Lena Horne

Actress / Singer, 1940s through present-day

Lena Horne was born Lena Calhoun Horne on June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn. Her mother, Edna, had an extremely fair complexion, and the hospital staff thought she was Caucasian. Her father, Teddy, wasn’t there at her birth — he was out gambling to win enough money to pay the hospital bill. Her mother pushed Lena into showbiz — Edna got her hired at age 16 as a chorus girl at Harlem’s Cotton Club. Lena had to quit school and become the family breadwinner with a salary of just $25 weekly. She married Lewis Jones young and by age 20 already had a daughter. Soon after she gave birth to a son, Teddy, who died of kidney failure in 1971.

In 1938, Lena was given one of the leads (Ethel) in The Duke is Tops at the suggestion of an agent who had seen her at the Cotton Club. She moved to Hollywood after her divorce from Lewis and was soon discovered by MGM. Lena stipulated in her contract that she would not get stereotypical black roles. In fact, MGM wanted her to look even darker on screen, so Max Factor invented “Little Egyptian” makeup for Lena to serve that purpose.

Lena’s first MGM role was as an uncredited nightclub singer in the 1942 Ann Sothern musical Panama Hattie. Some people believe Lena’s segment to be the only bright spot in the picture. This appearance went over well, and so MGM gave her a spot in a big all-star revue, Thousands Cheer. There she sang one of her most famous movie numbers, “Honeysuckle Rose.” MGM loaned her to 20th Century-Fox for her next film, an all-star all-black musical Stormy Weather. The title song, sung by Lena, became one of her signature numbers. Stormy Weather was her first real acting role.

Most of her 16 film roles in the 1940s and ’50s were solo singing spots easily separated from the rest of the film, which could be cut for prejudiced Southern audiences. Lena did have two more great roles in the ’40s, though: the sexy, scheming Georgia Brown in Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Julie in the mini-production of “Show Boat” in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946). Ironically, Lena was passed up for the role of Julie in MGM’s full 1951 production of Show Boat — the part was instead given to Ava Gardner.

After MGM’s Meet Me in Las Vegas in 1956, Lena became tired of her throwaway “guest” roles in movies and left the movies not to return for 13 years. A year after Vegas, Lena recorded “Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria.” It became the best-selling album by any female artist in RCA Victor’s history. Since then, Lena has mostly focused on singing. She has performed many concerts and recorded a slew of albums.

She has made a mere three film appearances since 1956: a co-starring role as Claire Quintana in the 1969 Western Death of a Gunfighter, a cameo role as Glinda in The Wiz (1978), and a co-host appearance in 1994’s That’s Entertainment III. It took a while for the producers of That’s Entertainment III to get Lena for the co-host spot. She had been angered by the overt prejudice she encountered during her years at MGM, and would only appear if she could comment on that. The producers said certainly, overjoyed at the chance to get Lena for the role. She accepted, and made a wonderful guest appearance in the underrated third installment of that series.