The Lafayette Players had a branch in Philadelphia, and Edna went there in 1921 to perform in Madame X. Although Cora was dead set against it, Edna took Lena. There, the child made her "acting" debut. One scene depicted a little girl lying in her sickbed. Lena played the part impeccably. In her 1950 memoir, she recalled wandering around backstage, in and out of dressing rooms, awestruck by the theater and fantasizing about stardom. The most dazzling sight of all was her mother, whose beauty and talent overwhelmed her. "I was certain that she must be the most wonderful actress in the world," said Horne. Cora's warnings about Edna fell aside; Lena dreamed of doing exactly as her mother had done.

For a while, Edna's career seemed to thrive. "I can understand why she believed she was on the threshold of a brilliant future," observed Lena.

The girl was home in Brooklyn in the autumn of 1922 when Edna trekked for the Lyceum Theatre in Stamford, Connecticut. She'd been cast in the ninety-three-member, all-black company of a musical revue, Dumb Luck. Its name bespoke the producer's wishful thinking. He'd taken that huge company to Connecticut with hardly any budget, praying the reviews would attract investors who would pay for a move to Broadway. Dumb Luck lasted two nights. "The show was lousy, so they closed it," said blues singer Alberta Hunter, one of its stars. The cast was left stranded. Headliner Ethel Waters had been in that bind before, and wangled a sale of the costumes in order to pay for everyone's ride home. The incident would become all too familiar to Edna as her short career wore on.

By now Lena was enrolled in the brand-new Ethical Culture School in Brooklyn. No one had to force her to do her reading; at home she spent hours in her bedroom, the covers pulled up to her chin as she turned the pages of storybooks. She'd taught herself to read before kindergarten; now she devoured children's tales—especially ones about orphans, with whom she empathized.

Apparently her grandmother had called a strict halt to any further visits between the child and her wayward mother. In 1923, Edna had to resort to subterfuge to see her daughter. One day she showed up at a neighbor's house on Chauncey Street and asked the woman to fetch Lena. The two had a tearful reunion, but Edna warned her not to tell her grandmother. Soon thereafter, a relative spirited Lena away to Edna's apartment in Harlem. The little girl found her mother sick in bed, and spouting a dire warning—her father was plotting to kidnap her, and they had better leave town fast.

Edna was lying, of course; Teddy Horne had moved to Seattle with his new wife and had no desire to abscond with the child he'd run away from. But Edna was feeling vengeful—not only toward the husband who'd deserted her but toward Cora for daring to withhold Lena from her.

Her days with the Lafayette Theatre were through. Soon Edna stood on a train platform, holding a suitcase in one hand and leading her daughter by the other. They boarded a segregated train for Miami. There, Edna hoped, she could act in tent shows—Negro vaudeville that played the outskirts of southern towns for a few days at a time. The actors faced "hellish" odds, as Bill Reed wrote in his book Hot from Harlem. Police gladly arrested them if they were out on the street at night—the very time they worked. "Unscrupulous management and inadequate food and lodging were a commonplace of black show-business life. That these performers managed to shoulder the burden of racism...and still get the job of entertainment done was a miracle."


Next Story