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.”
She moved back to her native New York and became a singing star in nightclubs and theaters and on television. She won two Grammys.
Gavin, author of the 2009 book “Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne,” said Horne was especially sensitive to rejection.
“Every perceived or real slight, she recoiled from it in a violent way,” Gavin told the Los Angeles Times. “This does not make for a happy lady. She was angry.”
Horne’s life was filled with contradictions. Despite being too dark for Hollywood stardom, as a girl she was taunted by peers because of her light complexion. She campaigned for civil rights in the 1950s and ‘60s but admitted she had ulterior motives for marrying second husband Lennie Hayton, a white bandleader, in 1947.
“It was cold-blooded and deliberate,” she told Time. “I married him because he could get me into places a black man couldn’t. But I really learned to love him. He was beautiful, just so damned good.”
Horne and Hayton were married until his 1971 death. Horne and her first husband, Louis Jones, married in 1937 and divorced in 1944. They had a son, Teddy, who died of kidney problems, and a daughter, writer Gail Lumet Buckley.
Horne was born in New York on June 30, 1917. Her father was a gambler who left the family when she was a toddler and her mother was an actress who often left Lena to live with her grandparents while she toured with a black acting troupe.
Horne began her career as a 16-year-old dancer at the Cotton Club, the storied Harlem nightclub where the leading black entertainers of the time performed for white audiences, before going to Hollywood.
In the 1950s, her support of civil rights group landed Horne on a list of celebrities with alleged communist leanings, which further hurt her movie career.
In 1981, she received a special Tony Award for “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” the Broadway show in which she sang and discussed the ups and downs of her life.
Writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Peter Cooney