When it came to breaking barriers for black performers in the early part of the 20th century, especially for black women, Lena Horne was a sledgehammer.
Last Sunday Mother’s Day, America lost the legendary talent, who died at age 92 of heart failure in her native New York. She broke the color barrier for black performers during her 60-year career.
Her voice was sultry. Her beauty mesmerizing. When she performed at the Black Expo in Chicago in the 1970s at the now-demolished International Amphitheatre on Halsted Street, people stopped and starred as she entered the theater. Fans running up to her were greeted warmly with her signature big smile.
Born Lena Mary Calhoun Horne in 1917, her career in entertainment began in 1933 after joining the chorus line of the Cotton Club in New York. Horne married Louis Jordan Jones in 1937 and lived in Pittsburgh. On Dec. 21, 1937 they had a daughter, Gail, later known as Gail Lumet Buckley, a best-selling author. Her son, Edwin Jones, was born in 1940. He died in 1970 from kidney disease. Horne’s granddaughter is award winning screen writer Jenny Lumet.
Lena Horne was the first black actress to sign a contract with a major Hollywood studio in the 1940s, making several films with MGM, including the all-black production Cabin in the Sky (1943). MGM’s classic film Stormy Weather (1943), featured Horne and a mostly all-black cast-the title song would become her signature. In an interview from 1990, Horne talked about her becoming the first black pinup magazine model popular among troops fighting in World War II.
“The whole thing that made me a star was the war,” she said. “Of course the black guys couldn’t put Betty Grable’s picture in their footlockers. But they could put up mine.”