Lena Horne:  Lady and Her Music

Lena Horne: Lady and Her Music

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Doyle Galleries.

In the early 1940s Lena Horne was scheduled to sing for the troops at Fort Riley in Kansas as a morale builder.  Even though she was black she performed for the white soldiers first.  She was only allowed to repeat her act for African American troops the following day in a separate black mess hall.

They didn’t make me into a maid. But they didn’t make me anything else either.
— Lena Horne

Lena was born in Brooklyn on June 30, 1917.  She got her start at age 16 as a dancer in the chorus of Harlem’s famous Cotton Club.  After taking voice lessons she went on to sing at the club.  There she rubbed shoulders with jazz performers like Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. 

She went on to become a huge nightclub superstar in the 1950s and early-1960s.  She headlined at clubs and hotels throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe. 

In the 1980s she was re-discovered through her one-woman Broadway show “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music” which ran for more than three hundred performances.  The show earned her a Tony Award and two Grammy Awards.   

Lena was the first black performer to sign a long-term Hollywood contract.  Her contract stipulated she would never have to play a maid. 

"They didn't make me into a maid,” she said.  “But they didn't make me anything else either."

Lena played small parts in movies.  Serious roles went to white actors.

“In every other film I just sang a song or two; the scenes could be cut out when they were sent to local distributors in the South.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get much of a chance to act,” she said. 

Despite her expressive, silky-smooth voice the songstress was a perfectionist performer who never listened to her own records.  And she faced stage fright before every single show of her life.

Lena’s life was a wrestling match between glamour and racial stereotyping.  The songstress empathized with Marilyn Monroe regarding the superficial image they both lived with.  It would be nice they agreed if they weren’t just there to tantalize male audiences. 

As a performer, she grieved over the back exits her black musicians had to use on their way out of clubs and the room service which never delivered the food they ordered.  She was a black singer decked out in white glamour and performed in clubs few blacks could afford to enter. 

Lena became a Civil Rights activist and stood in the crowd on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in 1963 as he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.  She wasn’t afraid to speak out about injustice.       

“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,” she said.  She received honorary degrees from Yale, Howard and Fordham University.

Lena died in on May 9, 2010, at the age of 92.

On Feb. 23, Doyle Galleries, featured the estate of Lena Horne on the block.  

Lena Horne

Portrait Photo of Lena; gelatin silver print; taken by Carl Van Vechten; 1941; 9 9/8 inches by 8 7/8 inches;  $3,478.

Bronze Statue of Lena; by Peter Lambda; green patina; signed and dated at base 1950; 37 ¼ inches high;  $5,938.   

Photos; 18; gelatin silver prints; taken by James Van Der Zee; Atlantic City on the Beach; signed; 1930; 6 3/8 inches by 3 7/8 inches;  $9,375. 

Oil on Masonite Painting of Lena;  by Geoffrey Holder; signed and dated 1959; 48 inches by 24 inches;  $10,625.

Trunk; Louis Vuitton; with stickers inscribed Lena Horne Hayton; 22 inches by 24 inches; $20,000.  

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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