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.
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.
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.
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.”