The Red-Baiting of Lena Horne
She was a goddess with a honey-sweet voice. “I remember once seeing her on a train,” says the jazz scholar and author Stanley Crouch. “She had a luminous restrained presence that most superstars try to pretend they have. She really had it.”
Over the course of her long life, Lena Horne became a star of film, music, television, and stage, as well as a formidable force for civil rights. She won a Tony in 1981, and two years later, earned an NAACP medal that had previously been awarded to Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Rosa Parks. When she died in 2010 at age 92, President Barack Obama noted that she was the first black singer to tour with an all-white band and that she refused to perform for segregated audiences. “Michelle and I join all Americans in appreciating the joy she brought to our lives and the progress she forged for our country,” he said.
Yet there was a brief period in the early 1950s when Horne’s career seemed to be over. Her name had appeared in Red Channels, a report that listed more than 100 entertainers who appeared to have communist leanings. For more than three years after that, she struggled to get work. She continued to perform at nightclubs, but nobody in the TV or film industries would hire her.
She was at a low point in June 1953 when she performed at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. The city was not the shining epicenter of entertainment that it is today. It was not even the Las Vegas of Frank Sinatra’s famed Rat Pack yet. There were only a handful of hotels and motels, and the infamous Strip was nonexistent. But Horne had few other options. She closed the show with “Stormy Weather,” her most famous song:
Life is bare
Gloom and misery everywhere
Just can’t get my poor self together
I’m weary all the time
Then she walked off the stage and went back to her room. On Sands stationery stamped with the hotel motto “A Place in the Sun,” her story unfolded. “Dear Mr. Brewer,” her letter began.
For decades, Horne’s biographers have largely glossed over the question of how Horne found her way back into the entertainment business. Even Horne’s daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, who wrote a 1986 book about the Horne family, didn’t get to see the letter until 2013. All that time, it was sitting in a bankers’ box, packed away in a children’s playhouse on a dusty ranch in the San Fernando Valley. But those 12 neatly written pages reveal how a beautiful young black woman became a pawn in the Cold War—and how she ultimately regained control of her career and her life.