Lena moved in with them, but the damage her mother had wrought on her could not be fixed. Edna, she felt, had kept her dear father away from her, while making her feel as though she were just "a nuisance and an interruption" in her mother's career. Cold as Cora seemed, undoubtedly she cared for her granddaughter. During her cruise she'd sent letters home, voicing affection for the "dear little girl." And if her own weakness showed through in her inability to speak a loving word to Lena's face, she still represented home. When a violent asthma attack killed her in September 1933, Lena was shattered.

Edna's hatred of Cora remained. In a story Lena told often, her mother forbade her to go to the funeral. Hysterical with grief, Lena ran there anyway. Edna pursued her and made such a scene in full view of the family that they disowned Edna permanently.

Within months, Grandfather Edwin died too. He took with him the last vestiges of real security Lena knew. But there was still Laura Rollock, who kept nurturing her dream to perform. Lena quit Girls High and, for practical purposes, enrolled in secretarial school. Meanwhile she joined the Anna Jones Dancing School, whose members, according to the New York Amsterdam News, were "a group of pretty New York and Brooklyn debutantes."

In 1933, the Jones girls took the stage of the Lafayette Theatre, the place where Edna Horne had gotten an intoxicating but short-lived taste of stardom. Now her daughter was dancing on its stage and on another just as grand, that of the Harlem Opera House, a home for lofty drama and music since 1889. White Broadway headliners like Edwin Booth and Lillian Russell had played that shrine, but lately black attractions had become welcome there, too. The Anna Jones ensemble brought something suitably high-flown: a piece that Isadora Duncan, the mother of modern dance, had choreographed to "Stormy Weather," Ethel Waters's showstopper in the current show at the Cotton Club.

That year, Rollock directed an annual benefit show held by Brooklyn's Junior Theatre Guild. She cast Horne as the lead in an originalbook musical, Marriage Versus Contract. Playing a Broadway star wooed romantically by a producer, she sang "I've Got the World on a String," another Cotton Club hit, and Cole Porter's "Night and Day."

Chic white audiences adored those songs, and if Horne sang them amateurishly, her looks made up for it. The young woman had grown to five foot six and a half, and her beauty had flowered. She had elegantly high cheekbones, her dark eyes glowed expressively, and her broad smile was just as disarming. Visually, she eclipsed her mother. In a bathing-suit photo taken of them on Jones Beach in Long Island, Edna looked squat and homely. Lena was wide-hipped and a bit chunky, with skinny legs, but her stunning face caught the eye. Clearly she knew it. Another picture showed her in a one-piece swimsuit, arms crossed behind her head in a sexy movie-star pose.

Writer Alfred Duckett grew up in her Brooklyn neighborhood, and saw Horne on the street every day. Wearing sunglasses, she would leave Girls High and head to the library, walking out shortly after with a book. Years later he recalled her as "the most desirable, the prettiest girl God had made and permitted me to see...She had a few brown freckles on her clear bronze skin. She carried herself like a princess.... I remember that she walked with a swaying walk and that there was southern warmth and depth in her voice." He and his pals whistled and shouted out, "Hey, baby!" at the sight of her. "The regal way she sailed past our united insolence only spurred us to greater efforts. 'What say, Stuck-Up?' we called out to her."


Next Story