injustice.  Pushed by an ambitious mother into the chorus line of the Cotton Club when she was sixteen, and maneuvered into a film career by the NAACP, she was the first African American signed to a long-term studio contract.  In her rise beyond Hollywood's racial stereotypes of maids, butlers, and African natives, she achieved true stardom on the silver screen, and became a catalyst for change even beyond the glittery fringes of studio life.  Born in Brooklyn in 1917, Lena Horne became one of the most popular African American performers of the 1940s and 1950s.  At the age of sixteen she was hired as a dancer in the chorus of Harlem's famous Cotton Club.  There she was introduced to the growing community of jazz performers, including Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington.  She also met Harold Arlen, who would write her biggest hit, "Stormy Weather." 

For the next five years she performed in New York nightclubs, on Broadway, and touring with the Charlie Barnet Orchestra.  singing with Barnet's primarily white swing band, Horne was one of the first Black women to successfully work on both sides of the color line.  Within a few years, Horne moved to Hollywood, where she played small parts in the movies.  At this time, most black actors were kept from more serious roles, and though she was beginning to achieve a high level of notoriety, the color barrier was still strong.  "In every other film I just sang a song or two; the scenes could be cut out when they were sent to local distributors in the South.  Unfortunately, I didn't get much of a chance to act," she said.  "CABIN IN THE SKY" and "STORMY WEATHER" were the only movies in which I played a character who was involved in the plot."  Her elegant style and powerful voice were unlike any that had come before, and both the public and the executives in the entertainment industry began to take note.  By the mid '40s, Horne was the highest paid Black actor in the country. 

Her renditions of Harold Arlen's "Deed I Do" and "As Long as I Live," and Cole Porter's "Just One Of Those Things" became instant classics.  For the thousands of Black soldiers abroad during World War II, Horne was the premier pin-up girl.  Much like her good friend Paul Robeson, Horne's great fame could not prevent the wheels of the anti-Communist machine from bearing down on her.  Her civil rights activism and friendship with Robeson and others marked her as a Communist sympathizer.  Like many politically active artist of the time, Horne found herself blacklisted and unable to perform on television or in the movies.  For seven years the attacks on her person and political beliefs continued.  During this time, however, Horne worked as a singer, appearing in nightclubs and making some of her best recordings.  LENA HORNE AT THE WALDORF ASTORIA, recorded in 1957, is still considered to be one of her best. 

Revised: July 18, 2013.