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.