e0aa6c67In today’s so-called celebrity culture, genuine star quality has become increasingly difficult to come by. True talent, beauty, style or the power to influence and inspire are all rare commodities these days. And as a package? Forget about it. Look back to the Forties however, and things were a little bit different. Stars shined, icons were born and history was made. Martha Hayes takes a look at the formidable Lena Horne.

The African American star of the Forties and Fifties silver screen with the heartbreakingly beautiful face and voice to match, was the first black performer to be signed by a Hollywood studio. Horn fought fervently over the decades against racial discrimination. A life, then, not so simple, but so significant, it’s impossible not to feel inspired. ‘My life has been about surviving,’ she once said. ‘Along the way, I also became an artist.’

Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1917, Lena was brought up mainly by her grandparents because her mother Edna, an actress with a theatre troupe, travelled extensively. Lena sometimes accompanied her mother, undoubtedly shaping her early aspirations.

Her burgeoning multiple talents for dancing, singing and acting were given a platform to leap off as early as aged 16 when Lena put on her dancing shoes for the chorus at Harlem’s Cotton Club. It was here she met her jazz contemporaries such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, before having voice lessons and scoring a small role in an all-black Broadway show, Dance With Your Gods.

So far, so good, and in 1938, Lena starred in The Duke is Tops, an independent all-black film. But in 1940, as the only black member joining one of the great white swing bands, The Charlie Barnet Orchestra, she was the victim of racial abuse. Hollywood was beckoning, but Lena had scores to settle first.

Leaving Barnet in 1941, she got her a gig at the famous Café Society Downtown, in New York where she learnt about African American history, politics and culture, to develop her appreciation of her heritage. It is here that her recognition as a voice for the equality of African Americans in the US stems from.

Read on!

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5 Responses

  1. Kevie

    Thanks for a tribute to a star who deserves her hard-earned status as a role model.

  2. DiamondMind

    Lena Horne is such a beautiful lady! Thank you for this story.
    “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”- Lena Horne

  3. kevie

    A lovely tribute to a heroine, icon and national treasure.