Lorraine Gerard, the wife of a bebop pianist named Vinnie Gerard, was nearing eighty in 2005, but time had not dimmed a particular memory from her Depression-era childhood. She grew up in Canarsie, a bayside neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Her family took her for weekend fun to the shore, where buskers entertained for coins on a well-known pier.
In 1933, Lorraine got her first glimpse of a lovely, waiflike teenager whose name, she heard, was Lena Horne. "Every Saturday and Sunday she used to sing and dance on the beach for pennies," Lorraine recalled. "She appeared to be extremely poor. I thought she had the ugliest legs, and I wasn't the only one that thought that. Scrawny, you know? Her dresses were skimpy-looking; you could tell that she was in need." Lorraine's family never spoke to the girl, but she earned their sympathy, and they tossed some change her way.
Her household needed all the help it could get. Lena's mother was a jobless and sickly actress; her Cuban stepfather was unemployed, too. They could barely pay the rent on their small Brooklyn apartment and lived on groceries from relief organizations. For Lena—who'd been born into the well-heeled respectability of the black middle class—life now held considerable shame.
A decade later she had good reason to obscure her past. M-G-M had signed her to a long-term contract, the likes of which no one of color in Hollywood had ever known. In the black community, all eyes were on her. As a sex symbol of uncommon refinement, Horne would have to revolutionize the Negro persona in Hollywood. Among the reams of press she received was a profile in PM, a Manhattan leftist newspaper. For an article called "The Real Story of Lena Horne," she told reporter Robert Rice about her distinguished family, which included schoolteachers, activists, and a Harlem Renaissance poet. Apropos of nothing, Horne mentioned that an interviewer had asked her if she'd ever "danced for pennies on the street" as a youngster.
"I told him no," she said.
Keeping up appearances would always be crucial to Horne, as it was for so many black people throughout her lifetime. They had to take great pains to counter the stereotypes that the white community associated with them. A veneer as painstakingly wrought as Horne's wasn't easily dropped; it was the armor she needed to survive, and it hid lots of secrets. Only in 1963, when the civil rights movement had forced much of America to take an honest look at what it meant to be black, did Horne start delving behind her own mask. She did so for an autobiographical article in Show magazine, "I Just Want to Be Myself."
"I came from what was called one of the First Families of Brooklyn," Horne explained. They shunned discussing the slave ancestry that had spawned them all—"yet it was the rape of slave women by their masters which accounted for our white blood, which, in turn, made us Negro 'society.'" Home was an immaculate four-story brownstone in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section. An iron fence with sharp black spikes protected 189 Chauncey Street on three sides. That barrier told passersby to keep their distance; and for Lena's grandmother Cora, the lady of the house, it shut out the neighborhood's seamier elements—the poor Irish in tenements across the street, the Swedes who ran a garage a few doors down.
Cora and her husband, Edwin, had lived on Chauncey Street since 1896. That year they joined a northward migration of approximately forty thousand blacks who fled the growing horrors of southern life. Post-Civil War Reconstruction had collapsed, toppled by white supremacists. Negroes had lost most of the rights they'd gained, and segregation was flaring. Hundreds of lynchings had occurred—each a symbolic warning of what might happen to Negroes who stepped out of line, or even to those who didn't. In contrast, the northern cities—New York, Chicago, Detroit—seemed like oases of safety and opportunity.
A small percentage of the newly settled black families were considered special. This was the "black bourgeoisie," a prosperous middle class of teachers, doctors, businessmen, and others of education and grooming. They or their elders had descended from "favored slaves"—privileged blacks who, by virtue of their brains or their sexual allure to their masters, had worked in the house, not in the field. During the decade-long heyday of Reconstruction, they'd used their cachet to start businesses and gain social standing. Now, in the North, they were helping pave the way for a new Negro image—one that challenged every cliché of black women as household help, black men as shiftless loafers. The Negro aristocracy tended to shun anyone who embodied a past they wanted to bury. "Uppity" became a popular word to describe ambitious blacks.
Respectability was their gospel, and they upheld it at all costs. Actress Jane White, whose father, Walter White, became the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1931, recalled the code of behavior dictated by the black bourgeoisie. "You didn't laugh too loud," she said. "You didn't go out in messy clothes, you were always polished and ironed; you learned how to speak well, and with a modulated voice. It was a tight cage you were in."
