Lena Horne, the beautiful, elegant, talented singer and actress has become a legend. Her strong sense of her own identity, of justice, and of dignity forced her to struggle against social adversity, and allowed her to triumph. Music is just a part of her story.
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born on June 30, 1917, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, her parents separated by the time she was three years old, and she lived for several years with her paternal grandparents. Her early life was nomadic: Horne's mother, who was a fairly unsuccessful stage performer, took the young Lena on the road with her, and they lived in various parts of the South before returning to Horne's grandparents' home in Brooklyn in 1931
Horne had early ambitions to be a performer--against the wishes of her family, who believed that she should aspire to greater heights. Nevertheless, Lena persisted, and in 1933 she began her first professional engagement, at the Cotton Club, the famed Harlem nightclub. She sang in the chorus, and though only sixteen years old, held her own among the older and more experienced cast members. She soon left high school to devote herself to her stage career.
In 1934 Horne had a small role in an all-black Broadway show called ‘Dance with Your Gods.’ The next year, she left the Cotton Club and began performing as the featured singer with Noble Sissle's Society Orchestra under the name "Helena Horne," which Sissle thought more glamorous than "Lena." In 1937 Horne quit her tour with the Sissle Orchestra to marry Louis Jones, a friend of her father. During this short and troubled marriage, Horne went to Hollywood to appear in an all-black film called ‘The Duke Is Tops.’ In 1939 she had a role in the musical revue ‘Blackbirds of 1939’ at the Hudson Theatre in New York City; it ran for only eight nights. Before her marriage to Jones ended in divorce, she had two children, Gail and Edwin ("Teddy").
Horne left Jones in 1940, taking a job as a singer with Charlie Barnet's band and going out on tour with him. Horne was the only black member of the ensemble, and the kind of racial discrimination she encountered from audiences, hotel managers, and others was so unsettling that she decided to quit the band. In 1941, she began performing at the Cafe Society Downtown, a club in New York City that catered to intellectuals and social activists, both black and white.At the Cafe Society, Horne learned about black history, politics, and culture and developed a new appreciation for her heritage. From this point on, Horne became a significant voice in the struggle for equality and justice for blacks in America.