10 Amazing Facts About Lena Horne

American singer, actress, and activist Lena Horne circa 1947.
American singer, actress, and activist Lena Horne circa 1947.
Fred Ramage, Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With a multifaceted career that lasted more than 70 years, Lena Horne is many things to many people. While some people best remember Horne for her sultry 1943 rendition of “Stormy Weather,” others would point to her legacy as one of the most famous actresses of the 1950s as her greatest achievement. But Horne was also a fierce advocate for civil rights.

Horne—whose parents were both of mixed Black, Native American, and European heritage—was as a trailblazer both on and off the screen, tirelessly advocating for herself and the civil rights movement throughout her career. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the Golden Age superstar.

1. Lena Horne began performing at Harlem’s white-dominated Cotton Club when she was 16 years old.

After a failed attempt to make it big as an actress on her own, Edna Louise Scottron—Lena Horne’s mother—pushed her daughter to follow in her footsteps and suggested she find work at New York City’s famed Cotton Club. Horne landed a job in the Club’s chorus when she was just 16 years old and worked there for two years; during that time, she met legendary entertainers like Duke Ellington, but was forced to deal with the aggression of her all-white audiences and employers. When Miguel Rodriguez, Horne’s Cuban stepfather, raised an issue with Horne’s bosses about her low pay, he was “beaten unmercifully.”

2. As an actress, Lena Horne appeared in many solo scenes—so that her movies could be cut for Southern audiences.

Although Horne became a household name because of her work in classic films like Cabin in the Sky (1943), Ziegfeld Follies (1945), and Stormy Weather (1943), many of her musical moments contained lines that were nonessential to the plot and solo performances by Horne so that they could easily be removed for audiences in the Jim Crow South.

3. Lena Horne performed at Cafe Society Downtown, a club that raised money for the Communist party.

Lena Horne in 1945.The Print Collector/Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

New York City’s Cafe Society Downtown was the first racially integrated club in the United States, and it featured an impressive roster of performers, including Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Lena Horne. It also hosted a number of leftists and fundraisers for progressive causes, both of which contributed to the club’s being noticed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and its eventual closing.

4. The live record Lena Horne at the Waldorf Astoria became RCA’s best-selling album by a female artist.

Horne was the second Black artist to perform at the Waldorf Astoria, and took her residency there with much humor and grace. In James Gavin’s book The Life of Lena Horne, the actress talked about her audiences:

“They kept saying, ‘There’s so much mystery about her. What is she thinking? And she’s so sexy.’ Oh, God! I wasn’t. I just didn’t like them, really. I said, ‘I’m not gonna let them know what I’m thinking about.’ So I had this kinda grand attitude, which went very well in the nightclubs.”

Grand attitude aside, the 1957 recording of one of her live shows, Lena Horne at the Waldorf Astoria, is one of the best-selling records by a female vocalist in RCA Victor’s history.

5. Because of segregation rules, rising star Lena Horne couldn’t even lease her own house in Los Angeles.

Portrait of Lena Horne.William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

With segregation alive and well in 1940s Hollywood, white impresario Felix Young (manager of Los Angeles’s Cafe Trocadero) had to sign the lease for Horne’s new home “as if he was going to rent it,” she explained. When Horne’s neighbors found out that she was the house’s official inhabitant, they petitioned to have her removed—until Humphrey Bogart stepped in. Horne said Bogart “raised hell” with the community members, and “sent word over to the house that if anybody bothered me, please let him know.”

6. Lena Horne was a member of several leftist groups, including the Progressive Citizens of America.

Lena Horne was not shy about her anti-fascist, anti-racist stances, and became a national board member of the Progressive Citizens of America, a leftist group that counted W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson as members. Horne's membership was part of what led to her seven-year stint on Hollywood’s blacklist during the Red Scare of the 1950s.

7. Lena Horne was granted a humanitarian award by the NAACP, which supported her throughout her career in crossing Hollywood’s color lines.

In 1983, Horne was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP for her art, humanitarian work, and for being a “living symbol of excellence.” The award has a prestigious history; other recipients include Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Langston Hughes.

8. Lena Horne aligned herself with major civil rights leaders, and attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington.

Lena Horne speaks at the March on Washington in 1963.U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Horne was a very vocal civil rights advocate, refusing to perform for segregated army audiences, suing restaurants and theaters for discrimination, and working with Eleanor Roosevelt on anti-lynching legislation. So it’s hardly surprising that she appeared on stage at the March on Washington in 1963 and publicly expressed her admiration of activist Malcom X.

9. Despite the challenges she faced as a Black woman in Hollywood, Lena Horne was proud of the choices she made in her career.

Though Lena Horne faced many obstacles because of the racism that permeated American culture as she was building her career, the singer-actor-activist had no regrets about the choices she had made. At age 80, Horne reflected on her career, stating:

“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.”

