Lena Horne spent an extraordinary seven decades as a singer, dancer, actress and activist in 20th-century America. What prejudice must she have faced — and faced down. Her epitaph will ring through the ages: ‘Nobody black or white who believes in democracy can stand aside now.’
Lena Horne in 1942 (Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns)

This year will be remembered for two things: Covid-19 and racial inequality. Lena Horne died too long ago to have anything to do with the first, but she knew plenty about the second. Born in 1917 in Brooklyn, Lena Mary Calhoun Horne had African-American, Native American and European ancestry, which combined with aquiline elegance and a shimmering intelligence to make her ‘exotic’ — a racist shorthand for black but not threateningly so.

She could sing, dance and crack wise, and by 16 was drawing eyes from the leads as part of the famed Cotton Club chorus. By the early 1940s, the gravitational pull of Hollywood could not be denied, but even then it was coloured by, well, colour. Early screen tests saw her auditioning for the roles as the kind-hearted but kinda simple help who would strap better-paid white women into their corsets while never daring to use their first names without a preceding ‘Miss’.

Her father, Teddy, a gamblin’ man who’d become minted in the 1921 Black Sox betting scandal, summarily decamped to Los Angeles to give film execs an earful the likes of which they’d rarely heard from a man of colour. Lena, in his vocal opinion, was doing them as much of a favour in gracing their films as the other way around. According to Lena’s daughter, Gail Buckley, “He said, ‘I can afford to hire a maid for my daughter. She doesn’t need to play a maid’.”


    David Smiedt


    September 2020


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