Lena Mary Calhoun Horne (1917-2010) was my father’s favorite movie star. He has a story of filling her automobile’s tank at the gas station where he worked on La Cienega Boulevard in 1944-46.
Horne had a primary occupation as a nightclub entertainer, a profession she pursued successfully around the world for more than 60 years, from the 1930s into the 1990s. Besides her club work, she also had a recording career that stretched from 1936 to 2000 that brought her three Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1989. She appeared in 16 feature films and several shorts between 1938 and 1978. She performed occasionally on Broadway, including in her Tony Award-winning solo show Lena Horne: The Lady And Her Music (1981/1982). She sang, acted and she charmed audiences on stage, radio and television.
Adding to the challenge of maintaining such an amazingly varied career was her life as a Black woman facing racial and sexual discrimination personally and professionally. Her first job in the 1930s was at Harlem’s Cotton Club, where Black people could perform, but were not be admitted as customers.
When Horne acted in the film Death Of A Gunfighter (1969), her character’s marriage to a white man went unremarked in the script. This was rather astounding for the time.
Horne was a pivotal figure in the changing attitudes about race in the 20th century. Her middle-class upbringing and her musical training made her talent perfect for the popular music of the day, rather than the Blues and Jazz more commonly associated with people of color. Her photogenic beauty was close enough to the Caucasian ideal that she was often encouraged to try to “pass” for white, something she consistently refused to do. But, her position in the middle of our country’s social struggle enabled her to become a leader in that fight. Horne worked hard, speaking out in favor of integration and raising money for Civil Rights causes. Horne lived a life that was never short on conflict, but that could be seen ultimately as a sort of triumph.
Horne is closely associated with the songs of her best friend, the openly gay composer, Billy Strayhorn.
Horne was born on the same day as Susan Hayward, but she did not screen-test for Gone With The Wind (1939), as Hayward did.
She gave us the legacy of her music and those images of her stunning beauty, remaining absolutely ravishing until her final curtain call in spring 2010.
“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”