The Whites lived at 409 Edgecombe Avenue, the most prestigious address in Harlem. At fourteen stories, it towered above the rest of Sugar Hill, a gold-ring neighborhood for the Negro elite. Residents through the years included NAACP cofounder and preeminent activist W.E.B. Du Bois; Jimmie Lunceford, one of Harlem's star bandleaders; and Thurgood Marshall, the lawyer who worked for the NAACP before becoming the Supreme Court's first black justice. In the 1940s, Marshall often dropped by the White apartment for poker nights. "There would be hootin' and hollerin' and drinkin'," said Jane, "and they would let their hair down, and Thurgood talked one way amongst them. When he argued in court he talked another way. One may laugh, but it's rather sad." In public, she said, "you couldn't be what you were."
Many in the black bourgeoisie wound up emulating the values and even the looks of middle-class whites. From the 1920s through the 1960s, magazines for black readers advertised lye-based skin-lightening creams and hair-straightening treatments. "'Lighter is brighter'—that was an actual expression then," said Gene Davis, who produced dozens of black cultural documentaries before his death in 2007. "The social structure in the black community until recently was based on how light you were. And the lighter you were, the more acceptable you were." The notion that "black is beautiful" did not appear until the civil rights movement, when African roots were flaunted, not hidden, and the Negro slave ancestry celebrated for its strength.
In his 1957 book Black Bourgeoisie, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier defined that group in terms that could have applied to Lena Horne. In Frazier's view, it lacked "cultural roots in either the Negro world with which it refuses to identify or the white world which refuses to accept it." By struggling so hard for the respect of both, he wrote, members of the black bourgeoisie suffered from a constant identity crisis.
But a more enlightened age could never have come without bridges, and the black bourgeoisie was uniquely equipped to fight for change. Its members had education, social access, and manners a white society might come to heed. If they had to deny their history in order to find a foothold in the white man's world, they didn't hesitate. So it was at the Horne residence, the hub of a family with a sprawling history explored by Gail Lumet Buckley in her book The Hornes: An American Family. Before Lena's birth in 1917, six people lived in the house. Reigning over them was Cora Calhoun Horne, her dictatorial grandmother. Fifty-two when Lena arrived, Cora was a community activist of warrior determination. She looked the part, with her austerely pulled-back salt-and-pepper hair, steel-rimmed glasses, and near inability to smile.
Cora battled for so many Negro civic groups that her gentler husband seemed to wilt by comparison. Back in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he was born, Edwin had published and edited Justice, a prominent black newspaper; later he worked as a schoolteacher and politician. In Brooklyn he became secretary-general of the United Colored Democracy of Greater New York.
Astonishingly, Edwin wasn't even a Negro, but the son of a white Englishman and a Native American mother. During Reconstruction, Native Americans had suffered worse discrimination than blacks. For his children's sake, he'd decided to "pass" as Negro. Apparently that went undiscussed among the Hornes—no surprise, given their disdain for whites.
Edwin and Cora had four sons. Edwin Frank Horne, Jr., the handsomest of the boys, lived on the top floor with Edna, his wife. Errol had served as a sergeant in an all-black army troop until influenza killed him. Burke and Frank were teenagers when Lena was born.
The Hornes seemed like a model family. Outsiders didn't know that Edwin and Cora slept in separate rooms and barely spoke. One of the rumored causes was a past affair between Edwin and a white editor of Vogue. But in a Catholic household like theirs, divorce was as verboten as philandering; best to avoid discussing either. "As a family," said Lena, "we were very reticent, hiding feelings."
Certain parts of their lineage went unmentioned, too—especially by Cora, whose café au lait skin, thin lips, and delicate nose betrayed generations of intermingling with whites. Her maiden name, Calhoun, came from her father's and grandmother's slave master in Georgia, Dr. Andrew Bonaparte Calhoun. His uncle, Senator John C. Calhoun, had championed slavery as God's will—another unvoiced source of shame among the Hornes.
But Cora had revered Moses, her mulatto father. After decades as a house slave, he'd become a top Atlanta business owner and had married a white woman. Cora and her sister, Lena, had more white blood than black; this along with their father's means brought them great privilege. As young women they lived like debutantes, earning university degrees at a time when few women of any race did. In 1887, when she was twentytwo, Cora took her own white husband, Edwin Horn (he added the e later). Lena married Frank Smith, a mixed-blood, light-skinned doctor.
