Vintage Vamp: Lena Horne
In honor of both Black History Month and Fashion Week, we thought it appropriate...
In honor of both Black History Month and Fashion Week, we thought it appropriate to salute Lena Horne, a boundary-busting black performer who also happened to be one of the most glamorous, fashionable women in America during her heyday in the ‘40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Born in Brooklyn in 1917, Horne grew up in an upper-middle-class “Hill District” in Pittsburgh. The wildly talented beauty made her way back to New York in 1933, where she began performing at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club. Cut to a few years later, and she’s touring with the prestigious Noble Sissie Orchestra (here, she’s pictured on tour with the orchestra in 1935), replacing superstar Dinah Shore as the featured vocalist on NBC’s jazz series, “The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street,” and appearing in low-budget musicals and shorts. During a nightclub performance in 1943, Horne was “discovered” by the most famous movie studio at the time, MGM—and the following year, when Horne sang “Stormy Weather” in the movie of the same name, the mesmerizing torch singer became a mainstream movie star.
Even though she appeared in several hit musicals, Hollywood wasn’t comfortable giving a black actress a leading role. Also, since most of her films had to be re-edited for Southern States that couldn’t show films with black performers, many of her film performances were stand-alone scenes that had no bearing on the movie’s plot (this way, the editing wouldn’t disrupt the storyline). After she was replaced with her good friend Ava Gardner as the lead in 1951’s “Show Boat” (the character, a mulatto torch singer, would’ve been perfect for Horne, but the role would’ve required a then-illegal interracial love scene), she became disenchanted with Hollywood and poured her energy into her international nightclub career. For the next two decades, she headlined at clubs and hotels all over the world and, in 1957, her live album entitled, “Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria,” became the largest selling record by a female artist in the history of the RCA-Victor label. She continued to make appearances on various TV shows, release hit albums and perform on Broadway—and in 1981, she received a Special Tony Award for her one-woman show, Lena Horne: “The Lady and Her Music”.
Lena Horne is a revolutionary beauty, and was a consummate professional during an era where black women—and, indeed, women in general—were expected to scrub the glass ceiling, not break through it. Lena, we salute you!