May 14th, 2010
Lena Horne
About the Performer

Lena Horne (June 30, 1917 – May 9, 2010)

American Masters — Lena Horne: In My Own Voice was broadcast in 1996. The following biography described the career and activism​ of the multi-faceted entertainer at the time the film premiered.

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 N.A.A.C.P., 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 “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 artists 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. Though the conservative atmosphere of the 1950s took their toll on Horne, by the 1960s she had returned to the public eye and was again a major cultural figure.

In 1963, she participated in the march on Washington and performed at rallies throughout the country for the National Council for Negro Women. She followed that with a decade of international touring, recording, and acting on both television and the silver screen. Horne had found in her growing audience a renewed sense of purpose. All of this came crashing down when her father, son and husband died in a period of twelve months during the early 1970s. Horne retreated almost completely from public life. It was not until 1981 that she fully returned, making a triumphant comeback with a one-person show on Broadway. LENA HORNE: THE LADY AND HER MUSIC chronicled Horne’s early life and almost fifty years in show business. It ran for fourteen months and became the standard by which one-woman shows are judged. Throughout the past twenty years, Horne’s performances have been rare yet welcome occurrences.

Much has changed since the 16-year old who was Lena Horne danced her first tentative steps across the stage of the Cotton Club. Through myriad triumphs and challenges, she paved the way to stardom for countless others in the entertainment industry. Her continued musical, theatrical, and political efforts grew with the times and met each new decade with courage and grace. But, if one thing hasn’t changed, it’s Horne’s ability to break our hearts with her shimmering resonant voice, singing songs like “Black Coffee” and “Stormy Weather.”

Connected artists:

Louis Armstrong

Richard Avedon

Truman Capote

Duke Ellington

George Gershwin

John Hammond

Billie Holiday

Paul Robeson

Related Web sites:

Class Act

Biography at The Iceberg

Internet Movie Database Entry

Horne Resource Page

  • Cindy

    I am looking for info on her appearance at the White House at which there was some sort of confrontation.

  • KATIE

    i love this website. it gave me good info for my research paper.
    thank you (:

  • Kenyona

    This is a great site, it provided me with alot information for my research. Very infomative!!!!!!!!

  • bob

    u guys r crazy

  • Sydnee

    i love this website….it is very informative…
    thank you sooo much!!

  • Tony Homes

    Well i think they should show pictures.

  • Andrea

    heyy. I love this website and i get all my research here!!! keep up the great work cause i get all my info from here!!!

    thanks:)

    ily:)

  • Dave

    The confrontation at the White House was with another fine performer, whom we have just lost. Miss Ertha Kitt. This was during the Johnson years.

  • VAnna

    I had to do this for church and it was very informational!!

  • VICKI

    This as been an excellent site for me as well. I just found out that Lena Mary Calhoun Horne is my cousin. We just did our family tree with my uncle who is 82 yrs. old and he told us finally that Lena Horne is our cousin and how. I looked it up and its true…….very proud to be connected to her

  • Shawn

    This was a wanderful excert of Ms. Lena Horne! It helped my on my research paper with great details. but i also didn’t like the grammar, it had some mishapps. Other than that i loved it, and the students in my class did as well…. :)

  • some1

    i love lena horne i am doing a report on her and i cant find enything that i need its really HARD!!!!!
    can you guys help me out????

  • Tyler

    This is a great place to go. I got alot of info!!!!

  • pistal

    this is tellin me alot of stuff..
    but its not answer my ?’s

  • Gary

    Regarding – Cindi’s #1 posting about the White House incident: That was actually Eartha Kitt – not Lena Horne. In 1967 Eartha was invited to the White House by the Johnsons, and she got pretty vocal about her opposition to the Viet Nam war. Here’s what she said: “I am a mother and I know the feeling of having a baby come out of my gut,” she said. “I have a baby and then you send him off to war. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.”

    Somebody should have talked to Dubya like that about Iraq! Oops!

  • mallory

    i am in 6th grade and im lookin for info this helps but not enough srry! needs more info

  • Alyssa

    this web site is great and all, but they need to show more character traits of lena horne.

