Lena Horne

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  • Topic: Broadway theatre, Grammy Award, Lena Horne
  • Pages : 22 (9265 words )
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  • Published : June 20, 2005
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Singer/actress Lena Horne's primary occupation was nightclub entertaining, a profession she pursued successfully around the world for more than 60 years, from the 1930s to the 1990s. In conjunction with her club work, she also maintained a recording career that stretched from 1936 to 2000 and brought her three Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989; she appeared in 16 feature films and several shorts between 1938 and 1978; she performed occasionally on Broadway, including in her own Tony-winning one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music in 1981-1982; and she sang and acted on radio and television. Adding to the challenge of maintaining such a career was her position as an African-American facing discrimination personally and in her profession during a period of enormous social change in the U.S. Her first job in the 1930s was at the Cotton Club, where blacks could perform, but not be admitted as customers; by 1969, when she acted in the film Death of a Gunfighter, her character's marriage to a white man went unremarked in the script. Horne herself was a pivotal figure in the changing attitudes about race in the 20th century; her middle-class upbringing and musical training predisposed her to the popular music of her day, rather than the blues and jazz genres more commonly associated with African-Americans, and her photogenic looks were sufficiently close to Caucasian that frequently she was encouraged to try to "pass" for white, something she consistently refused to do. But her position in the middle of a social struggle enabled her to become a leader in that struggle, speaking out in favor of racial integration and raising money for civil rights causes. By the end of the century, she could look back at a life that was never short on conflict, but that could be seen ultimately as a triumph.

Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born June 30, 1917, in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. Both sides of her family claimed a mixture of African-Americans, Native Americans, and Caucasians, and both were part of what black leader W.E.B. DuBois called "the talented tenth," the upper stratum of the American black population made up of middle-class, well-educated African-Americans. Her parents, however, might both be described as mavericks from that tradition. Her father, Edwin Fletcher Horne Jr., worked for the New York State Department of Labor, but one of her biographers describes him more accurately as "a 'numbers' banker": his real profession was gambling. Her mother, Edna Louise (Scottron) Horne, aspired to act. The two lived in a Brooklyn brownstone with Horne's paternal grandparents, teacher and newspaper editor Edwin Fletcher Horne Sr. and his wife, Cora (Calhoun) Horne, a civil rights activist and early member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had been founded in 1909 and was headed by DuBois. (Indeed, Horne herself could claim a similar association. A photograph of her as a two-year-old appears on the cover of the October 1919 issue of the NAACP's Branch Bulletin, describing her as the organization's youngest member!)

Horne's father and mother separated in August 1920 when she was three, later divorcing. Her father moved to Seattle before eventually settling in Pittsburgh, where he ran a hotel when he wasn't traveling the country to attend and gamble on sporting events. Horne and her mother initially remained in her grandparents' home, but when Horne was about five, her mother left to pursue her acting career, initially with the Lafayette Stock Company in Harlem. Horne recalled in her 1965 autobiography Lena (written with Richard Schickel) that she visited her mother occasionally and even made her stage debut as a young child in the play Madame X in Philadelphia. After a couple of years, Horne's mother took her on the road with her, and from the age of six or seven to the age of 11 she was raised in various locations in the South and the Midwest by...
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