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Lena Horne Biography Essay

Actress and singer Lena Horne was born June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York. She left school at age 16 to help support her mother and became a dancer at the Cotton Club in Harlem. She later sang at Carnegie Hall and appeared in such films as Stormy Weather and The Wiz. She was also known for her work with civil rights groups, and refused to play roles that stereotyped African-American women.

Early Life

Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born on June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of a banker and an actress. Her parents divorced when she was 3, and because her mother traveled as part of various theater troupes, Horne alternately accompanied her on the road and stayed with family and friends around the country. Early Career

At age 16, Horne dropped out of school and began performing at the Cotton Club in Harlem. A few years later, she joined the Noble Sissle Society Orchestra, using the name Helena Horne. Then, after appearing in the Broadway musical revue Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1939, she joined a well-known white swing band, the Charlie Barnet Orchestra. Charlie Barnet was one of the first bandleaders to integrate his band, but because of racial prejudice, Horne was unable to stay or socialize at many of the venues in which the orchestra performed, and she soon left the tour. In 1941 she returned to New York to work at the Café Society nightclub, popular with both black and white artists and intellectuals.

A long run at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel nightclub in 1943 gave Horne’s career a boost. She was featured in Life magazine and became the highest-paid black entertainer at the time. After signing a seven-year contract with MGM Studios, she moved to Hollywood, where she filmed movies like Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky. Producers quickly realized that she was a difficult woman to cast, however. She could only get limited roles in films with whites, and her light skin made it difficult to cast her alongside popular African-American actors in full-color films. Horne also refused to accept parts that stereotyped African-American women, and she was shunned by the community of black actors.

Activism and Blacklists

By the end of the 1940s, Horne had sued a variety of restaurants and theaters for discrimination and become an outspoken member of the leftist group Progressive Citizens of America. McCarthyism was sweeping through Hollywood, and Horne soon found herself blacklisted. Since she was unable to work in film, television, theater or recording, she performed primarily in posh nightclubs around the country. The ban eased in the mid-1950s, and Horne returned to the screen in the 1956 comedy Meet Me in Las Vegas.

In spite of having been blacklisted, Horne remained active in the civil rights movement. She performed at rallies around the country on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Council for Negro Women, and participated in the 1963 March on Washington.


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