Born in New York City on June 30, 1917, Horne left school at age 16 to help support her ailing mother and became a dancer at the Cotton Club in Harlem. In two years she became the headline act. In 1935 she joined the Noble Sissle orchestra under the name Helena Horne. Horne was married from 1937 to 1944 to Louis J. Jones. In the early 1940s she was hired to sing for Charlie Barnet's orchestra. She was discovered by producer John Hammond, and soon after she performed in a solo show at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
In 1942 Horne moved to Los Angeles, after which she appeared in such movies as Cabin in the Sky (1943), Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956), and The Wiz (1978). Her role in the film Stormy Weather (1943) included her rendition of the title song, which became her trademark. A remarkably charismatic entertainer, Horne was one of the most popular singers of her time. One of her albums, Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria (1957), was a long-time best-seller, and her first featured performance on Broadway—in the musical Jamaica (1957)—won her a New York Drama Critics' Poll Award in 1958.
Though primarily known as an entertainer, Horne also was noted for her work with civil rights and political organizations; as an actress, she refused to play roles that stereotyped African American women. She was married to Lennie Hayton from 1947 until his death in 1971. Her one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music (1981), garnered many awards, including a Drama Critics' Circle Award and a special achievement Tony Award. In 1984 Horne received a Kennedy Center honour for lifetime contribution to the arts, and in 1989 a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.