10. Lena Horne’s granddaughter is turning her life into a TV series.

In July 2020, Showtime announced that it had greenlit Blackbird: Lena Horne and America, a limited series about the life of Horne, which is being created by Star Trek: Picard creator Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet, daughter of legendary filmmaker Sidney Lumet and granddaughter of Lena Horne.

“Bringing my grandmother’s story to the screen required a multi-generational effort,” Lumet told Deadline. “Grandma passed her stories to my mother, who now passes them to me, so I may pass them to the children of our family. Lena’s story is so intimate and at the same time, it’s the story of America—America at its most honest, most musical, most tragic and most joyous. It’s crucial now. Especially now. She was the love of my life.”

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

10 Surprising Facts About Wham!’s 'Last Christmas'

Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Over the course of his illustrious career, George Michael gave the world many gifts. One that keeps on giving is “Last Christmas,” the 1984 holiday classic by Wham!, Michael's pop duo with Andrew Ridgeley. “Last Christmas” is such a uniquely beloved song that it inspired a 2019 film of the same name. That’s just one interesting part of the “Last Christmas” story. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about this seasonal synth-pop favorite.

1. George Michael wrote "Last Christmas" in his childhood bedroom.

“Last Christmas” was born one day in 1984 when George Michael and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were visiting Michael’s parents. While they were sitting around watching TV, Michael suddenly dashed upstairs to his childhood bedroom and composed the modern Xmas classic in about an hour. “George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music,” Ridgeley said. “Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts."

2. “Last Christmas” isn’t really a Christmas song.

There’s nothing in “Last Christmas” about Santa, reindeer, trees, snow, or anything we typically associate with the holiday. Rather, the song is about a failed romance that just happens to have begun on December 25, when Michael gave someone his heart, and ended on December 26, when this ungrateful person “gave it away.”

3. George Michael wrote and produced the song—but that’s not all.

Dave Hogan/Getty Images

By the time Wham! recorded “Last Christmas” in August (yes, August) 1984, Michael had taken full control of the group. In addition to writing and producing the song, Michael insisted on playing the Roland Juno-60 synth in the studio. “George wasn’t a musician,” engineer Chris Porter said. “It was a laborious process, because he was literally playing the keyboards with two or three fingers.” Michael even jangled those sweet sleigh bells himself.

4. “Last Christmas” didn’t reach #1 on the UK charts.

As the movie Love Actually reminds us, scoring a Christmas #1 in the UK is a really big deal. Unfortunately, “Last Christmas” didn’t give Wham! that honor. It stalled at #2, and to this day it has the distinction of being the highest-selling UK single of all time to not reach #1.

5. George Michael sang on the song that kept “Last Christmas” at #2.

“Last Christmas” was bested on the UK charts by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star charity single benefiting Ethiopian famine relief. Michael sang on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and was so committed to the cause that he donated his profits from “Last Christmas” to helping the African nation.

6. George Michael was sued for plagiarism over “Last Christmas.”

In the mid-1980s, the publishing company Dick James Music sued George Michael on behalf of the writers of “Can’t Smile Without You,” a schmaltzy love song recorded by The Carpenters and Barry Manilow, among others. According to Chris Porter, the recording engineer on “Last Christmas,” the suit was dismissed after a musicologist presented 60-plus songs that have a similar chord progression and melody.

7. "Last Christmas" has been covered by a lot of other artists.

Michael Putland/Getty Images

Jimmy Eat World, Hilary Duff, Good Charlotte, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gwen Stefani, and Taylor Swift are just a few of the artists who’ve covered “Last Christmas” over the years. The strangest rendition may be the 2006 dance version by the Swedish CGI character Crazy Frog, which reached #16 on the UK charts.

8. Some people make a concerted effort to avoid hearing “Last Christmas.”

While millions of people delight in hearing “Last Christmas” every year, an internet game called Whamageddon encourages players to avoid the song from December 1 to 24. The rules are simple: Once you hear the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” (remixes and covers don’t count), you’re out. You then admit defeat on social media with the hashtag #Whamageddon and wait for your friends to suffer the same fate. Note: The rules prohibit you from “deliberately sending your friends to Whamhalla.”

9. “Last Christmas” finally charted in America following George Michael’s death in 2016.

Back in 1984, “Last Christmas” wasn’t released as a commercial single in the United States, and therefore it wasn’t eligible for the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, Billboard changed its rules in 1998, and in the wake of George Michael’s unexpected death on Christmas Day 2016, the song finally made its Hot 100 debut. In December 2018, it reentered the charts and peaked at #25.

10. George Michael was involved in 2019's Last Christmas movie.

November 2019 saw the release of Paul Feig's Last Christmas, a romantic comedy inspired by the song starring Game of Thrones's Emilia Clarke. Producer David Livingstone came up with the idea while George Michael was still alive, and when he pitched the pop star on the project, he was given the greenlight—with one condition: Michael stipulated that actress and author Emma Thompson write the movie. Thompson co-authored the story and the screenplay, and she even wound up playing a supporting role.