THAT LENA Horne is a person of astonishing beauty and talent is universally known. What is not is that she is also a member of a distinguished American family, one with a long, honorable and exceptionally interesting history. As told by her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, her family's story is, as the subtitle of The Hornes suggests, distinctly American: beginning at the bottom, working hard, making it. That the Hornes happen to be black and began in slavery adds an extra dimension to the story, but as Buckley is at pains to emphasize, it is the purely American quality of their history that matters most and with which all readers can identify most strongly.
The tale begins in Atlanta at the end of the Civil War when Moses Calhoun, Buckley's great-great-grandfather, was freed from slavery and, at the age of 36, "was being given a chance to begin again." He was a person of "great energy and ambition" who opened a grocery store, then a restaurant, all the while acquiring property and sufficient wealth to move his young family into what E. Franklin Frazier, in his classic book of the same title, would eventually call the "black bourgeoisie." A crucial point, one too often neglected in backward glances at Reconstruction, is that Moses Calhoun "was able to make it precisely because, for a brief decade, the American Dream was color-blind." Between 1867 and 1877 blacks "enjoyed all the legal rights of white American citizens," and ones as determined as Moses Calhoun took full advantage of them.
By the time Reconstruction ended the Calhouns were prosperous, and able to make the series of moves that eventually led to the marriage of his daughter Cora to Edwin Horn (as the name was then spelled), a man of American Indian and British extraction whose family chose to be "colored" rather than "Indian." He too was ambitious and intelligent, not to mention "spectacularly handsome" (a description that seems to suit all the Hornes), establishing himself in Chattanooga as a teacher, editor and political figure. But in 1896 he and Cora moved north, to escape the segregation and violence that, in the wake of Reconstruction's demise, were permeating the South.
They settled in Brooklyn, a stronghold of the black bourgeoisie. "In pre-1960 America," Buckley writes, "the black bourgeoisie saw themselves, like the Caribbean 'colored,' as a sort of buffer zone between the races, as ambassadors of interracial communication and good will. More often than not, however, they were regarded as ambassadors of whiteness in black America -- to such an extent did they represent white standards and values. But within this no man's land solid achievements were possible, and many satisfactions were derived from an agreeable way of life." That is precisely what the Hornes (as they soon came to call themselves) enjoyed: an agreeable life modeled closely after that of white Society but in no way a part of it, a life complete with formal balls and seaside excursions and fancy weddings. YET IT was a life of which their granddaughter, Lena, wanted no part. Pushed into show business by her determined and somewhat loony mother, she discovered that she had a great gift for singing and acting and determined to make this her life. Not merely did this mean venturing into a world frowned upon by the decorous and snobbish bourgeoisie: she also "had left the quiet waters of the black bourgeoisie for the perilous open seas of 'white' life." This departure was made all the more final when, after the end of her marriage to a member of that bourgeoisie by whom she had two children, she married a white man, the musician Lennie Hayton:
"Lena's remarriage, as well as her postwar liberal politics, caused her to reexamine the bourgeois life-style. She found it shallow and frivolous. She had no more use for black debutante balls than she had for white. As far as Lena was concerned, the 'uplifting' bourgeoisie of Cora and Edwin's turn-of-the-century black America, and the 'creative' bourgeoisie of Harlem's 1920s and '30s, was now just black Babbitry."
This is not to say that Lena's passage was easy. In Hollywood she was never offered satisfying roles, always was presented as a beautiful but somewhat peculiar phenomenon: "Lena, as Hollywood's first black glamour symbol, was practically a 'token' of a token. Lena paid the dues for all the black stars who came after her, but she never felt free to enjoy herself as a performer, or to step out of her symbolic persona. (Thirty years after her initial 'stardom' we went to see Bette Midler on Broadway. Backstage, Bette Midler said to Lena, 'You're so tasteful.' To which Lena replied, 'I'm tired of being tasteful.')" At times in her career she got discouraged, and she met genuine discrimination; it's revealing that at one point in 1942 when she did not want to return to Hollywood she was told by Count Basie, "They never choose us, but they've chosen you. You have to go back so that other people can have your opportunities," and it's disheartening that in 1959 she did not get the female lead in the Broadway version of Destry Rides Again because "Andy Griffith, already signed as Destry, refused to play opposite a black."
It wasn't until 1981, when she was 64, that Lena Horne fully escaped the shackles to which she had submitted and showed the world all the joy and energy within her; this was in her spectacular one-woman show, "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music," for which she was lavished with honors and which left no doubt in anyone's mind that she is, and has always been, a national treasure. That she accomplished this is a tribute to her gifts, but it is also vivid evidence of how much the country has changed during her lifetime. From daughter of the black bourgeoisie to international superstar is in and of itself a long journey, but an even greater one is the evolution of an American society in which a black bourgeoisie is no longer necessary. As Buckley writes at the conclusion of this most engaging book, "Racists are always there, but America no longer endorses racism." The doors are open to all; we do well to note that the Hornes, Lena Horne in particular, had much to do with this.