Lena Horne (Image Source)
Lena Horne- singer, actress, glamour queen of the 1940’s- found herself blacklisted in Hollywood, labeled a Communist betrayer of democracy in the early 1950’s. It was a particularly spectacular fall, and Horne was determined to not have her career tarnished by smears of Red.
First, some backstory on Horne from PBS’ “American Masters: Lena Horne” page:
Born in Brooklyn in 1917, Lena Horne became one of the most popular African American performers of the 1940s and 1950s. At the age of sixteen she was hired as a dancer in the chorus of Harlem’s famous Cotton Club. There she was introduced to the growing community of jazz performers, including Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington. She also met Harold Arlen, who would write her biggest hit, “Stormy Weather.” For the next five years she performed in New York nightclubs, on Broadway, and touring with the Charlie Barnet Orchestra. Singing with Barnet’s primarily white swing band, Horne was one of the first black women to successfully work on both sides of the color line.
Within a few years, Horne moved to Hollywood, where she played small parts in the movies. At this time, most black actors were kept from more serious roles, and though she was beginning to achieve a high level of notoriety, the color barrier was still strong. “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. “CABIN IN THE SKY and STORMY WEATHER were the only movies in which I played a character who was involved in the plot.” Her elegant style and powerful voice were unlike any that had come before, and both the public and the executives in the entertainment industry began to take note. By the mid-’40s, Horne was the highest paid black actor in the country. Her renditions of “Deed I Do” and “As Long as I Live,” and Cole Porter‘s “Just One Of Those Things” became instant classics. For the thousands of black soldiers abroad during World War II, Horne was the premier pin-up girl.
Much like her good friend Paul Robeson, Horne’s great fame could not prevent the wheels of the anti-Communist machine from bearing down on her. Her civil rights activism and friendship with Robeson and others marked her as a Communist sympathizer. Like many politically active artists of the time, Horne found herself blacklisted and unable to perform on television or in the movies. For seven years the attacks on her person and political beliefs continued.
At The Atlantic, John Meroney gives rich details about this stage in her life in a story rightfully titled “The Red-Baiting of Lena Horne”. As the story explains, Horne was no Communist, but she was friends and acquaintances with quite a few. She was, though, lonely. Hollywood was most unwelcoming, and she missed her old life performing in N.Y. When her friend the singer/actor Paul Robeson suggested she get more active socially and politically in the 1940’s, the stage was set for her downfall the following decade.
(Image Source: The Atlantic)
While Lena was no Communist, Robeson certainly was. From The Atlantic:
As a performer, Robeson had seen the world, including the Soviet Union where he was treated like royalty and squired around the country. During the 1930s, he’d even enrolled his only child, 9-year-old Paul Jr., in an exclusive school in Moscow, where he’d studied with Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana.
Long regarded as a champion of African American causes, he was now just as effusive when it came to the Soviet Union. But he went too far for much of the public on April 20, 1949, when he appeared at the World Peace Conference in Paris, one of a series of prominent Soviet propaganda gatherings. Robeson declared that black Americans would refuse to fight for the U.S. if war broke out with the Soviet Union. “It is certainly unthinkable for myself and the Negro people to go to war in the interests of those who have oppressed us for generations,” he said in a speech.
Robeson didn’t seem prepared for the condemnation his Paris statement provoked from other blacks, but his outbursts continued. At Paul Jr.’s wedding to a white woman that June in New York, he exploded at reporters who were there to cover it. “This marriage would not have caused any excitement in the Soviet Union,” he said. “I have the greatest contempt for the democratic press, and there is something within me which keeps me from breaking your cameras over your heads.”
Things worsened for Robeson when Manning Johnson, a 10-year veteran of the Communist Party who was also black, identified Robeson as a long-time comrade. “There is not one iota of doubt about Robeson’s membership,” Johnson said. Johnson, who had rejected communism after serving as one of the party’s national leaders, testified to Congress on July 14, 1949, that Robeson’s assignment was recruitment. “They just wanted to use him, as a great artist, to impress other artists and intellectuals generally,” he said.
Things for Lena got bad fast the following year when the news broke she had quietly married a White musician and composer, Lennie Hayton. This was long before Loving, and their marriage was illegal in California… side note, how friggin’ ridiculous were those anti-micegenation laws?!? Anyway, the bad press kept rolling when her autobiography, “In Person: Lena Horne, As Told to Helen Arstein and Carlton Moss” was published. Although Lena had insisted Moss, a friend and member of the Communist party, NOT publish the book until she had reviewed the manuscript first, he went ahead anyway. The book heaps praise on Robeson, who was at that point, a public pariah. With public, on-the-record links to Robeson and Moss, Lena suddenly found herself unable to book a job. TV and movies didn’t want to go near her, and after months of being rejected, she turned to Ed Sullivan for help. He advised her to publically distance herself from the Communists and offered to publish it in his newspaper entertainment column.
… Sullivan published that statement in his column on October 26, 1951. “No minority group in the country within the past ten years has made the advances scored by the Negroes … and we would have made even greater advances if the communists didn’t deliberately try to confuse the issue and stir agitation,” he quoted Horne as saying. She distanced herself from Robeson: “He does not speak for the American Negro. Agitation, however, will always be with us.”
The statement didn’t help her. Horne’s words were viewed as a calculated attempt at saving what was left of her career, and she’d sidestepped the larger issue of how she’d ended up in that grim place. Even with the wide circulation of Sullivan’s column, networks and advertisers wanted nothing more to do with Horne.
Screen capture from “American Masters: Lena Horne”
In June of 1953, Horne wrote a twelve page letter to Roy Brewer. Back to The Atlantic:
… Roy Brewer, the toughest anti-communist in Hollywood. When an entertainer had been named in Red Channels, his or her only hope of working again was often to write Brewer a letter—naming names and disavowing communist connections in emphatic terms. If he found it sincere, he would forward it on to the studios. “Most of these people were the victims of the communists; they are not communists,” he later told Daily Variety. “We had to find ways for the ones who were suckered into it to get out. That was my effort.”
In the Brewster letter, Horne wrote:
Horne also claimed that both Moss and Robeson had preyed upon her concern for “the Negro people” who didn’t have the same opportunities she did. Looking back on her friendship with Moss, she wrote, “I also realized that the many actions I had assumed under his influence were all a part of the same pattern. I am angry that I did not immediately see through this pattern. The shock and the anger awakened me to the need of being more discerning and to channel my energies in more appropriate directions.”
Horne continued, “I have always known that America offers the greatest chance to all people, to achieve human dignity—and since this terrible experience I am more determined than ever to do what I can to impress these principles on the thinking of all people I come in contact with.”
She signed the letter, “Most sincerely, Lena Horne.”
Brewer sent copies of the letter all over Hollywood and even to the FBI. Eventually, Lena’s career would rebound. She went from singing in clubs and cabarets to recording albums and making TV appearances with Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland in the 60’s.
Sadly, Paul Robeson’s career never recovered. According to The Atlantic article, after seeing firsthand in the 60’s the true effect of Soviet Communism, Robeson grew disillusioned and seriously depressed. He died in 1976 after living his final years as a recluse.
For more on Lena Horne and Paul Robeson during the Blacklist years, listen to this podcast episode of “You Must Remember This”.
Or watch “American Masters: Lena Horne” below.
And finally, Lena’s signature tune, “Stormy Weather”.
Screen capture from “American Masters: Lena Horne”