Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born in Brooklyn, NY on June 30, 1917. Lena’s background was solidly middle-class, and her paternal grandparents, Edwin and Cora Calhoun Horne, were early members of the NAACP. Lena made her first public appearance at age two, as cover girl of the monthly NAACP bulletin in 1919.
Owing to her parents’ rocky marriage, Lena was raised by her grandparents for much of her childhood. Following her mother Edna’s theatrical bent, she auditioned at the Cotton Club in 1933. Lena sang in Cotton Club Parade revues in 1934 and 1935, and made her Broadway debut in the short-lived Dance With Your Gods in 1934.
Afterward came an early, brief marriage, stints as a band singer with Noble Sissle and Charlie Barnet, and a weekly radio spot on The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street where she succeeded Dinah Shore as star vocalist. Her breakthrough was singing “Stormy Weather” in the film of the same name in 1943. The song became so closely associated with Lena Horne throughout her career that many forgot that the song had been introduced in 1933 by Ethel Waters.
Thereafter, Lena enjoyed immense popularity, and commanded huge fees for her work on radio and in films and nightclubs. She was a favorite with the servicemen, and appeared on the AFRS program Command Performance frequently. She claimed that what “made me a star was the war.”
In her U.S.O. tours, Lena was outspoken about the inequality of treatment of the black servicemen, which had repercussions in the U.S.O. organization. She was not invited to return. After the war, her national loyalty was called into question, owing to her activism and to her friendships with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois. Though supposedly blacklisted, she did manage to work steadily through the 1950s and beyond—and she continued to fight for civil rights.
Lena Horne’s lovely—and courageous—voice was stilled on May 9, 2010.