Once settled in Brooklyn, Edwin and Cora focused on raising their sons. But according to Gail Lumet Buckley, child rearing bored Cora. Once the boys were old enough to fend for themselves, she began working for a dizzying array of community causes. They included the Urban League, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), and the NAACP, formed in 1909 in response to the growing scourge of anti-Negro brutality. Cora lectured hookie-playing black youths on how they were jeopardizing their futures and shaming their race. She led demonstrations to demand voting rights for black women. She aided unwed Negro mothers, and fought to get scholarships for worthy young blacks—one of whom, Paul Robeson, entered Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, due partly to Cora's efforts. Her bedrock strength left little room for warmth. Lena Horne recalled her as a "violent, militant little lady" who never caressed her or uttered a loving word. To Cora, sentimentality meant weakness. Having come from a line of women who cooked the white man's meals and washed his clothes, she wouldn't stoop to anything that evoked servitude. She left such tasks to her husband. The ironies were many: A white man (albeit one in hiding) did housework for his (partly) Negro wife, who wore the pants in the family—and who detested whites.
Edwin had already fallen a rung in society. He'd lost his job as a teacher to a less experienced white man; now he worked as an inspector for the fire department. He sought comfort in life's finer things. At home in his parlor, he relished his sweet-smelling Havana cigars while listening to Caruso on the Victrola. He applauded the great tenor at the Metropolitan Opera. Edwin's looks held their own distinction; Lena would recall his gray mustache and hair and his "beautiful, sad blue eyes." Even as a child, she understood her grandfather's loneliness.
Edwin, Jr.—better known as Teddy—spat in the face of the family high-mindedness. Teddy had proudly skipped college, knowing his charm and pretty-boy looks would get him further. He smirked behind the back of any "sucker"—usually white—whom he could coax into doing his bidding. By the time he'd grown, the illegal gambling business had found a master hustler in Teddy Horne.
In 1916, he wed a girl from an even cushier Brooklyn background. Edna Scottron was the fair-skinned, green-eyed daughter of a Native American mother and a successful Portuguese Negro inventor. Like Teddy, Edna lived for her whims. She dreamed of stardom in the theater; meanwhile she'd landed a lady-killer for a husband.
She and Teddy moved into the top floor of the Horne brownstone, where Edna became pregnant quickly. She hoped for a son. Instead, on June 30, 1917, she bore a brown-eyed, freckled, copper-skinned girl. Edna and Teddy named her Lena Mary Calhoun Horne. Lena would report later that her father wasn't at the hospital when she was born; he'd gone to play cards, ostensibly to earn money to pay the hospital bill. As she saw it, her father was "pursuing his own interests"; to Lena, this constituted rejection at birth. Not surprisingly, she remained an only child.
If Teddy and Edna were embarrassments to the family, grandmother Cora took steps to ensure that Lena set forth on the right track. In October 1919, the NAACP newsletter, the Branch Bulletin, welcomed one of the organization's "youngest members." Lena was just two and barely walking when Cora signed her up. "She paid the office a visit last month and seemed delighted with everything she saw," explained the Branch Bulletin.
Above that caption was a photo of a joyless toddler wearing a white lacy dress and a frown; the rose placed in her hands did nothing to brighten the scene. Her face mirrored the mood at home. By that time, Teddy wanted out of family life and had devised a ruse for escape. He was sick, he said, perhaps with tuberculosis, and had to head west for health reasons. Edna knew he was lying, but she was powerless to keep him. Later she told Lena that her father "was too young, too handsome, and too spoiled by the ladies to be ready for marriage."
Teddy had an action-packed new job in store. He became a numbers runner—"a pimp and a hustler," as Horne further explained. Illegal gambling was a popular profession among Negro men of his day. Whatever their education, only menial jobs—or none at all—tended to await them. Many Negro men thumbed their noses at the system and took to the streets. "You worked with criminal attitudes," said Lena. "It took a lot of guts. You chose that rather than have the man make a slave of you."
But no danger befell Teddy Horne, who gave off an invincible air. Photos of him from the twenties show a slick, grinning operator with pomaded hair, three-piece suits, and Stetson hats. By then he had a new woman on his arm, Irene, whom he'd married as soon as he was free. From Seattle, where they lived, he sent his daughter gifts and an allowance. She opened each package with glee, but then came a stab of longing: Why had her father deserted her?
Edna had her own concerns—namely, her dreams of acting. She moved to Harlem, where the action was, and left Lena behind. Now both parents had abandoned the child. Before going to sleep each night, Lena said her prayers, then kissed the bedside photos of her mother and father.
Cora would have none of her granddaughter's tears. As soon as Lena was old enough to understand, she told the child that she must never be like her mother, with all her silly ambitions. Relentlessly she drilled Lena on how to be a proper Horne: "Think for yourself. Don't make excuses. Don't lie. Never say 'ain't.' Learn how to read. Learn how to listen. Hold your head straight, look people in the eye, talk to them distinctly." Most important: "You will never let anyone see you cry."
