Lena Horne was the first black woman to get a contract with a major Hollywood Studio
By John Lawrence
Born into a black bourgeoisie family in 1917, Lena Horne was signed up in the NAACP by her grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne, a college graduate, at the age of two. The Hornes owned a four-story residence in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn.
The distinguished Horne family included teachers, activists and a Harlem Renaissance poet. Lena’s uncle became dean of a black college. According to James Gavin’s biography of Lena, Stormy Weather, the black bourgeoisie were descendants of favored slaves “privileged blacks who, by virtue of their brains or their sexual allure to their masters, had worked in the house, not in the field. During the decade-long heyday of Reconstruction, they’d used their cachet to start businesses and gain social standing.”
Lena’s grandmother drilled into her respectability at all costs. She was to use proper diction, no dialect allowed, and always present herself as a lady. Cora was a determined fighter for black causes, and, despite her disdain for whites, she married a white man. According to Gavin, Cora’s cafe au lait skin, thin lips and delicate nose betrayed generations of intermingling with whites. Her maiden name, Calhoun, came from her father’s slavemaster in Georgia, Dr. Andrew Bonaparte Calhoun. His uncle was Senator John C Calhoun who championed slavery as God’s will.
Gavin reported, “Cora’s militancy involved deep prejudice. [Lena] would [later say that] she’d ‘been raised to dislike white people intensely.’ Cora forbade her to play with white children, but wouldn’t explain why.”
Lena’s father, Teddy Horne Jr. left the family when Lena was barely a toddler to pursue being a numbers runner, pimp and hustler. According to Gavin, “Whatever their education, only menial jobs – or none at all- tended to await them. Many Negro men thumbed their noses at the system and took to the streets.” Evidently, Teddy Horne Jr. was very good at it because he always lived high on the hog and never went to jail. He later owned a hotel and a restaurant.
Lena’s mother Edna was an aspiring actress, and she dragged Lena all over the south looking for acting jobs which never quite panned out. Going to school in the south Lena discovered that her light skin and perfect diction did not go over so well with other black children. They called her “Yaller! Yaller!” Despite her pedigreed background, Lena’s childhood was far from ideal. She was always being left with caregivers while her mother went looking for acting jobs. She felt abandoned by her father.
Lena learned to read before kindergarten. Reading developed into a life long love. She could always take refuge in books and shut out the cold, cruel world. In the south Edna took Lena shopping for shoes. Her shoes usually didn’t fit right because black people weren’t allowed to try on different pairs to get the right size. The had to buy ill fitting shoes because no white person would buy the shoes after a black person had tried them on.
Back at home for good in Brooklyn in 1929, Lena escaped the violent and racist south. She was enrolled in an integrated girls high school, one of the most prestigious in the city. She joined the Junior Debs, one of a slew of clubs for the black bourgeoisie. Her mother gave up acting, married a white man and became a stage mother.
Edna enrolled Lena in dancing school, a skill that would serve her well when she auditioned for the chorus line at the Cotton Club. The Cotton Club was the most prestigious club in Harlem where an all black revue entertained an all white audience. Blacks weren’t allowed in the audience. White swells wanted to be entertained by blacks, but not necessarily to be in their company. Black entertainers there could not come in or leave by the front door nor could they use the white customers’ rest rooms. The club was run by white mobsters.
Out of hundreds of applicants in 1933, Lena was one of two chosen although she was only 16 and the official age to become a chorine was 18. The Cotton Club was never known to play by the rules. By Lena’s own admission she couldn’t sing or dance. However, she had a drop dead, stunningly gorgeous beautiful face and by all accounts that’s what launched her show business career. “I had no talent; all’s I had was looks,” Horne said, but that was the primary criterion as far as the Cotton Club chorus line was concerned. Gavin said, “Even the most talented chorines would never have gotten that job had they not been ‘high yaller.'”
Lena became the financial support of the family. Her mother coached her with her singing and she continued in dancing school. Around 1935 Edna landed Lena a job with Noble Sissle, a thriving black society bandleader of the day. She was glad to leave the Cotton Club because it embodied all the indignity her grandmother had taught her to revile. Sissle’s band was a class act. It had entertained at highbrow white functions in Paris, London and New York. Sissle sat Horne down and told her that at all times, “You must be a lady!” She must counter every black stereotype. Under Sissle’s tutelage, Horne became a class act.
