READ EXCERPT: 'Stormy Weather'

Edwin, Jr.—better known as Teddy—spat in the face of the family high-mindedness. Teddy had proudly skipped college, knowing his charm and pretty-boy looks would get him further. He smirked behind the back of any "sucker"—usually white—whom he could coax into doing his bidding. By the time he'd grown, the illegal gambling business had found a master hustler in Teddy Horne. In 1916, he wed a girl from an even cushier Brooklyn background. Edna Scottron was the fair-skinned, green-eyed daughter of a Native American mother and a successful Portuguese Negro inventor. Like Teddy, Edna lived for her whims. She dreamed of stardom in the theater; meanwhile she'd landed a lady-killer for a husband.

She and Teddy moved into the top floor of the Horne brownstone, where Edna became pregnant quickly. She hoped for a son. Instead, on June 30, 1917, she bore a brown-eyed, freckled, copper-skinned girl. Edna and Teddy named her Lena Mary Calhoun Horne. Lena would report later that her father wasn't at the hospital when she was born; he'd gone to play cards, ostensibly to earn money to pay the hospital bill. As she saw it, her father was "pursuing his own interests"; to Lena, this constituted rejection at birth. Not surprisingly, she remained an only child.

If Teddy and Edna were embarrassments to the family, grandmother Cora took steps to ensure that Lena set forth on the right track. In October 1919, the NAACP newsletter, the Branch Bulletin, welcomed one of the organization's "youngest members." Lena was just two and barely walking when Cora signed her up. "She paid the office a visit last month and seemed delighted with everything she saw," explained the Branch Bulletin.

Above that caption was a photo of a joyless toddler wearing a white lacy dress and a frown; the rose placed in her hands did nothing to brighten the scene. Her face mirrored the mood at home. By that time, Teddy wanted out of family life and had devised a ruse for escape. He was sick, he said, perhaps with tuberculosis, and had to head west for health reasons. Edna knew he was lying, but she was powerless to keep him. Later she told Lena that her father "was too young, too handsome, and too spoiled by the ladies to be ready for marriage."

Teddy had an action-packed new job in store. He became a numbers runner—"a pimp and a hustler," as Horne further explained. Illegal gambling was a popular profession among Negro men of his day. Whatever their education, only menial jobs—or none at all—tended to await them. Many Negro men thumbed their noses at the system and took to the streets. "You worked with criminal attitudes," said Lena. "It took a lot of guts. You chose that rather than have the man make a slave of you."

But no danger befell Teddy Horne, who gave off an invincible air. Photos of him from the twenties show a slick, grinning operator with pomaded hair, three-piece suits, and Stetson hats. By then he had a new woman on his arm, Irene, whom he'd married as soon as he was free. From Seattle, where they lived, he sent his daughter gifts and an allowance. She opened each package with glee, but then came a stab of longing: Why had her father deserted her?

Edna had her own concerns—namely, her dreams of acting. She moved to Harlem, where the action was, and left Lena behind. Now both parents had abandoned the child. Before going to sleep each night, Lena said her prayers, then kissed the bedside photos of her mother and father.

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