Unpublished Black History

Credit Sam Falk/The New York Times

For Lena Horne, a Home at Last

She was one of the most famous performers in the country, a recording star, a Hollywood actress and a nightclub sensation.
But in the late 1950s, Lena Horne still struggled to find property owners in Manhattan who were willing to sell co-ops or condominiums to African-Americans, even very wealthy ones.

So how exactly did she snare the penthouse apartment, featured in this photograph, at 300 West End Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side? With the help of a good friend, Harry Belafonte. 

Back in 1958, Mr. Belafonte, who was the first recording artist to sell more than a million LPs, was turned away from one Manhattan apartment after another. And he was furious. So he sent his publicist, who was white, to rent a four-bedroom apartment in the building at 300 West End Avenue. His publicist passed on the paperwork, and Mr. Belafonte signed the one-year lease in his own name.

Within hours of moving in, Mr. Belafonte said, the building’s manager “became aware that he had a Negro as a tenant.” The building’s owner asked him to leave. Mr. Belafonte refused. 

Instead, he bought the building, using dummy real estate companies to cloak his identity. Some tenants who had been renting there bought their apartments and some of Mr. Belafonte’s friends moved in, too. “Lena Horne got the penthouse,” said Mr. Belafonte, who described the real estate deal in his memoir, “My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race and Defiance.” 

By Dec. 17, 1964, when this photograph was taken by our photographer, Sam Falk, Ms. Horne and her husband, Lennie Hayton, a white composer and conductor, were comfortably settled in. She was hanging Christmas decorations that day as she prepared for the debut of her television show, “Lena.” 

In the article that ran 10 days later, accompanied by a different photograph, a close-up, she mentioned her difficulties in finding an apartment, but not the back story to where she had landed. 

“Lennie and I lived in hotels for years while we were on the road,” said Ms. Horne, who was 47 then. “And then we went through the hysteria of trying to find an apartment – all those stupid problems – and when we finally found a place that would admit both me and Lennie, we put our roots down.”

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