WATCH: Actress Lena Horne Sings 'Stormy Weather' (1943)
ARTICLES AND BOOKS BY WRITER BEN AROGUNDADE
Moments In African American Film: 'Stormy Weather' Singer And Actress Lena Horne's Multi-Ethnicity
CELEBRITY ANCESTRY REVISITED: Actress and singer Lena Horne, star of the 1943 films Stormy Weather and Cabin In The Sky. The late Hollywood's celebrity's ethnicity and nationality were diverse — her parents were a combination of African American, Native American and European ancestry.
1940s ACTRESS AND SINGER LENA HORNE's multi-ethnicity confused Hollywood bosses, who weren't sure how to place her. They even created a shade of makeup to help her appear darker. By Ben Arogundade.
SINGER, ACTRESS AND CIVIL RIGHTS activist Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York City on June 30, 1917. The newborn had brown eyes, freckles and copper-coloured skin. Her parents possessed a diverse racial background. Her father, Edwin Frank Horne Jr. — a civil servant with a sideline in illegal gambling — was of African American, Native American and European heritage. Her mother, actress Edna Louise Scottron, was of the same ethnicity as her husband. She was fair-skinned, with green eyes. Horne’s grandfather, Edwin Sr., was of British and Native American ancestry, with blue eyes, while her maternal grandmother was of Native American and Afro-Portuguese ethnicity.
BIRACIAL BLUES The era in which Horne grew up was a difficult one for many light-skinned African Americans, who were both welcomed and discriminated against by blacks and whites alike. Horne, who starred in the 1943 films Stormy Weather and Cabin In The Sky, was teased as a schoolgirl for being light-skinned, but in fact it was this same hue that launched her career, qualifying her to audition as a chorus girl for the famous Cotton Club at the age of 16.
In 1940 she broke into movies, signing with the MGM film studio, whose bosses positioned her as the acceptable face of modern African American beauty. “I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept,” Horne recalled. “I was their daydream.” Visually, the Brooklyn-born actress was the Halle Berry of the 1940s — beautiful, light-skinned and with short black wavy hair.
But almost immediately the studio’s confusion about how to handle their first light-skinned African American star became clear. In her debut screen test she photographed so light that the studio feared that the young actress might be mistaken for a white woman — so they engaged Max Factor Cosmetics to create a bespoke make-up line (called “Light Egyptian”) to make her race and ethnicity appear unequivocal in front of camera.
ETHNICITY SET FREE Nevertheless, her film career failed to spark. She’d arrived 20 years too early for conservative Hollywood. Instead of becoming the major star her talent deserved, she languished at MGM for years, with the bosses never quite knowing how to place her.
In her later years, as she reflected on her career, she expressed relief that she had finally escaped the pressures that went with being such an early race pioneer and symbol. “I’m free because I no longer have to be a credit,” she said. “I don't have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me and I'm like nobody else.”