Lena obediently followed her to meetings. As Cora's women friends held grave discussions, Lena got a lesson in manners: It was her job to serve the ladies tea and cake, then to sit silently in the corner. "She never made a child of me," said Lena. "I was always an adult." Once home, Cora would drill her as to what she'd learned.
In The Hornes, Gail Lumet Buckley described Cora as "a very neurotic woman," obsessed with what others thought of her and her family. Carmen de Lavallade, an influential black modern dancer whose career burgeoned in the fifties, knew the stifling effects of such an upbringing. "At that time if you came from certain families, you had to grow up to be a lady!" she said. "I grew up that way. It doesn't give you allowance for anything—for temper, for sorrow. You can't be yourself."
Cora's militancy involved deep prejudice. Horne would later tell reporter Sidney Fields that she'd "been raised to dislike white people intensely." Cora forbade her to play with white children, but wouldn't explain why. When she got older, she heard that white men wanted only one thing from black women, and it wasn't marriage. Cora looked with equal disgust at lower-class Negroes. Gail Lumet Buckley gave a dismaying example in The Hornes. When Lena's fair-skinned cousin Edwina fell for a dark-hued, unpedigreed black man, the family broke it up, all but forcing her to marry someone else. Even the lusty sounds of gospel and blues made Cora cringe; in her home, anything that signified a loss of control was shunned. Instead, she listened to Bach and Gregorian chants, cutting off the musical part of Lena's black heritage.
Cora sneered at Edna's ambitions, but they weren't so outlandish as she thought. By now enough black beacons had burst onto the show-business scene to keep Edna hopeful. Comic Bert Williams had conquered vaudeville, Broadway, and the recording field to become the nation's first Negro star. Audiences knew him as a downtrodden clown whose laughing-through-tears quality touched the heart. Florence Mills was black America's sweetheart, a lovely young waif who sang in a lilting, birdlike voice. Mills had shot to prominence in an off-Broadway smash, Shuffle Along, and seemed on the verge of great things. Actress Rose McClendon had moved from South Carolina to New York and won a scholarship to the hallowed American Academy of Dramatic Arts; eventually she became known as "the Negro first lady of the dramatic stage."
McClendon reached that zenith via Harlem's Lafayette Theatre, nirvana for an aspiring black actor. Billed as "America's Leading Colored Theatre," the two-thousand-seat hall hosted the Lafayette Players, a legitimate Negro stock company. Founded in 1915, the ensemble was a big step forward from minstrel shows, vaudeville, and many silent films, where blacks were usually portrayed as thick-lipped, nappy-haired buffoons. Instead, the Players performed everything from Shakespeare to all-black versions of Broadway hits, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In 1921, Edna walked into the Lafayette during an open audition and recited a monologue from Antony and Cleopatra. Her flair for melodrama served her well, and she walked out of the theater as a Lafayette Player. Edna had never known such joy. Soon she was emoting her way through ingénue roles in plays like Madame X.
Now a working (if meagerly paid) actress, she sometimes reclaimed her four-year-old from Cora and showed her off at the theater. Lena retained a happy memory from that time. Edna had a part in Way Down East, a popular Victorian tragedy that had just made it to the silent screen. The stage set contained a fireplace, and before curtain time one night, Edna sat Lena behind it and allowed her to watch the show through a little hole. Even at four, the stage thrilled her.
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."
Horne later reflected on the hard knocks they were willing to endure in order to practice their craft. She herself paid a harsh price for her mother's ambitions. For the next six years, Edna would drag her from town to town as she searched, mostly in vain, for acting work; she would leave her child in foster care, then vanish, sometimes for months. More han once, she would reappear in the middle of the night and snatch ena away, claiming her father was about to kidnap her.
But Lena could never have foreseen all that as she rode the train to Miami with Edna, whose illness left her moaning all the way. There in the sweltering South, the two carted their bags to their temporary new home, a little frame boardinghouse. It stood behind a railroad track in a Negro slum. Lena recalled it as a "tumble-down shack with a sagging porch, broken stairs, and no plumbing." The kitchen had a dirt floor; cinders blew in the window when a train passed. Each room sheltered anywhere from two people to a family, all of whom shared "a foul outhouse." Young as Lena was, this descent into rural poverty must have seemed an unexplainable fall from grace.
