(CNN) — Singer, dancer and actress Lena Horne died at New York-Presbyterian Hospital on Sunday night, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Horne was 92.
She was one of the first African-Americans to sign a long-term movie contract with a major Hollywood studio when she joined MGM in 1942.
Horne’s expressive voice made her a singing star after Hollywood failed to give her roles that might have made her a big screen starlet.
Horne complained she was used as “window dressing” in white films, mostly limited to singing performances that could be easily edited out for play in southern theaters.
The light-complected Horne refused to go along with studio plans to promote her as a Latin American.
She later said she did not want to be “an imitation of a white woman.”
Her childhood was nomadic as she traveled with her actress mother, but much of her time growing up was spent in Brooklyn, New York, where she was born in 1917.
Horne was 16 when she began her show business career as a dancer at Harlem’s Cotton Club. She later became a singer there, playing to packed houses of white patrons, with band leaders Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
She toured as a featured singer with a white band in 1940, a first for an African-American, according to her official biography.
Her first film role came in 1938 in “The Duke is Tops,” but her next movie didn’t come along for another four years.
She was given a screen test by MGM and signed to a movie contract after a studio scout saw her performing in a New York club.
“I think the black boy that cleaned the shoes and me were the only two black people except the maids who were there working for the stars,” Horne said in a CNN interview. “And it was very lonely, and I wasn’t very happy.”
Still, Horne said she was grateful that her World War II-era films — including “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather” — were seen by black and white soldiers.
“But after I realized I would only go so far, I went on the stage,” Horne said.
With only subservient roles available for a black actress in Hollywood in the 1940s, Horne turned to recording top-selling songs.
Horne said performing for live audiences was what she loved most.
“I’m always happy when I’m surrounded by people to react and feel and touch,” she said.
She has a son and daughter from a first marriage that ended in 1944.
Horne married again in 1947 to Lennie Hayton, who was then MGM’s music director.
She was an active supporter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement. Horne was there when King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the Lincoln Memorial steps in 1963.
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