Larger Than Life: The Fierce and Fabulous Lena Horne
As we teach our children about strong women in history, one who stands out is Lena Horne. Her immense talent was matched only by her determination in the face of the racism of her times. I first learned about her from her appearance on The Cosby Show when I was a child and I was captivated by her graceful presence and that amazing voice. So I’m thrilled to introduce a new children’s biography about her which has already received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly. I’m honored to share below an essay by the author, Carole Boston Weatherford, in which she reflects on why she brought Ms. Horne’s story to life in her new book.
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The Legendary Lena Horne: Reflections from Carole Boston Weatherford
Often an historical figure who makes cameo appearance in one book will later warrant a book of her own. Such was the case with entertainer and activist Lena Horne. She appeared as a resident in the picture book Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood. I also devoted a poem to her in the verse novel You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen.
So it was only a matter of time before I got around to writing Ms. Horne’s biography. A collaboration with illustrator Elizabeth Zunon, The Legendary Miss Lena Horne introduces this groundbreaking entertainer and activist to a new generation.
Lena Horne lived her life in the spotlight. At age 16, she made her show business debut as a chorus girl at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club, where African Americans performed for whites-only audiences. In the 1940s. she became the first black actor with a major Hollywood studio contract.
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Refusing roles as domestics, she found herself confined to musical numbers that could be easily cut for screenings at Southern theaters whose audiences might be offended by her black sensuality. She dubbed herself “a butterfly pinned to a column.” She also appeared in all-black movies such as Stormy Weather, which produced her signature song of the same name.
Offstage, Ms. Horne rebelled against racism at every turn, lashing out when someone hurled a racial epithet and dropping out of a U.S.O. tour when German prisoners of war were treated better than the black soldiers in the audience. From then on, she paid her own way to perform for black troops. During World War II, she was their favorite pinup. Ironically, during the 1950s Red Scare, Ms. Horne was blacklisted for her ties to fellow entertainer and alleged Communist Paul Robeson.
In the 1960s, she took a hiatus from show business to join the Civil Rights Movement. She marched with protestors and sang at rallies. At the 1963 March on Washington, she took her turn at the podium and uttered one word: “Freedom!”
Even in her later years, she kept recording, starred in a one-woman Broadway show, played Glenda the Good Witch in the movie The Wiz, and serenaded Kermit the Frog on Sesame Street.
I grew up watching Ms. Horne’s guest appearances on television variety shows. Back then few blacks were on the small screen and her presence was always an inspiration, always an event. I idolized her then and I still do. For me, Lena Horne will always be larger than life—a fierce and fabulous legend.
Carole Boston Weatherford is a New York Times bestselling author whose 40+ books include many award winners. She is considered one of the leading poets writing for young people today. I was also proud to discover she is a long-time resident of my home state of North Carolina, where she received her MFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and where she currently is a Professor of English at Fayetteville State University. You can read more about her on her website.