Lena Horne died yesterday in New York. She was a legendary singer and actress, most famous for her signature song, “Stormy Weather.” In addition to her work in Hollywood films and on the stage as a singer, Horne was a public activist for civil rights, a near life-time member of the NAACP and a participant in the March on Washington.
Horne’s second marriage, in 1947, was to a Jewish man, Leonard Hayton. Some sources say that the two were separated in the 1960s, but they remained married until his death in 1971. Her public comments about their relationship don’t paint it in the most positive light–in a 1980 interview with Ebony she said she’d married him to advance her career.
We published a celebrity column about Horne’s granddaughter, Jenny Lumet. (Horne’s daughter from her first marriage, Gail Jones Lumet Buckley, was also married to a Jewish man, well-known film director Sidney Lumet, whom she subsequently divorced.) In Lumet’s most recent film, Rachel Getting Married, interracial marriage is no big deal–and in fact for Lumet herself, it isn’t, either. Jenny Lumet describes her own second husband as “a nice Jewish boy.”
For Lena Horne, marrying Lenny Hayton was a fraught experience–they had to leave California to get married, because interracial marriage was illegal in 1947, and there’s something suggestive about the fact that they apparently separated for some years but never divorced. The marriage was one of the many things she did to bring down barriers to equality in the United States, and she felt she had to explain it in a variety of ways. The Associated Press obituary quotes a 2009 biography in which Horne supposedly told a lover that she’d married a white man “To get even with him.” Who knows what their relationship was really like.
I just appreciate the contributions to society Horne made through her work and her visibility as an performer, contributions that have brought down some of the barriers she faced. If intercultural, interfaith and interracial marriages make it more complicated to pass down a cultural heritage to our children, they are also a sign of the gradual erosion of walls that separate us. With her grace and talent, Horne took down quite a few bricks from those walls.