Writer Alfred Duckett grew up in her Brooklyn neighborhood, and saw Horne on the street every day. Wearing sunglasses, she would leave Girls High and head to the library, walking out shortly after with a book. Years later he recalled her as "the most desirable, the prettiest girl God had made and permitted me to see . . . She had a few brown freckles on her clear bronze skin. She carried herself like a princess. . . . I remember that she walked with a swaying walk and that there was southern warmth and depth in her voice." He and his pals whistled and shouted out, "Hey, baby!" at the sight of her. "The regal way she sailed past our united insolence only spurred us to greater efforts. 'What say, Stuck-Up?' we called out to her."
But when he met Horne in church, Duckett saw another side of the teenager. He found that "Miss Stuck-Up wasn't really stuck up." She would chat warmly and politely, he said, "if you only acted decent and tipped your hat." From then on, he remained smitten with her. Around 1933, he sat in the balcony of the YWCA, where an amateur musical took place. Its star was a white-gowned Horne. "I was awed to realize that I knew such a beautiful, talented girl," said Duckett.
Once home with her mother and stepfather, though, Horne reentered a web of hostility. To her, Mike seemed arrogant and unsympathetic to what black Americans had to endure, and she resented her mother for marrying him. All Mike knew was that this was the Depression, and everyone had it bad. He couldn't find work, and his marriage to a black woman didn't help. Edna found a way to minimize the fallout. Her light skin and Portuguese blood enabled her to pose as Latin. But Lena knew too well that they couldn't pass for white with a child of her coloring.
The family went on government assistance. They moved from Brooklyn to a less expensive apartment in the Bronx, then to an even cheaper one in Harlem. In later years, stinging from numerous career disappointments, Horne would claim that she'd turned to show business only to support her starving parents. Edna, she claimed, was ailing and unable to work, and had pressured her to step in as breadwinner.
But in her obscure first memoir, Horne told a different tale. With the family in need, she begged Edna to let her quit school altogether and find a paying job on the stage. The answer was no. The teenager persisted. By the fall of 1933, she had joined the chorus line of the Cotton Club, the most prestigious nightclub in Harlem. No one there noticed Edna's illness; every night she stayed glued to her daughter's side until the wee hours.