The FBI tracked trailblazing entertainer Lena Horne for nearly 30 years because of her involvement with civil rights – and eyed her as a Communist sympathizer during the height of the McCarthy era, newly disclosed documents reveal.
“She is sympathetic to the Communist cause and is extremely race conscious,” reads a memo placed in Horne’s FBI file in 1948.
Horne, who vehemently denied any Communist leanings, ultimately defended herself in a handwritten letter contained in the 136-page file compiled on the renowned actress and singer.
The NYCity News Service obtained Horne’s FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act, which allows certain documents to be released after the subject’s death. Horne, perhaps best known for her signature tune, “Stormy Weather,” died in May at age 92.
Actress and Activist
The FBI began keeping a file on Horne in 1947 as she rose to fame, becoming one of the first African-American entertainers to hit the heights of Hollywood stardom.
Using her prominence as a celebrity, Horne advocated for civil rights – and caught the attention of the FBI. Horne’s file contains a list of events she attended for organizations the Bureau considered “Communist-influenced.”
Much of the file focuses on her association with entertainer and activist Paul Robeson. The FBI documented appearances Horne, Robeson and others made at civil rights events with groups like the American Youth for Democracy, Civil Rights Congress and the Council on African Affairs. The FBI described the groups as “Communist front” organizations.
Internal FBI memos indicate Horne was not a Communist, but was “sympathetic to the Communist cause and is extremely race conscious.” Confidential informants told the FBI that Horne “often cooperated with Communist groups if she believed that they were assisting in obtaining equality for the Negro people.”
In Her Own Defense
Horne felt the weight of those accusations and came to her own defense. The files include a letter she wrote in 1953 denying she was a Communist. The 12-page missive, handwritten on stationery from the Las Vegas Sands Hotel, is addressed to Roy M. Brewer, a member of the Motion Picture Industry Council.
Horne wrote, “If at anytime I have said or done anything that might have been construed as being sympathetic toward Communism, I hope the following will refute this misconception.”
In the letter, Horne describes her relationship with Robeson, who she said was a long-standing family friend. He encouraged her to “take an active interest in the problems of other people, generally, and in the Negro people, specifically.”
Horne wrote that Robeson suggested she help raise money for a milk fund being sponsored by the Council for African Affairs for the benefit of African mothers.
Seen as “Window Dressing”
Robeson, a former star athlete, scholar and internationally known performer, was active in a wide range of civil rights and humanitarian causes. He testified before Congress that he was not a member of the Communist Party, but was an advocate of socialism. He ultimately was condemned by both Congress and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for his beliefs.
Confidential informants described Horne as “window dressing” used by various Communist Party fronts to attract members. The informants, whose names were redacted, said that almost of her time was devoted to show business. Her supposed sympathy for the Community Party was based “solely upon her desire for racial equality for negroes [sic],” according to one document.
The Los Angeles Police Department added a memo to her file in 1947, about her and Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer. Mayer, head of studio productions at MGM, allegedly “visited Horne several nights a week, occasionally arriving early in the evening and not leaving until the next day.” According to the memo, Mayer provided Horne with a residence and “lavished expensive gifts on her.”
Horne’s file was last updated in 1976, when she was among those considered to serve as treasurer for a campaign to raise funds for the defense of Black Panthers member Angela Davis.