Despite the high toned sophistication of Sissle’s band in general and Lena Horne in particular, whenever they played at a white ballroom, they invariably had to enter by the back door. It galled Lena that her white stepfather was welcomed at places she could not go to at least by the front door. And they had no idea of where they would be sleeping after the gig. They scouted around for black families that would take a few band members in. The rest ended up sleeping on the bus.
Later Horne got a job as a girl singer with Charlie Barnet’s all white band. In many ballrooms and colleges she wasn’t allowed to sit on the bandstand between numbers. At a prom in a New England girls’ school, she overheard the matronly dean tell Barnet, “We can’t have that colored girl sing here.” Most of the white restaurants where the band ate refused to serve her. Hotels would refuse to let her sleep there until Barnet started introducing her as Cuban.
Her singing lacked even a hint of black musical influence. Her elocution and diction were perfect. Bandleader Artie Shaw said, “She was a white singer.”
In 1941, Hollywood was under pressure from the NAACP to cast a black person in a non-stereotype roll. Up to then a fair number of black people had made a pretty good living playing stereotype blacks in subservient roles as mammies, maids, shiftless drifters, whores, pimps and Pullman porters saying things like Yessuh, Nossuh, Would you like mo pah suh? A friend got Lena an interview with Arthur Freed at M-G-M. Lena Horne had been perfectly groomed to play the role of a non-stereotype black person. She spoke perfect English, not black dialect. She was a well bred and well educated lady through and through, not a tramp or a whore.
She auditioned for Freed and then Louis B Mayer himself. Both were white, Jewish liberals who sincerely wanted to help. But they also had their eye on the bottom line, and that proved the factor that determined Lena’s Hollywood career in the end. In January 1942 M-G-M signed Lena Horne to a seven year contract, the first black to be so signed. She would get $350. a week the first year and $450. thereafter. Her contract stipulated that she would sing in pictures and play legitimate roles not cooks or servants.
At M-G-M Horne had the benefit of the best of the best in terms of the four things that could transform a female into a star: hair, make-up, dress and jewelry. Max Factor came up with a special foundation exclusively for Lena Horne called Light Egyptian. Plus she had expert coaching in singing and dancing. She realized that it was no accident that women appeared so beautiful on screen and this expertise served her well in her later career as a cabaret singer.
She appeared in two films right off the bat: Panama Hattie, a film starring Red Skelton based on a Broadway play with songs by Cole Porter and musical direction by Vincente Minelli, and an all black musical, Cabin in the Sky. Horne’s first scene in Cabin called for her to sing a song while reclining in a bubble bath. After the prerelease the censors got busy demanding cuts in Lena’s scenes of anything suggesting sexiness. Her bubble bath scene was axed. Cabin was released in 1943 and was an instant success with audiences despite critical put downs. M-G-M was having a hard time figuring out non-stereotype roles for Lena Horne. They loaned her out to Twentieth Century Fox for a film called Stormy Weather in which she sang the title song, and that became her theme song in later years. When Cabin opened, black people still had to be seated in the Jim Crow upper balcony.
These three films were successful and established Lena Horne’s reputation. M-G-M, however, conscious of the fact that a third of their revenues came from the deep south and that the south would not screen a movie with a black actress, except one in a subservient role, resorted to just having Horne do cameo appearances in which she sang a couple of songs which could be easily cut out without disrupting the dramatic flow for southern distribution.
According to Gavin:
At least Horne could look ahead to the April 1946 premiere of Ziegfield Follies. Once more the critics singled her out. Edwin Scallert of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Horne with her “Love” number, “comes off as the best.”
The film went south to Birmingham, and Hugh Martin, who had composed the music for “Love,” flew there for the premiere. At the Alabama Theatre, Martin – a Birmingham boy – sat proudly with his entire family, eager for them to hear Horne sing his song. “And the number was gone,” he said. Puzzled, he asked the manager what had happened. “He said, ‘Oh, down here we don’t want to see a lot of niggers writhing around.’ I was absolutely horrified.” Storming out with his relatives, he shouted that he would never set foot in that theatre again.
In Durham, North Carolina, the Morning Herald ran an ad for the local premiere. It listed Horne among the players. Scores of black patrons bought tickets for the first showing – and saw a jagged splice where “Love” should have been. Many of them complained angrily and asked for refunds. Within twenty-four hours, Horne’s name had vanished from ads. Word of the scandal reached the Pittsburgh Courier, which tried to investigate. No one would take responsibility.