  • jazz

    im doing a report on her and she is awsome!

  • jazz

    i think that she is cool show her what she was about

  • Allaina

    To Vicki – Lena Horne was married to my great-great uncle Lennie Hayton. I wish that I could apologize to her for the discrimination she received from my family. Back then, my grandfathers family had were prejudice. I would love to be able to write her and tell her that my family is proud to be conncted to her.

  • Mooseman the second

    THIS WEBSITE ROCKS! I needed this info for my project and this really helped! It is a GREAT website!

  • Walter

    Allaina Lennie hayton was a homosexual, did you know that? By marrying her, he protected Lena Horne from being exposed. You’ll find out in the new biography coming out in JUNE 09.

  • Juls

    You know what, Lena Horne has lived an amazing life; might want to check out book written by her daughter 1986, The HORNES, An American Family for more detailed info.

  • Louis Alemayehu

    There WAS a meeting at the White House that James Baldwin organized for Bobby Kennedy. Besides Lena, it included people like: Lorraine Hansberry, Harry Belafonte, and a young civil rights worker who shook his finger at Bobby and spoke his mind. Basically he said that given the reality of racism in the usa as far as he himself serving in Viet Nam: “Hell no, I wont go!” Needless to say the meeting didn’t go well. It took Bobby a while longer to figure out the contradiction and connections between racism here in the usa our usa foreign policy. That might actually be why both he and King are dead.

  • Isolde ‘Izzy’ Hunter

    Interesting website, this. How I long to let Lena know how much knowing her has meant in my life! I wonder how she is dealing with old age and how her health is now? I hope she is often surrounded by loved ones and that her great stamina and good health have not failed her. I was her backup singer in Vegas with Harry Belefonte & as such, she soon became my idol. Besides being elegant, beautiful, funny, and explosive onstage, she was (and still is, I’m sure) one of the kindest people I’ve ever known. If you should ever read this Lena, I’ve raised a son alone, since Jimmy Hunter died, and he’s just become a lawyer in D.C.! May God be with you always. With Love and Affection Always, Isolde Hunter
    P.S. Remember “A Lena is a Lovesome Thing” by Billy Strayhorn :-)

  • sombody

    Lena Horne is awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!! I’m doing a report on her and i learned alot from this website. Thanks!!:)

  • Luel S. Hayes

    Lena is my cousin as well. Lena; do you remember my father (Sax player) same name

  • zellA TAYLOR

    I just saw Lena Horne Play on Stafford and Sons,I had to get on here and say a few things,She is just a beautiful lady,I have always love to read about her,I had a magozine,when she got married to the white man,But the marrage did not last,I read where it was a big wedding,it costed millions of dollars,now I am going to look it up,Hope Lena is doing well,because a lot of people love her.I am white,but I was raised to love every body,no matter what color.Best of luck to Lena and her family

  • Yannalee

    i am doing a project on Lena Horne and so far what i have researched she was a qood person !

  • Rozz

    I’m sorry that she died today. She will be missed. Prayers to her family and all who adored her!

  • Iris M. Gross

    The great Lena Horne is gone. God bless her with our eternal thanks. May she rest in peace.

  • Michelle

    You are thinking about Eartha Kitt, who had a confrontation with Lady Bird Johnson at the White House over the Vietnam War.

  • geno

    lena horne is also my grandmothers cousin,my grandmother was ( gertrude matthews) from a indian reservation at the foot of the missippissi river.near cairo,il however i’ve always heared about her when i was a very small kid.my greatgrandmother was{ josephine clarkston) she was a believe to be a irish woman fron ireland,she had a brother name andy.but josephine was married to my greatgrandfather cherokee chief amos matthews from the southwestern tribe at the foot of the river one of my great great aunts married a william kenndy who is a relative of john f kenndy this aunt of mine was said to be a black woman.but are family is a mix of indians and mulato people so some of us look different back and forth but with heavy native features and dark to lighter skinned tones like blackindians.

