Stay Connected


Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content
Join our live viewing party of “This is Us” season premiere!

This is Us

Tonight at 9PM ET


Lena Horne

Posted on

She got her first job at the Cotton Club on looks alone

She was a luminescent beauty in her 20s, the magical “chocolate chanteuse” who melted hearts with her eyes and enraptured audiences with her smoky, hush-baby voice. In her 30s and 40s, tired of being polite and grateful and “a good little symbol,” she sang at rallies and picket lines and got herself blacklisted for her friendship with actor-activist Paul Robeson. Now, at 64, the still electrifying Lena Horne finally knows what becomes a legend most: not fame nor firebranding, nor even furs. It is the adoration of her fans, young and old, who find in her triumphant Broadway comeback an affirmation that talent matures, beauty ripens and age is a state of mind.

Even Horne isn’t sure why her show, which began as a limited four-week engagement last May, has become—next to Nicholas Nickleby—the most sought-after ticket on Broadway. Part of the reason may be the theater’s 1981 infatuation with its elegant past. This is the year that the historic likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall and Katharine Hepburn joined Horne on the marquees. Perhaps, as Home herself bluntly puts it, “They look at me and say, ‘That old lady up there is working her butt off, and she ain’t bad!’ ”

Watching Horne’s graceful slither and listening to her lavender shadings is a little like reliving the past. For most of the summer the hottest place in town was the Nederlander Theatre, and not just because Horne would allow no air conditioning while she performed (because it chills her). Belting out Copper Colored Gal of Mine, a favorite at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club in the 1930s, Home takes listeners back to an era of great black music—performed for all-white audiences. Horne began her career there at 16 as a chorus girl, part of the advertised “greatest array of Creole stars ever assembled.” Says Horne: “I had no talent, so being pretty got me a job. It took me another 40 years to get the talent.”

Swinging into Stormy Weather, the title track from her 1943 film, she recalls her days as the first black sex symbol in Hollywood. She submitted to the indignity of “Light Egyptian,” a special Max Factor base the studios created to make her look darker onscreen. Nevertheless, she refused to play the then stereotypical black roles of maid or whore. “All they knew about blacks in Hollywood,” she tells her audiences between songs, “was what Tarzan told them. And Tarzan was not the bright one in that outfit!”

Behind the good-natured patter is a hint of bitterness. “Being the first all the time was damned humiliating,” Horne says. Still, she never stopped, even risking the censure of her race by marrying a white man, composer and arranger Lennie Hayton. (A brief early marriage to the son of a black Baptist minister produced a daughter, Gail, who was divorced from director Sidney Lumet in 1978, and a son, Edwin, who died of kidney disease in 1970.) Horne married Hayton, she says now, “because he knew the music world, and I thought he could help me get ahead. But later I learned to love him.”

Until Hayton’s death a decade ago, the couple led a privileged and peripatetic life. “We went all over the world,” recalls Horne. “We were the chic, to-be-seen-with couple. But I always had a wall up around me. I wasn’t going to let anybody in. Part of it goes back to my childhood. My parents separated when I was 3, and later my mother, an actress, took me from our home in Brooklyn and was always leaving me with different people in the South. I never let myself love anybody because I knew I couldn’t stay around.”

Not until the middle 1950s did Horne begin to mellow. “When I stopped trying to break the barriers, that’s when I looked around and saw white people, a lot of good white people who would hold hands with their colored sisters,” she says. “I also saw that there are many people who aren’t black who get kicked around too. I saw that and I softened up.”

By 1981 Horne was a grandmother of five, content to stay at home—a converted olive mill in Santa Barbara, Calif. A brief appearance as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz, directed by Lumet (“Nepotism has never hurt nobody,” she cracks), did not lead to a revived film career. “I was making some sort of gesture of goodbye,” she explains. “I had literally given up all my club dates. I was quitting. Then my manager said: ‘Well, Horne, you gonna just stop like that? It’s quitting with a whimper, not a bang.’ ”

Now it’s a bang. After four extensions, Horne Home: The Lady and Her Music will play at least until next April and then likely go to six U.S. cities and London. Everywhere she takes the show, Horne says, she has an overriding goal: “I want them to walk out of that theater happy. And to be saying: ‘Jesus, how does that old broad do it?’ ”