Lena Horne: African American Icon

In honor of Black History Month we celebrate the ”What Becomes A Legend Most” icon, Lena Horne. When Lena Horne was asked to become the image for Blackglama’s 1969 ad campaign poster (see above), she follows in the heels of such female icons as Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford; she was the first African American celebrity to do so. For more information see: https://www.walterfilm.com/shop/posters/lena-horne-blackglama-poster/

The Beginning

In 1933, at the age of sixteen, Lena Horne began her career by joining the chorus line of Harlem’s famous  Cotton Club and by the fall of 1934 she had a featured role in the Cotton Club Parade starring Adelaide Hall. Over the next seventy years, this African American dancer, actress and one of the 20th Century’s greatest singers, appeared in nightclubs, film, television, theatre and became an award-winning renowned recording artist. 


Through the early 1940s she appeared in low-budget movies and made her Hollywood nightclub debut in January 1942 at Felix Young’s Little Troc on the Sunset Strip. A few weeks later, she was signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and made her MGN debut in Panama Hattie (1942). She performed the title song of Stormy Weather (1943) for 20th Century Fox, while on loan from MGM. This song and her performance stunned audiences and it became synonymous with her through-out her career.  She appeared in several MGM musicals, including Cabin in the Sky (1943) with an entirely African American cast. 

The follow four photographs are MGM publicity shots. The last image is the Al Hirschfeld illustrated lobby card for director Vincente Minnelli’s first film, CABININ THE SKY, starring Ethel Waters, Lena Horne and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.


Walter Film: Lena Horne 1943 by Clarence Bull
[Hollywood: MGM, 1943] Vintage original 13 x 10″ (33 x 25 cm.) black-and-white double weight print still photo, JUST ABOUT FINE. With stamp on back of photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull and also stamped text indicating that Horne is now appearing in CABIN IN THE SKY, the film which was to launch her Hollywood movie career.


Walter Film: Lena Horne MGM 1944 Publicity Photo
[Los Angeles: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1944]. Vintage original 8 x 10″ (20 x 25 cm.) black-and-white double weight matte finish still photo, fine. Lena Horne poses in an MGM publicity photo to promote her appearance in the film TWO GIRLS AND A SAILOR. She wears this gown while performing a number on stage in the film. Custom vintage print is immaculate.


Walter Film: MGM (1945) Studio Portrait
[Hollywood]: MGM, [ca. 1945]. Vintage original 10 x 8″ (25 x 20 cm.) black-and-white print still photo, JUST ABOUT FINE. Luminous portrait of singer Lena Horne.


Walter Film: Lena Horne MGM 1945 Ziegfeld Follies
[Hollywood: MGM, 1945]. Vintage original 13 x 10″ (33 x 26 cm.) borderless double weight print still photo, JUST ABOUT FINE. A luminous portrait of Lena Horne as she sings the song “Love” for her sequence in Vincente Minnelli’s anthology musical ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, against a background of an African American audience looking on.


Walter Film: Lena Horne MGM 1943 "Cabin in the Sky" Lobby Card - Illustration by Al Hirshfeld
(African American film) [Hollywood]: MGM, 1943. Vintage original 11 x 14″ (28 x 36 cm.) lobby card. A one inch (2.5 cm.) marginal tear, slightly entering the yellow border area in middle right, has been reinforced with archival paper; there are some scattered marginal pinholes, very good+. Al Hirschfeld illustrated this remarkably designed lobby card (his signature is on the left of the design) for director Vincente Minnelli’s first film, starring Ethel Waters, Lena Horne and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.

Lena Horne continued at MGM singing “Why Was I Born?” in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) and “Love” by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane In Ziegfeld Follies (1946). Horne lobbied for the role of Julie LaVerne in MGM’s version of Show Boat (1951) but lost the part to Ava Gardner, a friend in real life. Horne claimed this was due to the Production Code‘s ban on interracial relationships in films. In the documentary That’s Entertainment! III, Horne stated that MGM executives required Gardner to practice her singing using Horne’s recordings, which offended both actresses. Ultimately, Gardner’s voice was overdubbed by actress Annette Warren (Smith) for the theatrical release.


