Lena Horne’s Long, Hard Climb


Ethereal, tormented, and tough as nails, Lena Horne—who would have turned 103 this week—would evolve from angelic Cotton Club ingenue into a civil rights icon and one of the most dynamic, fiery performers of her generation. In Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne, published in 2009, James Gavin recounts the star’s turbulent life—from her love-hate relationship with fellow groundbreaker Harry Belafonte to her soulmate connection to composer Billy Strayhorn and admiration for Malcolm X, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Aretha Franklin. Even as she faced appalling racism, the always brave, always searching Horne would inspire a generation of performers—while never quite finding what she was after. “I was never able to enjoy this damned thing,” she would say in later life, according to Gavin. “It was always a hassle. A fight.”

Parental Control

When a 25-year-old Horne told her wealthy father, Teddy, that Walter White, then head of the NAACP, was urging her to take a stab at Hollywood stardom in the early 1940s, this son of a serious, intellectual, activist family was less than impressed. “I told him I was going to be a movie star,” recalled Horne, per Gavin. “He said, ‘Lena, I’m going to buy you a house and most of all a maid, ’cause that’s the role you’ll be playing, so you might as well know what a real maid does.’”

Once in Los Angeles, Horne managed not to get typecast as a domestic worker. She was instead professionally courted by MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, and would initially heed Joan Crawford’s advice to kiss the mogul’s “big fat ass.” But her father would not kowtow to the studio king. According to his daughter, Teddy Horne appeared in Los Angeles and marched into Mayer’s office. “He said, ‘Mr. Mayer, it’s a great privilege you’re offering my daughter. But I can buy my daughter her own maid.’ He was just jivin’, you understand,” she told TV host Dick Cavett in 1981. Mayer promised to never cast Lena as a maid or a “jungle maiden.”

Horne’s mother, Edna—a failed actress who was extremely jealous of her increasingly famous daughter—descended on L.A. for a different purpose. She wanted a career like Lena’s—or else. “If Lena didn’t cooperate, she would sell the press a story about a selfish girl who’d climbed to stardom on her mother’s shoulders, then tossed her aside,” Gavin writes. While her daughter could not make her a star, she could pay her mother off: “I worked out a solution with a lawyer,” Horne would later write in her memoir, Lena.

A Renegade Romance

Although the tight-lipped Horne would reportedly date stars including bandleader Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, and boxing champion Joe Louis, it was her 1940s relationship with the brilliant, bombastic Orson Welles that would stay on her mind for decades. “I never had anything to do with any of those Hollywood guys. Except Orson,” she told her confidant St. Clair Pugh, per Gavin. “She was crazy about him,” friend Marcia Ann Gillespie recalled to the author.

In Welles, Horne found a fascinating renegade—and a charismatic supporter of civil rights. Welles found a complicated, somewhat unknowable beauty. “I did get the impression that she gave off sparks because she was deeply suspicious of the world,” Welles recalled to the BBC in 1984. “Her reactions to being in Hollywood, not being terribly well-treated, were all those of an essentially aristocratic nature.”

Their coupling eventually came to the attention of the racist gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who confronted Welles with rumors of the romance. “I said, ‘What do you mean, Hedda?’” Welles said in 1984, per Gavin. “And she said, ‘You know perfectly well what I mean! You can destroy your career.’ People really did talk like that in those days. I told her to go put her head in a bucket.”

The Icon and the Ingenue

The filming of the groundbreaking 1943 MGM musical Cabin in the Sky was anything but heavenly. “All through that picture,” star Ethel Waters wrote in her autobiography His Eye Is on the Sparrow, “there was so much snarling and scrapping that I don’t know how in the world Cabin in the Sky ever stayed up there.”



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