Edna's professional fortunes in Miami proved slim. She took on odd jobs—salesclerk, maid—to support her and her daughter. For the first time, Lena learned what lay behind much of the antiwhite talk in Brooklyn. From almost any white she felt a cold draft or downright hostility. Her feet hurt because her new shoes didn't fit; Negroes weren't allowed to try on merchandise, for if they didn't buy the item, no white person would, either. At home, fellow boarders at the house spoke hatefully of "crackers"—a popular southern term for bigots.
Some kindness awaited Lena at the one-room schoolhouse where Edna sent her. The Hornes contains a touching photo of the child flanked by two classmates. She grins proudly as she hugs both girls close; one of them beams at her adoringly. But Lena was also learning that sometimes no one was meaner to Negroes than other Negroes. Perhaps because of her reading skills, the six-year-old had been placed a grade ahead. Her resentful schoolmates called her "dumb." Worse still, they taunted her for her northern accent and light skin, which to them meant she was "high yaller"—in a drawled pronunciation of "high yellow," which denoted the child of a mixed-race union. Up North, her lighter skin gave her advantages. Lighter-skinned Negroes there were perceived to be "better"; here that look signaled the blood of the reviled white man.
The jeers crushed her. But Edna was too preoccupied to offer much comfort. In their travels, she did find a few tent-show jobs. But much of the time, recalled Lena, Edna wound up "stranded, and starved, and once she was caught in a company where one member was lynched." Lena saw her mother turn frustrated and sad. She took it out on her little girl; minor infractions, such as leaving her sweater at school, brought beatings.
In her self-centeredness, Edna also unthinkingly exposed her daughter to outside dangers. Their next stop was Jacksonville, Florida's largest city. She left Lena with a theatrical couple and disappeared again. Back one day for a visit, she made plans with the couple to see a nearby tent show. With Lena in the car, they drove off into the night, laughing and telling stories. Suddenly they saw a black man up ahead, waving his arms. He warned them frantically, "The crackers are out killing tonight!" The gay mood turned to terror; they swerved around and sped home.
Soon Edna and daughter fled Jacksonville and took aimlessly to the road. Lena recalled boarding in a house where the police broke in during the night and used their guns to beat a black man mercilessly. Everyone else in the room looked on in terror. Afterward, Lena sobbingly asked her mother to explain. "They're mean down here," was all Edna said.
When money ran so low that she couldn't afford Lena's care, Edna scraped together what cash she could to buy her a train ticket to Brooklyn. Traveling alone with a tag on her lapel, the little girl returned to what -she later called her "only sense of roots." But invariably Edna plucked her away again. It seemed odd that Cora—who battled for the rights of young people she didn't even know—would not have taken steps to keep Lena home. And did the moneyed and connected Teddy Horne know or care about his daughter's plight? Teddy, of course, had deserted the family, and surrendered his fatherly control. Time and again Lena toted her bag down the staircase of the Chauncey Street brownstone, heeding a familiar command: "Come on, Lena, we're going! "
The child next found herself in southern Ohio, where Edna placed her with a doctor and his family. They treated her affectionately, and she had her own room in a comfortable house. But she knew it wouldn't last, and she began having terrible nightmares. In 1974, she told reporter Nancy Collins that every time she developed a loving relationship with her caregivers, her mother snatched her away. She became "afraid of people...of letting myself be close to them," lest she get her feelings hurt. From then on, she lived with lowered expectations. "I made my peace that no one really did love me," she said, "regardless of my color."
In 1927, Edna got word of possible work in Macon, a prosperous city in central Georgia. The train pulled into a tidy, bustling downtown area, with trolleys running through it; in another well-tended area stood the nearly century-old Wesleyan College for women. But southern Negro poverty awaited Lena again when Edna left her in her latest foster home. The child's new "street" was a fly-ridden, dirt alleyway lined by wooden frame houses. She recalled moving into a two-room shack whose walls were patched with newspaper. Washing clothes in a big iron pot out back was the lady of the house—"a very elderly mammy," said Horne—who presided over many boarders. Her daughter lived there with her two children, one a little girl named Thelma. The other, a boy, shared the mammy's bed, at the foot of which lay a cot for Lena. Others slept in the kitchen.
The old lady seemed to sense Lena's loneliness, and treated her caringly. Now ten, Lena noticed how the poorest people she met were usually the kindest, for they understood struggle better than anyone. The daughter, who cooked for a white family, brought home scraps of fine southern food, and made sure Lena never went hungry.
Edna was broke on a regular basis and struggled to afford Lena's upkeep. For all her mother's flightiness, Lena still yearned for her, and refused to see her as a villain. "She tried hard to take care of me," said the singer in 1952. Lena would later observe that a black woman of the day was "apt to be a whore" when times got rough. Since actresses were already deemed loose women, prostitution proved an easy segue. A journalist who knew Horne well recalled her mentioning that Edna had sold her body, at least briefly. It wasn't surprising; Horne also spoke of her mother's prostitute friends, with whom she'd stayed.
