READ EXCERPT: 'Stormy Weather'

Cora wanted to help Lena buttress herself against the cruel outside world. But her haranguing stirred up a protective impulse in the girl. For the first time, Lena struck back at her grandmother; she recalled "battling" with her in Edna's defense. Lena didn't dare reveal that she, too, wanted to be an actress. Cora had already made it clear that she wanted her to become a teacher, like others in the family. Lena went along with her grandmother's wishes in word but not in deed. She loved dressing in grown-ups' clothes and enacting plays she'd devised. The now-adolescent girl signed up for more dancing lessons, and starred in a play for the Urban League.

In 1931, Cora left on an around-the-world trip, financed by her son Teddy. Lena was left in the care of a cherished family friend, Laura Jean Rollock. "Aunt Laura," as Lena called her, directed the dancing and acting groups at the Lincoln Settlement, a Negro community center. She wasn't at all discouraging of Lena's ambitions. They spoke for hours about the stage, and movies, too, for Lena had become an avid filmgoer. When she appeared in a revue at Girls High, Laura offered sympathetic advice. The theater gave Lena a much-needed sense of belonging; it was no wonder that in 1942, when she supplied information to M-G-M's publicity department, she would answer a query about her childhood ambition with the simple phrase: "To be on stage."

Lena joined the Junior Debs, one of a slew of social clubs for members of the black bourgeoisie. "We were the 'best bunch in town'—and we knew it," she said; no other girls in Brooklyn had such classy breeding or looked so good. Lena had never thought much about singing, but she tried it at the group's tea parties, and had fun. A prominent black newspaper, the New York Amsterdam News, took notice of the teenager, calling her "'tops' among the younger set."

Eventually her grandmother came home, but she wasn't the same. Cora had turned sixty-seven, and her stony fortitude was starting to crack. Bronchial asthma ran in the family, and she'd begun showing signs of it. Cora feared her days were numbered—the likely reason that Teddy had bought her a world cruise. Lena began to hear hacking coughs in the night. As usual, nothing was said the next day.

Another homecoming occurred in 1932. Edna had recently gone to Havana; now she'd returned to Brooklyn, and she wasn't alone. With her was her new husband, Miguel Rodriguez, a former army officer. White and Cuban, Mike (as Edna called him) struck Lena as a "fierce little man." He had a stocky build, a thick mustache, and dark, blazing eyes set off by bushy eyebrows. What English he knew was obscured by a thick accent. He seemed to worship Edna, but Lena loathed him on sight, and his color had much to do with it. Her bouts with southern racism, combined with her family's hatred of whites, had left a mark. If the Hornes had disliked Edna before, her marriage to a white man now made her a pariah. Mike had his own reservations. He was skeptical of a lot of the blacks he saw, for he couldn't understand why they tolerated such abuse. He saw no point in the cautious resistance advocated by groups like the NAACP. And the cold shoulder he got as the husband of a Negro made him angry. But he had a more pressing concern. He was a skilled machinist, and had to somehow find work in the depths of the Depression. He and Edna pooled what funds they had and found an apartment near Chauncey Street.

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