Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Lena Horne

Episode Summary

Lena Horne (1917-2010) broke racial barriers to achieve success as a dancer, actress, and singer. She used her platform to advocate for civil rights and equality.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s leading lady broke racial barriers to achieve success as a dancer, actress, and singer. She used her platform to advocate for civil rights and equality. Let’s talk about Lena Horne.

Lena was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1917. She belonged to a well-educated and upper middle-class family, but her childhood was fraught with rejection. Lena’s father left when she was three, and Lena’s mother was a touring actress. As a result, she was raised mostly by her grandparents. Lena’s grandparents were members of the NAACP, and Lena was the cover girl for the NAACP’s monthly bulletin when she was just two years old. 

In 1933, at the age of 16, Lena dropped out of school and joined the dance chorus at the Cotton Club, a well-known New York nightclub. Just one year later, she made her Broadway debut in “Dance With Your Gods”—a short-lived show where she performed a voodoo dance.

In 1937, 19 year-old Lena married 28 year-old Louis Jones, an aspiring Pittsburgh politician. They had two children, Gail and Edwin. Though Lena told the press that she was leaving show biz to focus on her family, in 1938, she was cast in her first feature, a low-budget, all-Black movie, Duke is Tops. She was never paid for her performance. 

In 1939, Lena returned to Broadway in the hopes of paying off her husband’s debts and starred in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 39. The show was a flop, but Lena earned rave reviews. 

After Louis’ failed run for office left them in more debt in 1940, Lena left him. They officially divorced in 1944. 

Back in New York, Lena became the first Black woman to sing in front of an all white band. She toured with bandleader Charlie Barnet for several months, despite the indignities she suffered on the road. Lena wasn’t allowed on stage when she wasn’t singing and wasn’t allowed service in restaurants. Charlie would call her Cuban in order for her to get a hotel room, and he paid her to stay home when the band toured the South. 

In 1941, Lena moved to the integrated Café Society club in New York and became a regular radio performer. Club manager Felix Young was so struck by Lena’s voice that he brought her out to his new Hollywood nightclub, Trocadero. But Hollywood did not permit Black residents, so Felix had to sign for her house. Lena later remembered that when the neighbors tried to get rid of her, Humphrey Bogart came to her defense and said, “If anyone bothers you, please let me know.” In LA, she released her first solo album. 

In 1942, Lena was signed by MGM after a composer heard Lena sing at Trocadero. Her contract stipulated that she would not play stereotypical roles. 

Lena appeared in many MGM musicals, but was only a lead in movies with all-Black casts—notably Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky. In Cabin in the Sky, Lena famously sang “Ain’t It the Truth” while taking a bubble bath, though the scene was cut for being too suggestive. 

By 1945, Lena was one of the top Black entertainers in the U.S. But life at MGM was hard. She performed in many musicals, but she also appeared in small roles that could be cut when they played in the South. 

Lena met the man who would become her second husband, conductor Lennie Hayton, at MGM, but interracial marriages were illegal in California at the time. They married in Paris in 1947 and kept their marriage secret until 1950. 

During World War II, Lena criticized the way Black soldiers were treated. At an Arkansas base, when Black troops weren’t allowed at her performance, she demanded a second show. At the second show, the Black troops were seated behind the German prisoners of war, so Lena walked out in protest. She quit the USO and toured on her own dime.

In the late 1940s, Lena sued many restaurants and theaters for discrimination, and became part of the leftist-anti-racist Progressive Citizens of America. In 1950, Lena’s tenure with MGM ended and she was blacklisted for her political views and activism. 

In the 1950s, Lena became a nightclub headliner in the US, Canada, and Europe. In 1957, her album “Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria” was the best-selling album by a female singer in RCA Victor’s history. In 1958, Lena became the first African American to be nominated for a Tony award for “Best Actress in a Musical” for her role in Jamaica. 

In the 1960s, Lena engaged in more activism. She was at the March on Washington, and spoke and performed for the NAACP, SNCC, and many organizations fighting for gender and racial equality. Lena fought for the passage of anti-lynching laws. 

Throughout the 60s and the 70s, Lena had a successful TV career. In 1980, Lena announced her retirement and performed a two-month farewell tour. But one year later, she starred in a one-woman show called Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. It ran on Broadway for more than 300 performances and earned her a Tony and two Grammys. Newsweek called Lena “the most awesome performer to have hit Broadway in years.”

Lena died in 2010 at the age of 92. 

In her eighties, Lena said: “I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.” 

Lena’s professional success and pride in her identity paved the way for other Black performers in Hollywood. She is remembered as one of the most influential entertainers of the 20th century.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Leading Lady. 

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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you tomorrow!