For all the squalor of the child's southern life, she was reminded every now and then of the grandeur a Negro could achieve. In November of 1927, her schoolteacher in Macon stood before the class and announced that Florence Mills—dubbed the "Queen of Happiness"—had died at thirty-one. Tuberculosis had felled the winsome songbird, reportedly due to an exhaustive run in Blackbirds of 1926, the show that had sealed her fame. "We've had a great loss," stated the teacher. Horne never forgot his sadness. "I think that was probably the first time I was conscious that we looked upon certain people as ours," she said, "with this kind of pride." If Mills could scale such heights and evoke such devotion, then maybe Edna's ambitions weren't so far-fetched.
She was still far from Lena in December when the child's uncle Frank paid a surprise visit to the house in Macon. It wasn't clear who in the family had sent him there, but he was in a unique position to help Lena. Frank worked thirty miles southwest in Fort Valley, a largely black Georgia town. There, the dapper, wavy-haired young man served as dean of students at Fort Valley Normal and Industrial School, an all-black college.
Frank moved Lena to Fort Valley. There, she roomed in the dorm with his flapper fiancée, Frankye, a teacher. The child felt uneasy living among a bunch of college-age women, but they went out of their way to treat her sweetly. That wasn't true of her classmates at a nearby elementary school. Observing that Lena's parents were nowhere in sight, and that her skin was much lighter than theirs, they lashed out at her. In her first memoir, Horne recalled their jeers. "Yaller! Yaller!" they chanted. "Got a white daddy! Shame! Shame!" They linked arms and danced around her, calling her a "little yellow bastard." Lena cried out, "I am not!"
Their words haunted her. She tried to darken her skin by lingering in the sun, but she wasn't sure how she should talk. At her grandmother's home, to use anything but textbook English was grounds for punishment. But the Fort Valley locals talked in thick southern accents, using Negro dialect. A confusion overtook her that she never quite lost. In 1965, she called herself "two or three people," depending on her company. Her accent kept shifting: "I hear it happening and still I go ahead and do it."
But as she soon found, switching identities could be helpful. In the auditorium of Uncle Frank's college, the child watched a rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet. Lena had been around the theater as long as she could remember, but as she neared puberty, the notion of acting struck her in a whole new way. To escape one's self and take on a dramatic new persona—better still, to be applauded for it—took on a great mystique for the young Lena. There in Fort Valley, she recalled, the yen to act hit her for the first time. She began reading plays in the library and imagining herself in various roles.
When Frank and Frankye wed, Lena got her own room in their new house. Life hadn't felt so normal in years. But it was shaken up by a rare appearance from Teddy Horne. Lena barely knew her father, but Edna and Frank had told her stories of his dastardly ways, which, combined with his absence, had turned him into a magnetic, mysterious figure in Lena's mind.
Teddy didn't disappoint her. She watched in awe as he pulled up to the house in a big black car. Out came her smooth-looking, fashion-plate daddy, dispensing presents like Santa Claus.
Lena was awestruck. Teddy stayed for weeks—their first extended time together in her memory. In recent years, Teddy had only moved up in the world. He'd relocated to Pittsburgh, a city with a bustling black population and cultural life. It also had a thriving underworld, and Teddy made the best of it. He'd gone to work for Gus Greenlee, the city's premiere racketeer. A Negro from North Carolina, Greenlee had grown so rich—largely through illegal gambling interests—that he'd bought the Pittsburgh Crawfords, one of the city's two black baseball teams, and built his own field.
As Greenlee's treasurer, Teddy had grown well to do himself. He'd opened a restaurant that bore his name, and acquired a small hotel for blacks, the Belmont. It was actually a front for gambling, which took place in a back room called the Bucket of Blood. Teddy acquired a Jewish partner, along with a piece of the Crawfords. Then he got involved in the career of John Henry Lewis, a black world-champion boxer whom Greenlee managed.
For Lena, who felt increasingly victimized, her father seemed dazzlingly free-spirited. He laughed at authority and spouted hard-boiled pearls of wisdom: "Ask for no mercy and give less," "Don't trust no bush that quivers." In this brief attempt at fatherhood, he schooled his daughter well on surmounting the hard-knock Negro existence. "Because he knew how loathsome life was, he taught me a lot," said Horne in the late eighties. "He gave me all the street knowledge I needed to survive."
