Before there was Halle, before there was Beyoncé, there was Lena.
Or, as Fred Sanford lustily called her, “The Horne.”
For more than seven decades, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, no black female artist shined as bright as Lena Horne. And perhaps none had as much pressure.
Only the second African-American performer to sign with a major motion picture studio, Horne, with her stunning looks and soaring voice, became a popular figure in movies, on records and at concert halls.
And while other black female performers, at least in the movies, were often regulated to servant roles, Horne — the daughter of privilege — refused to play the maid or the nanny. Perhaps the furthest she had gone was in MGM’s 1943 all-black fable, “Cabin in the Sky,” where she played the brash, sexy handmaiden of the devil.
At least one number, where she sang “Ain’t It the Truth” while taking a bubble bath, was deleted before the film for being too risqué.
Still, it is fitting that her last movie role was that of Glinda the Good Witch in “The Wiz,” the 1978 film version of the all-black Broadway musical based on “The Wizard of Oz.”
“She did not play maids in the movies,” said author and cultural critic Donald Bogle. “There were two who came before her, Nina Mae McKinney and Fredi Washington. But she really is the first African-American woman in Hollywood to be fully glamorized and promoted. She has this elegance and sophistication about her.”
Although she was born in Brooklyn and defined by Harlem and Hollywood, Horne spent many of her formative years in Georgia, shuttling between Macon, Fort Valley and Atlanta.
In the early 1920s, after her parents separated, Horne joined her mother — a singer and dancer — on the road, often staying with family friends and relatives. In her 1965 autobiography, she wrote about the time in the early 1920s where two women in Macon read her stories from the Bible and taught her how to cook soul food. An uncle, Frank Horne, was the dean of students at what became Fort Valley State University, and she lived with his family from 1927 until 1929 in Fort Valley. She stayed briefly in Atlanta, where her mother had purchased a home, but by 1930, at the age of 12, she and her mother moved back to New York City for good.
By 1933, her mother, perhaps seeking the stardom that had eluded her, pulled 16-year-old Horne out of school and made her audition for the dance chorus at the Cotton Club, the famous Harlem nightclub that catered only to white customers who flocked in to see the light-skinned black dancers.
A year later, in 1934, she made her Broadway debut performing a voodoo dance in “Dance With Your Gods.”
Nearly 50 years later, in 1981, she bookended her career with a one-woman show, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” which earned her a Tony Award.
Between then, Horne achieved fame in the 1940s, appearing in a string of MGM films like “Broadway Rhythm,” “Ziegfeld Follies” and “Duchess of Idaho.”
But Bogle, who also wrote the landmark “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films,” now in it’s fifth printing, said that while MGM was promoting her, oftentimes, her appearances were cut out of the movie when it played in the South. In the 1951 remake of MGM’s “Show Boat,” Horne was up for the role of “Julie,” the mulatto, but the role was ultimately given to a white actress, Ava Gardner.
Which is why her appearances in all-black classics like “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather” — her only two starring roles — were so important.
“MGM is fully behind her and building her up as a glamorous figure, but Lena became embittered because of the things they weren’t willing to do for her,” said Bogle, who wrote about Horne in his “Brown Sugar: Over 100 Years of America’s Black Female Superstars.” “They didn’t give her a chance to act.”
“I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept,” she once said. “I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance, because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked.”
By the 1950s, the stardom that awaited Horne never materialized, partially because of her refusal to play certain roles and partially because of her politics. Friends with Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois and other civil and social rights leaders — she grew up in the NAACP, getting her first membership card at the age of 2 and appearing on the cover of the organization’s monthly bulletin in 1919 — she was suspected of being a Communist and was blacklisted.
“Even though she doesn’t get to play all of these roles, she does move things in a new direction,” said Bogle, whose new book, “Hollywood Black: The Stars, the Films, the Filmmakers,” comes out in May. “She made a way for stars like Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier in the 1950s.”
With movies behind her, she turned to television as a nightclub and recording star.
But civil rights also tempted her, and she became increasingly outspoken in the 1960s. She gave generously to the movement and remained affiliated with the NAACP. In 1963, she returned to Atlanta to perform a benefit concert for the SCLC, participated in the March on Washington and spoke at a major rally with Medgar Evers, just days before he was killed.
When she was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1991, she sang “Georgia on My Mind.”
Credit: Special to the AJC
Credit: Special to the AJC
“My identity is very clear to me now,” Horne said in 1997. “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.”
Up until her death, Horne enjoyed a celebrated, almost regal, status in black America. She might pop up on “Sesame Street,” “The Cosby Show” or “A Different World,” playing herself.
Or, of course, in Fred Sanford’s dreams.
“Those episodes indicate really what she meant to black America,” Bogle said. “She was a goddess.”
Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Mondays through Thursdays and Saturdays, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.
Ernie Suggs is an enterprise reporter covering race and culture for the AJC since 1997. A 1990 graduate of N.C. Central University and a 2009 Harvard University Nieman Fellow, he is also the former vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists. His obsession with Prince, Spike Lee movies, Hamilton and the New York Yankees is odd.