Lena Horne dies at age 92

Mon May 10, 2010 6:20am EDT
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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Entertainer Lena Horne, a show-stopping beauty who battled racism in a frustrating effort to become Hollywood's first black leading lady and later won acclaim as a singer, has died at age 92.

Horne died on Sunday night at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan, a hospital spokeswoman said. She declined to give the cause of death.

Horne went to Hollywood in the late 1930s and while she never became a major movie star, she is credited with breaking the ground for black actresses to get bigger roles in Hollywood.

Horne had a stage persona that was mysterious, elegant, haughty and sexy and it helped her become an enchanting nightclub performer who made "Stormy Weather" her signature song.

Known as the "Negro Cinderella" early in her career, she was as complex as she was beautiful. She had a reputation for coldness and insecurity and her career frustrations led to bitterness.

With her big bright eyes, brilliant smile and light complexion, biographer James Gavin said Hollywood considered Horne "as the Negro beautiful enough -- in a Caucasian fashion -- for white Americans to accept." Until then, black women had usually been cast as servants or prostitutes -- roles that Horne did not want.

Many of her movie appearances in the 1940s and '50s were relegated to songs that had no bearing on the plot and could easily be edited out for showings in the South, where white audiences might protest the appearance of a black actress.

Her first substantial movie role did not come until 1969 when she was a brothel madam and Richard Widmark's lover in "Death of a Gunfighter." Her only other movie role after that was as Glinda the Good Witch in "The Wiz," an all-black adaptation of "The Wizard of Oz."

"I really hated Hollywood and I was very lonely," Horne said in a Time magazine interview. "The black stars felt uncomfortable out there."   Continued...