The Magnificent Lena Horne

Some of what follows has been taken from The Writer’s Almanac (

It’s the birthday of Lena Horne,

born in Brooklyn in 1917. Her grandparents were early members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons, and two-year-old Lena was the cover girl for their monthly newsletter in October 1919. Her father was a gambler who left when his daughter was very young, and her mother was an actress who was focused on her own career. Lena was mostly raised by her grandparents, and her grandmother taught her from a young age that racism in any form was unacceptable. Other black children teased her because she was so light-skinned, but this worked in her favor when she auditioned as a dancer for the Cotton Club when she was 16. Other dancers submitted to their role as scantily clad entertainment for white patrons, but it didn’t sit well with Lena. A year later, she made her debut in a Broadway chorus.

In 1941, she was lured to Hollywood by impresario Felix Young. He signed a lease on a house for her, since African-Americans were not allowed to live in Hollywood. Her neighbors found out and circulated a petition to have her removed, but Humphrey Bogart, who lived across the street, came to her defense. She recalled that Bogart “sent word over to the house that if anybody bothered me, please let him know.”

Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre in Casablanca

Her first movie appearances were stand-alone musical numbers that could easily be edited out before the films were shown in the South. During World War II, she did U.S.O. shows around the world, and she was popular with black and white soldiers alike. “The whole thing that made me a star was the war,” she said in a 1990 interview. “Of course, the black guys couldn’t put Betty Grable’s picture in their footlockers. But they could put mine.” She was openly critical of the way African-American soldiers were treated, and eventually she was no longer welcome to perform for the U.S.O.

When she was 80, she said: “My identity is very clear to me now. 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.” She died in 2010 at the age of 92.


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