Here at “Dame in the Game,” we’re thrilled to celebrate March as Women’s History Month—something we strive to promote year-round. This month we take a look at an incomparable icon of black Hollywood—Lena Horne.
Horne was a ground-breaking performer, singer, actress, and civil rights activist. Nicknamed “Bronze Venus,” she would come to be known for her appearance and her distinctive singing voice, most famously associated with the song “Stormy Weather.” Yet, she was much more than the haughty beauty Hollywood made her out to be, and she used her power to break barriers whenever possible.
Horne began her career as a showgirl at the world-famous Cotton Club in New York; she was only sixteen at the time and became a performer to help support her single mother. This launched her into a life as a performer, touring with an orchestra and even traveling to Hollywood to star in an all-black film from a poverty row studio, The Duke is Tops (1938)– after her rise to fame, the film would be re-released under the new title The Bronze Venus to capitalize on her stardom.
Horne would temporarily abandon performing to pursue a family life in Pittsburgh, but the allure of the stage (and its salary) soon woo’d her back to Los Angeles. After only a few weeks performing at the Little Troc nightclub on the Sunset Strip, the legendary Freed musical unit at MGM invited her to the studio. Horne broke new ground with her contract, and the NAACP seized on her as a figurehead for progress in Hollywood. She became only the second black woman to sign a long-term contract with a major studio. Previously, the longest contract any black actor had signed with a studio was five years. and her seven-year deal broke this record.
Even more notable, Horne’s contract stipulated that she would not be assigned stereotypical roles. According to Motion Picture magazine, her contract noted she “would sing in pictures or play legitimate roles and not have to do ‘illiterate comedy’ or portray a cook, roles customarily assigned to colored performers.”
By October of 1942, after only one film, Horne was appearing on the cover of Motion Picture magazine–the first time a black actress ever graced the cover of a mainstream Hollywood publication. On the cover, she adhered to Caucasian standards of beauty, her hair and make-up tamed and toned to appeal to a 1940s white audience.
As an MGM contract star, Horne quickly became a paragon of black beauty for the era because her lighter skin tone and features meant that she naturally hewed more to white concepts of beauty. This helped her rise to success, but it also left her caught between small victories in white Hollywood and her own people– the NAACP relied on her to portray a vision of “blackness” acceptable to white society to help push for progress, while other members of her race believed her a stuck-up pawn. Horne felt the pull from both directions and wearied of the “sepia-toned songstress” monikers flung at her. She said, “The blacks were criticizing me, the whites were criticizing me, and I was always expected to be a glamorous black sex symbol who sang torch songs.”
She cited her distant persona as a form of revolt: “They were too busy seeing their own preconceived image of a Negro woman. The image that I chose to give them was of a woman whom they could not reach. I think this is why I rarely speak to an audience. I am too proud to let them think they can have any personal contact with me. They get the singer, but they are not going to get the woman. I think many Negro performers feel much the same way, and they find their own methods of letting people know it. In other words, we all find our own means of rebellion.”
Horne found her film career largely frustrating–she craved a leading, dramatic role akin to those of the white leading ladies at MGM. Unlike many of her black counterparts, she was privileged to play glamorous roles in big-budget musicals, but she rarely did more than sing and look pretty. She made her biggest splash in two all-black musicals produced by MGM, Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Stormy Weather (1943), which featured Horne singing the titular song that would become her signature number. In both of those films, she was able to play a character with a story arc, but most frequently, she appeared as a variation of herself in a production number that could be cut when films were shown in the South.
She yearned for a role with real depth so badly that she even expressed the desire to play a maid, if it meant securing a meatier part. The NAACP strongly urged her to avoid this, wishing her to remain their figurehead of ideal “blackness.” She fought hard to secure the role of Julie, the mulatto woman in the latest adaptation of “Showboat,” but the role went to her white friend and neighbor Ava Gardner. This was the last straw for Horne–seeing a role written for a light-skinned black woman go to a white star.