Walter Film: Lena Horne 1942 On Stage NY
[New York: ca. 1942]. Vintage original 10 x 8″ (25 x 20 cm.) borderless black-and-white print still photo, NEAR FINE. An image of Lena Horne performing onstage, most likely in New York, shortly before she left for Hollywood. You can almost hear her distinctive and expressive delivery of the musical number which she is performing.

Moving On

Horne became disenchanted with Hollywood and increasingly focused on her nightclub career. She said she was “tired of being typecast as a Negro who stands against a pillar singing a song. I did that 20-times too often.” She was blacklisted during for seven years the 1950s for her affiliations in the 1940s with communist-backed groups. She would subsequently disavow communism. 

After leaving Hollywood, Horne established herself as one of the premier nightclub performers of the post-war era. She headlined at clubs and hotels throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe, including the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles, and the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. In 1957, a live album entitled, Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria, became the biggest-selling record by a female artist in the history of the RCA Victor at that time. In 1958, Horne became the first African American woman to be nominated for a Tony Award for “Best Actress in a Musical” (for her part in the “Calypso” Broadway musical Jamaica).


From the late 1950s through to the 1960s, Horne was a staple of TV variety shows, appearing multiple times on Perry Como’s Kraft Music HallThe Ed Sullivan ShowThe Dean Martin Show, and The Bell Telephone Hour. Other programs she appeared on included The Judy Garland ShowThe Hollywood Palace, and The Andy Williams Show. Besides two television specials for the BBC (later syndicated in the U.S.), Horne starred in her own U.S. television special in 1969, Monsanto Night Presents Lena Horne.

In 1970, she co-starred with Harry Belafonte in the hour-long Harry & Lena special for ABC; in 1973, she co-starred with Tony Bennett in Tony and Lena. Horne and Bennett subsequently toured the U.S. and U.K. in a show together. In the 1976 program America Salutes Richard Rodgers, she sang a lengthy medley of Rodgers songs with Peggy Lee and Vic Damone

Broadway & Touring

In May 1981, The Nederlander Organization, booked Horne for a four-week engagement at the newly named Nederlander Theatre on West 41st Street in New York City. The show was an instant success and was extended to a full year run, garnering Horne a special Tony award, and two Grammy Awards for the cast recording of her show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. The 333-performance Broadway run closed on Horne’s 65th birthday, June 30, 1982. Later that same week, she performed the entire show again to record it for television broadcast and home video release. Horne toured The Lady and Her Music to 41 cities in the U.S. and Canada, played to acclaim at the Adelphi Theatre in London, and ended its run in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1981, she received a Special Tony Award for the show

Civil Rights

Horne was long involved with the Civil Rights Movement working with Paul Robeson. In 1941, she sang at Café Society, New York City’s first integrated venue. During World War II, when entertaining the troops for the USO, “She refused to perform “for segregated audiences or for groups in which German POWs were seated in front of Black servicemen”.

She was at an NAACP rally with Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, the week-end before Evers was assassinated. She was at the March on Washington and spoke and performed on behalf of the NAACP, S.N.C.C., and the National Council of Negro Women. She also worked with Eleanor Roosevelt in attempts to pass anti-lynching laws. In 1983, the NAACP awarded her the Spingarn Medal.


Lena Horne died of congestive heart failure on May 9, 2010. Her funeral took place at St. Ignatius Loyola Church on Park Avenue in New York, where she had been a member. Thousands gathered and attendees included: Leontyne PriceDionne WarwickLiza MinnelliJessye NormanChita RiveraCicely TysonDiahann CarrollLeslie UggamsLauren BacallRobert OsborneAudra McDonald, and Vanessa Williams.

Wikipedia: Lena Horne


Lena Horne: In Her Own Words: https://youtu.be/4rDh4LqGujg

Lena Horne – Stormy Weather (1943): https://youtu.be/DXJ8-E-jvuw

Lena Horne’s 1996 PBS American Masters biography https://youtu.be/AErWqNBhawI