“Love” got chopped in Knoxville, Tennessee, too. Theatre manager … explained that Horne’s song “might prove objectionable to some people.” Meanwhile, … the excision of “Love” [was reported] in Memphis, the town with the most bigoted censor in the country. The septuagenarian Lloyd T Binford declared: “No film shall appear in a Memphis theater as where a Negro is shown mingling with whites. Unless, of course, the Negro is in the role of maid or butler, and then their every spoken word must be prefaced with ‘Sir’ or ‘Madame’.”
Some southern theaters barred blacks altogether or admitted them only for midnight showings. Others provided a “colored entrance” down a back alley. They had to climb a back staircase and sit in the “Balcony for Colored.”
Lena Horne met her future husband, Lennie Hayton, on the M-G-M lot. Hayton, a white Jewish man, was a very accomplished musical director, maestro and man of the world who mixed a wicked martini. He would go on to win Oscars for his contributions. Because of Louis B Mayer’s strict moral code [no onscreeen kiss could last more than one second] and because both of them were married at the start of their affair, Hayton and Horne employed the device of a ‘beard’ when they went out. Horne would show up at a restaurant or night club in the company of her best black friend, Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s alter ego and composer of some of the greatest songs in the Great American Songbook. Later Hayton would come in and join them. Thus the gossip columns were averted. With Hayton as maestro, Horne built her career as a cabaret singer as her movie career was going downhill.
The final straw with M-G-M came when they proposed to do a movie version of Show Boat in which a racially mixed, but passing for white, woman, Julie, is married to a white man but sought after by another. The jealous suitor exposed the fact of miscegenation which was illegal at the time. Lena wanted the part very badly; she thought it was perfect for her. At last M-G-M would provide her with a dramatic speaking role as opposed to placing her against a pillar and having her sing two songs which were easily cut for southern distribution. There was one problem. Until 1952 the Hollywood Production Code would not let a racially mixed person such as Lena Horne interact romantically onscreen with a white partner. However, it was OK for a white woman to portray herself as partially black and play the same role. The role went to Lena’s good friend, Ava Gardner, who was “blackened up” to appear as an octaroon, a person one eighth black.
Ava Gardner had to lip synch to Lena Horne’s voice for the movie. Horne quoted Gardner as saying: “Girl, I’m sick to death of you. They’re locking me up in a sound booth all day and making me work my mouth to Lena Horne records so I’ll learn to play Julie the way you would have played it. Why didn’t they just give you the fucking part in the first place?”
Horne stepped up her activism. She championed Malcom X rather than MLK Jr because of his militancy. She wore a Star of David to protest anti-Semitism. She became a fervid speaker. At the Washington rally where MLK Jr delivered his “I have a dream” speech, she spoke … one word: “Freedom!” Horne continued to see Show Boat as the stolen chance of a lifetime. Horne’s 1981 Broadway concert, The Lady and her Music, found her using Show Boat as evidence of M-G-M’s mean and racist treatment of her. She insisted that Mayer was a coward as he used “someone white made up to be me.” The fact that she couldn’t interact with whites on camera made her feel second class.
Horne would go on to sing in exclusive night clubs and cabarets such as the Empire Room and the Copacabana. Her marriage to Hayton would not last. Interestingly enough despite the Horne family’s disdain for white people, four generations of Horne women married white men: Cora, Edna, Lena and Lena’s daughter Gail who would marry famous Hollywood director Sidney Lumet.
Lena Horne died in 2010 at the age of 92. She was a multimillionaire. Unlike her contemporary, Billie Holiday, who died with less than a dollar in her bank account, Horne used her rage against racism in a highly constructive way. It gave an edginess to her performances which only increased her sex appeal. More than one of her band members heard her mouth under her breath “Fuck you, assholes” as she made a sweeping bow after the end of her performance before a white audience.
Unlike Billie, Lena never got hooked on drugs. Unlike Billie, she never got barred from singing in exclusive New York City night clubs due to the loss of a cabaret card. Billie Holiday, who broke the color line herself as the first singer to sing with the all white Artie Shaw band, died in 1959 at the age of 44, a victim of white racism who was vanquished by it even as Lena Horne transcended it.