Still, off-screen, Horne worked tirelessly for the advancement of her people and civil rights, breaking barriers professionally and personally. She joined many organizations, including the SAG board in 1944, as well as the National Council of Negro Women and the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of Arts, Sciences, and Professions. Through these various organizations, she advocated for improvements for actors and people of color.
Throughout her career, she fought racism, using her star power to point out injustice. In 1944, she became the first black singer at the New York nightclub the Copacabana. The club was off-limits to black audiences, but her protests and repeated appearances broke the color barrier, causing the club to integrate due to outside pressure. Similarly, in 1953, she made her Las Vegas debut at the Sands Hotel with the caveat that her children could swim in the pool and her musicians be permitted to stay at the hotel and use the front entrance. Horne refused to perform if venues proved reluctant to give in to her demands.
Horne also flouted racism in her personal life, carrying on numerous interracial relationships at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in thirty states, including California. She had a notorious affair with Orson Welles before he moved on to Rita Hayworth. In 1947, she married Lennie Hayton, a white Jewish musical director from MGM– they met at the studio, but their illegal union scandalized much of the studio brass.
Coming to prominence during the war years, Horne also made her mark fighting racism in the war effort. Like many Hollywood stars, Horne served tirelessly dancing with servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen and entertaining troops around the country on USO tours. These performances allowed Horne to “romance” men of all races, as bases around the country lifted segregation rules at her insistence, to allow her to perform to interracial audiences. She became the war pin-up for black soldiers, as they christened guns, planes, and Italian pathways with her name.
Horne became a fixture at the Tuskegee airbase in Alabama, where the military’s first black pilots trained. There, she did everything from taking flying lessons to eating lunch with cadets to adhering to their early rising schedule. She returned to Tuskegee numerous times to boost morale, and in 1944, she served as a guest of honor at one of their graduation ceremonies.
Returning from a tour in 1944, she made a stop at Camp Robinson in Arkansas, where she was enraged to discover that no one had bothered to inform the black soldiers on the base of her performance. She performed to a theater full of white faces, where men charged admission to what was supposed to be a free show. Furious that the fifty black soldiers on base had been excluded, she demanded a piano be placed in their mess hall so she could perform for them the next day, but this was interrupted by the presence of German POWs, which only served to infuriate her further. Horne reported this to the Arkansas NAACP and the USO, but was met with little recourse. Consequently, she paid her own way and only visited black military camps for the remainder of the war.
Instances like this raised Horne’s awareness and ire, leading to her becoming increasingly outspoken. In the late 1940s, she wrote a column for the People’s Voice, a militant newspaper founded to fight racism. Notably, she wrote a column decrying depictions of African Americans on screen, writing about “silly, simple, shuffling types, laughing, dancing, and bowing their way through life. A great section of White America laughs at these characterizations, and accepts them as normal and true to life . . . . When will our entertainment be truly American in its scope and democratic in its treatment of Negroes and other persecuted peoples?” Horne was fighting a fight for equal representation in Hollywood that still rages today.
As the battle for Civil Rights ramped up, Horne’s anger, militancy, and activism also increased. In 1963, she traveled to Jackson, MI to support Medgar Evers at various rallies, speeches, and Civil Rights gatherings. She made a public service announcement to air on television to promote and advocate for the Civil Rights movement. Horne participated in the March on Washington and is visible standing directly behind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his “I Have a Dream” speech. Though Horne made this public support of King’s movement, her justifiable fury at decades of mistreatment made her a strong advocate of the more violent policies of Malcolm X. Horne referred to his autobiography as her “Bible,” and upon his assassination referred to him as her idol. She recorded an album entitled “Here’s Lena Now!” full of standards that spoke to the Civil Rights movement and demanded freedom. In numerous ways, Horne made her activism and her anger visible to a public who had long wished to ignore or side-step her blackness.
Though many of her victories on-screen came to feel inadequate to Horne, she broke barriers both onscreen and off, making her another figure worthy of the “Dame of the Game” spotlight.
The following books were instrumental in the research for this piece: “Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne” by James Gavin; “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood” by Donald Bogle; and “Brown Sugar” by Donald Bogle.