Lena Horne (And a Classic American Family)

The iconic American entertainer Lena Horne passed away on Sunday at age 92.

In a way, Horne’s bio was a precis of 20th-century American history. She lives forever in the mind’s eye as the beautiful, sultry  singer of “Stormy Weather,” but she also became a pioneering NAACP member at the age of two, signed up by her redoubtable grandmother Cora Calhoun Horne.  Her family was firmly rooted in an influential circle of well-to-do Brooklyn intellectuals, businesspeople and activists. Family friends included W.E.B. Dubois, Walter White and Paul Robeson. For much of her life, Horne carried the burden (and the torch) of being a standard-bearer in an age of change and turbulence for black Americans.

Lena Horne, described as one of the NAACP's "youngest members," as pictured in a 1919 edition of the Branch Bulletin. From "The Hornes: An American Family."

One of my favorite family history memoirs was written in 1986 by Horne’s daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley. Its title, The Hornes: An American Family, pretty much says it all. Lena’s grandfather, Edwin Horne, was the “son of the only-in-America union of an English adventurer and a Tennessee woodlands Native American,” as Buckley notes. His wife, Cora Calhoun, was born at the dawn of Reconstruction, the daughter of a slave owned by a nephew of John C. Calhoun (Andrew Jackson’s vice president and quintessential defender of slavery).

Edwin was one of those energetic people who seem incapable of not excelling at something — teaching, politics, newspaper publishing, owning a prosperous drugstore, becoming a high-level New York City Fire Department inspector. Cora was an early feminist, a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women as well as an early supporter of the NAACP. In Brooklyn they raised their family in a world of comfortable brownstones, “Smart Set” garden parties and debutante balls, but above all in an atmosphere of high standards and high achievement.

After her parents’ divorce, little Lena Horne was put in the care of grandmother Cora, who laid down the expectations in no uncertain terms: “When I take you to meetings, I want you to listen,” Cora would say. “When you speak, articulate clearly — don’t use slang … Don’t hunch your shoulders. Always look at the person you’re talking to.” Cora Calhoun Horne doesn’t sound like the sort to be overawed at having  a granddaughter in the entertainment business, but it stood to reason that in becoming an entertainer, Lena Horne would become the best. It was in the genes.

Buckley’s book was out of print for a while, then reissued in 2002. It’s well worth a read, not only for admirers of Lena Horne and her artistry, but for anyone interested in the history of a fascinating American family.