Lena Horne was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Reported to be descended from the John C. Calhoun family, both sides of her family were a mixture of European American, Native American, and African-American descent, and belonged to the upper stratum of middle-class, well-educated blacks.
Her father, Edwin Fletcher "Teddy" Horne, Jr. (1892–1970), a numbers kingpin in the gambling trade, left the family when she was three and moved to an upper-middle-class black community in the Hill District community of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her mother, Edna Louise Scottron (1895–1985), daughter of inventor Samuel R. Scottron, was an actress with a black theatre troupe and traveled extensively. Scottron's maternal grandmother, Amelie Louise Ashton, was a Senegalese slave. Lena Horne was mainly raised by her grandparents, Cora Calhoun and Edwin Horne.
When Horne was five, she was sent to live in Georgia. For several years, she traveled with her mother. From 1927 to 1929 she lived with her uncle, Frank S. Horne, who was dean of students at Fort Valley Junior Industrial Institute (now part of Fort Valley State University) in Fort Valley, Georgia, and who would later become an adviser to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
From Fort Valley, southwest of Macon, Horne briefly moved to Atlanta with her mother; they returned to New York when Horne was 12 years old. She then attended Girls High School, an all-girls public high school in Brooklyn that has since become Boys and Girls High School; she dropped out without earning a diploma. Aged 18, she moved in with her father in Pittsburgh, staying in the city's Little Harlem for almost five years and learning from native Pittsburghers Billy Strayhorn and Billy Eckstine, among others.
In the fall of 1933, Horne joined the chorus line of the Cotton Club in New York City. In the spring of 1934, she had a featured role in the Cotton Club Parade starring Adelaide Hall, who took Lena under her wing. A few years later Horne joined Noble Sissle's Orchestra, with which she toured and with whom she recorded her first record release, a 78rpm single issued by Decca Records. After she separated from her first husband, Horne toured with bandleader Charlie Barnet in 1940–41, but disliked the travel and left the band to work at the Café Society in New York. She replacedDinah Shore as the featured vocalist on NBC's popular jazz series The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. The show's resident maestros, Henry Levine and Paul Laval, recorded with Horne in June 1941 for RCA Victor. Horne left the show after only six months to headline a nightclub revue on the West Coast at Slapsy Maxie's, and was replaced by actress Betty Keene of the Keene sisters.
Horne already had two low-budget movies to her credit: a 1938 musical feature called The Duke is Tops (later reissued with Horne's name above the title as The Bronze Venus); and a 1941 two-reel short subject, Boogie Woogie Dream, featuring pianists Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons. Horne's songs from Boogie Woogie Dream were later released individually as soundies. Horne was primarily a nightclub performer during this period and it was during a 1942 club engagement in Hollywood at Slapsy Maxie's in which talent scouts approached Horne to work in pictures. She chose Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and became the first black performer to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio. In November 1944, she was featured in an episode of the popular radio series Suspense, as a fictional nightclub singer, with a large speaking role along with her singing. In 1945 and 1946, she sang with Billy Eckstine's Orchestra.
She made her debut with MGM in Panama Hattie (1942) and performed the title song of Stormy Weather based loosely on the life of Adelaide Hall, (1943), which she made at 20th Century Fox, on loan from MGM. She appeared in a number of MGM musicals, most notably Cabin in the Sky (also 1943), but was never featured in a leading role because of her race and the fact that films featuring her had to be re-edited for showing in states where theaters could not show films with black performers. As a result, most of Horne's film appearances were stand-alone sequences that had no bearing on the rest of the film, so editing caused no disruption to the storyline; a notable exception was the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky, although one number was cut because it was considered too suggestive by the censors. "Ain't it the Truth" was the song (and scene) cut before the release of the film Cabin in the Sky. It featured Horne singing "Ain't it the Truth", while taking a bubble bath (considered too "risqué" by the film's executives). This scene and song are featured in the film That's Entertainment! III (1994) which also featured commentary from Horne on why the scene was deleted prior to the film's release.
In Ziegfeld Follies (1946) she performed "Love" by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. Horne wanted to be considered for the role of Julie LaVerne in MGM's 1951 version of Show Boat (having already played the role when a segment of Show Boat was performed in Till the Clouds Roll By) but lost the part to Ava Gardner, a personal friend in real life, due to the Production Code's ban on interracial relationships in films. In the documentaryThat's Entertainment! III Horne stated that MGM executives required Gardner to practice her singing using Horne's recordings, which offended both actresses. Ultimately, Gardner's voice was overdubbed by actress Annette Warren (Smith) for the theatrical release.
Horne married Louis Jordan Jones in January 1937 in Pittsburgh. On December 21, 1937, their daughter, Gail (later known as Gail Lumet Buckley, a best-selling author) was born there. They had a son, Edwin Jones (born February 7, 1940 – September 12, 1970) who died of kidney disease. Horne and Jones separated in 1940 and divorced in 1944.
Horne's second marriage was to Lennie Hayton, who was Music Director and one of the premier musical conductors and arrangers at MGM, in December 1947 in Paris. They separated in the early 1960s, but never divorced; he died in 1971.
In her as-told-to autobiography Lena by Richard Schickel, Horne recounts the enormous pressures she and her husband faced as an interracial couple. She later admitted in an interview in Ebony(May 1980), she had married Hayton to advance her career and cross the "color-line" in show business, but had learned to love him in a way.
Screenwriter Jenny Lumet, known for her award-winning screenplay Rachel Getting Married, is Horne's granddaughter, the daughter of filmmaker Sidney Lumet and Horne's daughter Gail.Horne's other grandchildren include Gail's other daughter, Amy Lumet, and her son's three children, Thomas, William, and Lena.
Horne died on May 9, 2010, in New York City of heart failure. Horne's funeral took place at St. Ignatius Loyola Church on Park Avenue in New York City. Thousands gathered to mourn her, including Leontyne Price, Dionne Warwick, Jessye Norman, Chita Rivera, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Leslie Uggams, Lauren Bacall, Audra McDonald and Vanessa L. Williams.