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Lena Horne Biography

Updated on September 6, 2019

Early Years

Singer, Actress and Civil rights activist Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born on June 30, 1917 to Edna and Edwin Horne. At the age of three Lena's parents were divorced. Following the divorce, Lena's mother left her in the care of her grandparents, while she traveled with the African American theater troupe. When Horne was seven-years-old, her mother begun taking her on the road with her. During her school years, when she was traveling with her mother, her educational pursuits were interrupted. In 1933 at the age of sixteen, she joined the chorus line at the Cotton Club there in New York city. It was here that performers such as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway mentored her and help her to adjust to life as an actress. As a result of their guidance and Horne's hard work, she became a featured performer by 1934. Lena knew her career was on the rise, so she took voice lessons. As a result of her hard work she was able to get a role with an all black Broadway show. Later in 1935 she was featured with the Noble Sissie Society Orchestra. This was a step up for young Lena; many of the places they performed were first class hotels and night clubs. However, in 1936 Lena decided to go solo, and perform in the New York night clubs.

In 1937 Lena married Louis Jones; from this union the couple had a daughter Gail and a son Edwin. However, the couple was separated in 1940, and divorced a year later. During the early 1940's, Horne gained stage experience when she was involved with the Lew Leslie's revue. Around this same time she joined the Charlie Barnet Orchestra as the groups only black member. Although she was treated well by the band, Horne suffered some humiliations from the hotels and restaurants that refused service to her.


With the arrival of 1941, Lena decided to leave the Barnet Orchestra and perform at the Cafe Society, there in New York City; at this place her life would be taken into a new direction. Lena learned about African-American history, politics and culture. In addition, her relationship with childhood friend Paul Robeson was re-kindled and she developed a friendship with Billie Holiday. Though her conversations with Robeson, she developed an interest in the civil rights movement. From that time forward, Horne became an active voice in the civil rights movement.

After a few minor roles in movies such as ' Panama Hattie ' and ' Harlem on Parade,' she would be destined for greater roles. In 1943 as a result of an extended series of performances at the Savoy Plaza Hotel, Lena was brought to national attention; she was offered a few movie appearances. Consequently, Horne was now the highest paid African- American actress in the United States. Lena signed with MGM movie studio for several years. For the 1943 movie "Stormy Weather," MGM decided to loan Horne to 20th century fox for the film. The movie did very well, and her performance of the movie's title song did well on the music charts too. Her next performance was the movie ' Cabin in the Sky.' In the movie, Horne was able to work with her idol Ethel Waters; her performance was regarded as one of the best of her career. Some other movies Lena was cast in included ' Two Girls and a Sailor ' released in 1944, and the ' Ziegfield Follies ' released in 1945.

During the second World War, Horne used her own money to travel and entertain the American troop serving overseas. She also worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to enact Federal anti-lynching laws in the United States.

In 1947 she was married again to Lennie Hayton, her pianist, arranger and manager; because of racial pressure the marriage was kept secret till 1950. Although they separated in the 1960's, the two remained married until his death in 1971.

1950's and 60's

By the mid 50's Horne was growing tired of Hollywood; she begun to focus on her singing career. During the 50's Lena made only two major films with MGM, ' Duchess of Idaho ' and ' Meet me in Las Vegas.' However Lena was blacklisted for her political views; that didn't stop her, she maintained her visibility and continued to perform in Broadway musicals.

During the the 1960's Lena was active in the Civil Rights Movement; In 1963 she participated in the March on Washington and performed at rallies throughout the South. Though all this Lena maintain her visibility on television, appearing on variety shows; During 1969 Horne appeared in her own special and the same year she starred in the movie ' Death of a Gunfighter.'

1970's and 80's

The early 1970's were sad times for Lena; following the deaths of her husband, Father and son, she went into a period of depression related solitude. However, when Lena returned to public life, she seemed determined to live life to its fullness. In 1973 and 74 she toured the Unites States and United Kingdom with Tony Bennett. She continued to appear on various TV shows, including a light-hearted appearance on Sesame street.

The movie ' The Wiz ' was released in 1978, and in 1979 she performed at the Westbury Music fair in New York city. In the 1980's Horne had another major milestone in her career. A Broadway show was named in her honor, and it was the talk of the entertainment industry for over a year. ' Lena Horne The Lady and her Music ' won a Tony award and the sound track won two Grammy's.

1990's and beyond

In the 1990's she begun to slow down. However, from time to time she would do a tribute concert for old friends. At age seventy-six she released her first CD in a decade. The name of the CD was 'We'll Be Together Again.' Later in 1997 on her eightieth birthday, she was honored at the JVC Jazz Festival with a tribute concert. During the concert, Horne was given the Ella Award for Lifetime Achievement in Vocal Artistry. Later in 1999 once again Lena was honored at New York City's Avery Fisher Hall.

Lena Horne is truly an amazing woman.Though out her life, she was proud of her heritage and refused to compromise herself. The way she carried herself in both good times and bad, she did it with grace and dignity; it is not surprising she is considered a legend today. Because of her actresses and performers such as Hally Berry, Alicia Keys, and others could not have the successes that African-American actresses enjoy today. Lena Horne passed away on May 9, 2010; she will be missed, but her spirit lives on.

Additional Information

  • - information on Lena Horne
  • - More information on Miss Horne


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