But with his toughness came an inability to show much love, a family rait he passed on to his daughter. No amount of bluster or expensive gifts—including a fur coat—could disguise the fact that he'd deserted her. In 1986, Horne told writer Glenn Plaskin that the father she'd adored had never hugged or kissed her. Instead he, like Edna, teased her with affection, then snatched it away. Suddenly Teddy's visit to Fort Valley was over. He drove off, leaving her to wonder what she'd done wrong. Later she contemplated another sad legacy he'd left her, "a willingness to ccept the fact that some of the greatest things just couldn't happen for me." Foremost among them was the comfort of knowing that people she cared about would stay.
At least Fort Valley had brought her some stability, as had the love of Frank and Frankye. Lena didn't welcome the letter that Edna sent her in the spring of 1928. Its familiar promise—that soon they'd be together for keeps—brought only dread; now Edna seemed like a stranger to her, and not to be trusted.
Soon her mother arrived with a friend, known to Lena as "Aunt Lucille." Excitedly, Edna told Lena she'd found a house in Atlanta. The cost would be covered by a wealthy beau of hers from Miami, where Edna was again spending a lot of time. According to The Hornes, Edna's flame had agreed to foot the bill as long as this new house wasn't in Florida; apparently he didn't want a little girl around.
Lena said a reluctant good-bye to Frank and Frankye and departed with her mother and "aunt." Before they left Fort Valley, Lucille insisted they stay with a relative of hers who lived in town. Lena found him fat and repulsive. But Edna and Lucille saw no harm in going off and leaving eleven-year-old Lena in his care. She recalled the consequences in her second memoir. "Back in Macon, those good women had told me: 'Don't be a bad girl....Don't let a boy touch you.'...But you haven't been told whether you're to blame or it's the other person's fault. All you know is that if somebody touches you it's bad." Horne did and said nothing. But many years later Marcia Ann Gillespie, a writer and editor who worked with Horne on an aborted third memoir, could see the scars of that childhood trauma: "So much of her behavior was that of someone who's been abused."
Lena's relationship with Edna had grown so strained that she feared confiding in her. Grandmother Cora's upbringing came into play: At any cost, she had to be seen as a good girl—one who never got involved in anything unsavory, even if it wasn't her fault. Privately, though, she despised the man, and the incident drove a further wedge between her and her mother—in fact, between her and the world. "I became very secretive," said Lena. "I became very suspicious of everyone."
Once they'd reached Atlanta, Edna tried, in her fumbling way, to be a good parent. Thanks to her moneyed suitor, she enrolled Lena in dancing school. At her eleventh birthday party on June 30, 1928, the girl gleefully demonstrated the snakehips, a dance created by Earl "Snakehips" Tucker, a famed black vaudevillian. Lena walked to grade school, encountering some southern-style friendliness on the way. Years later she told of passing white men on Peachtree Street; they patted her on the head and said, "What a cute little nigger you are!"
As usual, any sense of home she may have felt was soon dashed. Edna's career had petered down to almost nothing; now she seemed more interested in living as a kept woman. Off she went to Miami with Lucille, again leaving her daughter in foster care. One of her guardians was the mysterious "Aunt May," who belittled Lena for the slightest infractions. Two other caregivers, a black couple, passed her off to their housekeeper. She made Lena perform punishing chores, and nothing the girl did was good enough. After Lena had stepped out of the bathtub, wet and shivering, the housekeeper beat her with switches cut from a backyard tree.
Lena lived in dread. Once more she avoided telling her mother of the abuse. But neighbors heard her cries and informed Edna when she came back. Instead of offering comfort, Edna scolded her. According to Gail Lumet Buckley, "Lena felt that Edna was embarrassed about the neighbors knowing something she did not."
In early 1929, Lena finally escaped the South and its violence. Edna gave up on trying to manage a preteen girl on the road, and she sent her daughter home to Brooklyn for good. Lena was relieved. Immediately she began a semester at P.S. 35, a junior high school, then progressed to the integrated Girls High School, one of the city's most prestigious institutions. Lena played basketball there and gradually made new friends. The Great Depression had come, but its worst effects passed over the privileged Horne household.
For all its dark side, her grandmother's training had helped Lena survive the last few years; forever after she would speak of Cora with a certain awe. But now that she was a young woman, she found Cora more stifling than ever. In the parlor and at the dinner table, Lena heard her rail on about the "silly, foolish" Edna. "You must be stronger than your mother," she declared. "She's weak and she's illogical."