  • rj

    she was the greatest entetainer in the decade during the cvil right s year and the racise berea we will miss her especially we she sang stormy wheather. it was a great song when she sang that song.

  • Klaas Feenstra

    Lena Horne died at 92… so YOUNG!
    She was very beautiful, very elegant, very gifted & very beautifully coloured.
    May the Lord hold and keep her in the palm of His hand.
    May her name be written in the book of the Blessed and Saved.

    To the “connected artists” please add: Mr. Harry Belafonte.
    Together they recorded a wonderful version of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” – purely for music’s sake: they both renounced its Uncle-Tommishness – and Lena took over the leading part of the musical “Jamaica” when Harry had fallen ill. But what’s more: they both were active (and blacklisted!) prominent NAACP-ers.

  • joy

    A filmed biography of Lena Horne would be interesting if her family would allow it. Just a suggestion, Halle Berry first part of her life and Vannessa williams the second part of her life. Lena Horne was and is extraorodinairy artist her hollywood career was defined by the studio system which she strove to overcome, perhaps a filmed biograhy could define her as she saw herself and her lenghty career.

  • Lamar Cole

    Lena Horne was a lovely lady and always a class act.

  • shadeed ahmad

    With Hollywood glamour, talent and unusual boldness, Lena Horne went further than most entertainers dare to tread with their art. With a high definition expression of her Inner Self the world became that much better a place. The chords of the heart strings she fine tuned by having the courage to speak out about injustice still resonate today. She was a Queen Mother of the glory of being an artist. She never wavered in her committment to waking up humanity to demanding harmony and respect for one another. Lena Horne had the voice of an angel and the social conscience of a messenger from GOD. If one has chosen to perpetuate disharmony amongst humanity after hearing her siren call to truth, justice and equality, let your demons be your guides. Sincerely, Shadeed R. Ahmad

  • Allan Trompeter

    I just saw the Lena Horne special on Lena Horne. It was the best TV I have ever seen.

    Please let me known when it will be shown again (on Ch 13 or Ch 21) so I can tell my friends.

    Thank you…….Allan Trompeter

  • Jordan Franklin

    An amazing woman with a beautiful soul. You do not get many people nowadays with such talent and skill! When I heard she passed, my heart broke. Lena was a true original! May she rest in peace!

  • texas aircraft registrations

    A filmed biography of Lena Horne would be interesting if her family would allow it. Just a suggestion, Halle Berry first part of her life and Vannessa williams the second part of her life. Lena Horne was and is extraorodinairy artist her hollywood career was defined by the studio system which she strove to overcome, perhaps a filmed biograhy could define her as she saw herself and her lenghty career.

  • David

    Does anyone remember a singing competition attached to her name? There was an incredible singer named Meeka Hale who won the prize and went on to sing the national anthem at one of Mike Tyson’s fights subsequently bringing down the house. She also was notable for having a pierced tongue long before it came into fashion.

  • Karrie

    A true lady in every sense of the word, an icon and role model for all women. She stood what for she believed in with grace, dignity, and style. We could all learn from her example.

  • Daryl Hurston

    I saw the American Masters interview featuring Lena Horne and I would like to purchase a copy of the DVD.
    Can you please provide the details on how to order a copy?

    Thank you
    Daryl Hurston
    Miami,Florida

  • Gil

    @ David: I remember seeing her on ‘The Rosie O’Donnell Show” singing “What A Wonderful World” and have just recently found this video of here on YouTube.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Le7LAsp8sLg

    She’s still got an incredible voice! I wish I would’ve seen her do the National Anthem. It’s been over a decade since I heard her perform on television and I still think about how awesome her voice is.

  • lola

    <3

  • Jude Rene Montarsi

    As I look back over Lena Horne’s life and her enormous body of work (both in the entertainment industry and in civil rights) I just continue to be amazed at her and her generation–their energy and achievements. It will soon be three years since her passing and I am still awestruck (a little star-struck too). Her life is a great example and inspiration for the turbulent political and economic times that my lie ahead for us all.

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