Biography of Lena Horne

Singer, Actress, Activist

Lena Horne in Stormy Weather
Lena Horne in Stormy Weather. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

From Brooklyn, New York, Lena Horne was raised by her mother, an actress, and then by her paternal grandmother, Cora Calhoun Horne, who took Lena to the NAACP, the Urban League and the Ethical Culture Society, all centers in that time of activism. Cora Calhoun Horne sent Lena to the Ethical Culture school in New York.  Lena Horne's father, Teddy Horne, was a gambler who left his wife and daughter.

Cora Calhoun Horne's roots were in the family Lena Horne's daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, has chronicled in her book The Black Calhouns. These well-educated bourgeois African Americans were descended from a nephew of secessionist vice president John C. Calhoun.  (Buckley also chronicles the family's history in her 1986 book, The Hornes.)

At age 16 Lena began working at Harlem's Cotton Club, first as a dancer, then in the chorus and later as a solo singer. She began singing with orchestras, and, while singing with Charlie Barnet's (white) orchestra, she was "discovered." From there she began playing clubs in Greenwich Village and then performed at Carnegie Hall.

Beginning in 1942 Lena Horne appeared in films, broadening her career to include movies, Broadway and recordings. She was honored with many awards for her lifetime of success.

In Hollywood, her contract was with MGM studios. She was included in films as a singer and dancer, and was featured for her beauty.  But her roles were limited by the studio's decision to have her parts edited out when the films were shown in the segregated South. 

Her stardom was rooted in two 1943 musical films, Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky. She continued to appear in roles as a singer and dancer through the 1940s.  Lena Horne's signature song, from the 1943 film of the same name, is "Stormy Weather." She sings it twice in the film. The first time, it's presented with an earthiness and innocence.  At the end, it's a song about loss and despair.

During World War II she toured first with the USO; she quickly grew weary of the racism she faced and began touring Black camps only. She was a favorite of African American soldiers.

Lena Horne was married to Louis J. Jones from 1937 until they divorced in 1944. They had two children, Gail and Edwin. Later she was married to Lennie Hayton from 1947 to his death in 1971, though separated after the early 1960s.  When she first married him, a white Jewish music director, they kept the marriage secret for three years.

In the 1950s, her association with Paul Robeson led to her being denounced as a communist. She spent time in Europe where she was received well.  By 1963, she was able to meet with Robert F. Kennedy, at the request of James Baldwin, to discuss racial issues. She was part of the 1963 March on Washington.

Lena Horne published her memoirs in 1950 as In Person and in 1965 as Lena.

In the 1960s, Lena Horne recorded music, sang in nightclubs, and appeared on television. In the 1970s she continued to sing and appeared in the 1978 film The Wiz, an African American version of The Wizard of Oz.

In the early 1980s, she toured in the United States and London. After the mid-1990s she rarely appeared, and she died in 2010.


  • 1938 - The Duke Is Tops
  • 1940 - Harlem On Parade
  • 1941 - Panama Hattie
  • 1942 - G.I. Jubilee
  • 1943 - Cabin In The Sky
  • 1943 - Stormy Weather
  • 1943 - The Duke Is Tops
  • 1945 - Harlem Hot Shots
  • 1944 - Boogie Woogie Dream
  • 1944 - Hi-De-Ho Holiday
  • 1944 - My New Gown
  • 1946 - Jivin' The Blues
  • 1946 - Mantan Messes Up
  • 1946 - Till the Clouds Roll By
  • 1950 - Duchess of Idaho
  • 1956 - Meet Me in Las Vegas
  • 1969 - Death of a Gunfighter
  • 1978 - The Wiz!
  • 1994 - That's Entertainment III
  • 1994 - An Evening with Lena Horne

Fast Facts 

Known for: both being limited by and transcending racial boundaries in the entertainment industry. "Stormy Weather" was her signature song.

Occupation: singer, actress
Dates: June 30, 1917 - May 9, 2010

Also known as: Lena Mary Calhoun Horne

Places: New York, Harlem, United States

Honorary degrees: Howard University, Spelman College

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Your Citation
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Lena Horne." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, September 3). Biography of Lena Horne. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Lena Horne." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).