Cora wanted to help Lena buttress herself against the cruel outside world. But her haranguing stirred up a protective impulse in the girl. For the first time, Lena struck back at her grandmother; she recalled "battling" with her in Edna's defense. Lena didn't dare reveal that she, too, wanted to be an actress. Cora had already made it clear that she wanted her to become a teacher, like others in the family. Lena went along with her grandmother's wishes in word but not in deed. She loved dressing in grown-ups' clothes and enacting plays she'd devised. The now-adolescent girl signed up for more dancing lessons, and starred in a play for the Urban League.
In 1931, Cora left on an around-the-world trip, financed by her son Teddy. Lena was left in the care of a cherished family friend, Laura Jean Rollock. "Aunt Laura," as Lena called her, directed the dancing and acting groups at the Lincoln Settlement, a Negro community center. She wasn't at all discouraging of Lena's ambitions. They spoke for hours about the stage, and movies, too, for Lena had become an avid filmgoer. When she appeared in a revue at Girls High, Laura offered sympathetic advice. The theater gave Lena a much-needed sense of belonging; it was no wonder that in 1942, when she supplied information to M-G-M's publicity department, she would answer a query about her childhood ambition with the simple phrase: "To be on stage."
Lena joined the Junior Debs, one of a slew of social clubs for members of the black bourgeoisie. "We were the 'best bunch in town'—and we knew it," she said; no other girls in Brooklyn had such classy breeding or looked so good. Lena had never thought much about singing, but she tried it at the group's tea parties, and had fun. A prominent black newspaper, the New York Amsterdam News, took notice of the teenager, calling her "'tops' among the younger set."
Eventually her grandmother came home, but she wasn't the same. Cora had turned sixty-seven, and her stony fortitude was starting to crack. Bronchial asthma ran in the family, and she'd begun showing signs of it. Cora feared her days were numbered—the likely reason that Teddy had bought her a world cruise. Lena began to hear hacking coughs in the night. As usual, nothing was said the next day.
Another homecoming occurred in 1932. Edna had recently gone to Havana; now she'd returned to Brooklyn, and she wasn't alone. With her was her new husband, Miguel Rodriguez, a former army officer. White and Cuban, Mike (as Edna called him) struck Lena as a "fierce little man." He had a stocky build, a thick mustache, and dark, blazing eyes set off by bushy eyebrows. What English he knew was obscured by a thick accent. He seemed to worship Edna, but Lena loathed him on sight, and his color had much to do with it. Her bouts with southern racism, combined with her family's hatred of whites, had left a mark. If the Hornes had disliked Edna before, her marriage to a white man now made her a pariah.
Mike had his own reservations. He was skeptical of a lot of the blacks he saw, for he couldn't understand why they tolerated such abuse. He saw no point in the cautious resistance advocated by groups like the NAACP. And the cold shoulder he got as the husband of a Negro made him angry. But he had a more pressing concern. He was a skilled machinist, and had to somehow find work in the depths of the Depression. He and Edna pooled what funds they had and found an apartment near Chauncey Street.
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."
But when he met Horne in church, Duckett saw another side of the teenager. He found that "Miss Stuck-Up wasn't really stuck up." She would chat warmly and politely, he said, "if you only acted decent and tipped your hat." From then on, he remained smitten with her. Around 1933, he sat in the balcony of the YWCA, where an amateur musical took place. Its star was a white-gowned Horne. "I was awed to realize that I knew such a beautiful, talented girl," said Duckett.
Once home with her mother and stepfather, though, Horne reentered a web of hostility. To her, Mike seemed arrogant and unsympathetic to what black Americans had to endure, and she resented her mother for marrying him. All Mike knew was that this was the Depression, and everyone had it bad. He couldn't find work, and his marriage to a black woman didn't help. Edna found a way to minimize the fallout. Her light skin and Portuguese blood enabled her to pose as Latin. But Lena knew too well that they couldn't pass for white with a child of her coloring.
The family went on government assistance. They moved from Brooklyn to a less expensive apartment in the Bronx, then to an even cheaper one in Harlem. In later years, stinging from numerous career disappointments, Horne would claim that she'd turned to show business only to support her starving parents. Edna, she claimed, was ailing and unable to work, and had pressured her to step in as breadwinner.
But in her obscure first memoir, Horne told a different tale. With the family in need, she begged Edna to let her quit school altogether and find a paying job on the stage. The answer was no. The teenager persisted. By the fall of 1933, she had joined the chorus line of the Cotton Club, the most prestigious nightclub in Harlem. No one there noticed Edna's illness; every night she stayed glued to her daughter's side until the wee hours.
Copyright © 2009 by James Gavin
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