The celebrated songstress loved, lost and romanced her gay best friend.
Lena Horne, "Hollywood's first black beauty, sex symbol, singing star," as Vogue aptly described her, is dead at 92. For a serious look back on the life of a legend, check out obituaries from the L.A. Times, Boston Globe, Telegraph.and New York Times. Really, a good read.
Known best for her bluesy tunes about love lost, denied and unrequited, the singer certainly had her fair share real-life inspiration.
A product of the "usual unusual childhood," Lena was booted from her family home at a young age when her father stepped out on the marriage. From Brooklyn to Harlem she went, and began performing at the infamous speakeasy the Cotton Club. How To Break Up With Parental Baggage
There, she attracted the attention of many a young man and was soon whisked away to a life of "middle-class domesticity" in Pittsburgh.
Lena, like many women at that time, married young, at 19, and to the first man she ever dated, to the 28-year-old Louis Jones. Perhaps jealous of her talent, the marriage soon dissolved and ended in divorce. While Lena was able to retain custody of her daughter Gail, her estranged husband refused to give up their son Teddy. And so Lena left, but on to bigger and better things. Do Successful Women Intimidate Men?
It was World War II that brought Lena her real fame. Performing for the troops overseas, the beautiful Lena provided many a serviceman with the first concrete example of black beauty. A black GI was quoted as saying: "Now we can have someone we can pin on our lockers."
Despite her talent and the adoration of the mass male mind, Lena remained a single, black woman looking to "make it" in a time when both her gender and the color of her skin made it near impossible to do so on her own.
Enter the second husband.
Upon returning home, Lena "fell for" Lennie Hayton, who was *gasp* a white man. Although the relationship ultimately evolved into something more, Lena has admitted that the relationship was initially a career-minded move.
While under contract to MGM in the '40s, Horne met Lennie Hayton, a white staff composer and arranger at the studio who became her second husband.
Fearing public reaction when they married in Paris in 1947, they did not announce their marriage until three years later.
Horne later said she initially became involved with Hayton because she thought he could be useful to her career.
"He could get me into places no black manager could," she told the New York Times in 1981. "It was wrong of me, but as a black woman, I knew what I had against me." But, she said, "because he was a nice man and because he was in my corner, I began to love him." [Source: L.A. Times]
Opportunistic or realist? Your call. How To Fall In Love With Mr. Good Enough
Throughout the marriage, she nurtured a deeply emotional connection to the openly-homosexual Billy Strayhorn, a longtime associate of Duke Ellington and "the only man I ever loved."
In David Hajdu's biography of the composer Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, it is written that Lena hoped to marry him one day. Sadly yet understandably, Strayhorn was never able to return to Lena the romantic love she so desired. When he died in 1967 from esophageal cancer, rumor had it that it was in Lena's arms — a nice notion but thoroughly untrue. Is Your Gay BFF Ruining Your Love Life?
Over the next few years, Lena would go on to lose both her father, her son and her husband, launching her into a period of profound grief. She never remarried.
Here's Lena singing her signature hit Stormy Weather.
When you went, you went away, the blues walked in and met me / If he stays away, ol' rocking chair will get me / All I do is pray, the Lord above will let me walk in the sun once more, she sings... and means every word.