This is Dorothy Dandridge. Dorothy was born on November 9, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio. As a child, Dorothy experienced difficulties in home and family life. While her mother, actress Ruby Dandridge was pregnant with Dorothy her father walked out on the family. Later, Dorothy suffered abuse from her mother’s girlfriend Geneva Williams who was a strict and cruel disciplinarian.
Despite difficulties at home Ruby introduced Dorothy into show business. Dorothy performed as a song-and dance team with her sister Vivian as “The Wonder Children.” They did performances throughout the South at various places including Black churches. By the 1930s, Dorothy relocated to Los Angeles, California with her mom and family in search of new opportunities at stardom. Her group, the Dandridge Sisters, which included Dorothy, her sister Vivian, and a non-relative Etta Jones found some success performing at places such as the renowned Harlem Cotton Club and performances with the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra and Cab Calloway.
Dorothy soon found that the entertainment industry was rife with racism and segregation. Although she was allowed to perform on stage, she was banned from using the restroom and eating at the restaurants in some facilities because she was African-American. In her teens, Dorothy and her sister began to take small roles in films such as A Day at the Races (1937) and Going Places (1939) with music legend Louis Armstrong. Going solo, Dorothy danced with Harold Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers in Sonja Henie’s musical Sun Valley Serenade (1941). Dorothy and Harold’s dance scene was deleted from the version of the filmed played throughout the South. She portrayed an African princess in Drums of the Congo (1942).
Dorothy married Harold Nicholas in 1942, but the marriage was not happy. During the tumultuous marriage Dorothy stopped performing and rumors circulated that Nicholas was involved in extramarital affairs with other women. In 1943 Dorothy gave birth to daughter Harolyn who was diagnosed with severe brain damage. Dorothy blamed her daughter’s condition on Harold who was not present when she went into labor. Dorothy had to arrange for her daughter to receive private care.
Dorothy divorced Nicholas in 1951, returning to the nightclub circuit finding success as a solo singer. She rose to international stardom after a performance at Hollywood’s Mocambo Club with Desi Arnaz’s Band and a sold-out 14 week engagement at the La Vie en Rose. Dorothy performed at beautiful international venues in major cities such as Rio de Janeiro, New York, London, and San Francisco. She landed her first starring film role, Bright Road (1953) opposite Harry Belafonte, in which she played a young schoolteacher.
A year later, Dorothy landed a role in Carmen Jones (1954) also co-starring Harry Belafonte. Carmen Jones skyrocketed her to the heights of stardom. With her beauty and grace, Dorothy became the first African-American Woman to earn an Academy Award nomination for best actress. Many felt she deserved the award, but she lost to Grace Kelly (The Country Girl). Despite the lost, Dorothy’s role in Carmen Jones seemed to be putting her on the path to achieving the type of super stardom as a non-white actress like that of White actresses like Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe. She was featured on a 1955 the cover of Life magazine and was treated like royalty at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. Dorothy was also dubbed the “Black Marilyn Monroe”
The years after the success of Carmen Jones, Dorothy was not able to find strong leading roles that fit her tastes because of Hollywood’s racism. The New York Times quoted Dorothy as saying “If I were Betty Grable, I could capture the world.” According to the Boston Globe, her Carmen Jones one of her co-stars addressed the issue, saying Dorothy “was the right person at the wrong time.” Porgy and Bess (1959) was her next best film opposite Sidney Poitier. Dorothy then turned down a role as Tuptim, a slave in the film The King and I because she refused to play a slave. Rumors circulated that Dorothy was slated to play Billie Holliday in a film version of Lady Sings the Blues, directed by Orson Welles, but this never came about.
Because of Hollywood’s extreme racism, Dorothy was basically unable to find suitable roles without racial stereotypes, so she found herself starring in films with racists visions of interracial romance such as Island in the Sun (1957), starring Harry Belafonte and Joan Fontaine, Tamango (1959), which she portrayed a mistress of a slave ship captain, and Malaga (1960). All of these films received poor ratings because of the racially and sexually charged plots.
After her first failed marriage and during the making of Carmen Jones, Dorothy began to find herself in a string of bad relationships. During the making of Carmen Jones, she began an affair with the film’s director Otto Preminger, who also directed the hit Porgy and Bess. After her relationship with Preminger failed she soon found herself in yet another troubled marriage with Jack Denison in 1959. Denison was verbally abusive and mishandled her money, losing Dorothy’s savings in bad investments including his failed attempt at owning a restaurant in 1962. He left her shortly after.
Dorothy’s failed relationships and film career was the catalyst of problems of heavy drinking and dependence on antidepressants. With the threat of bankruptcy and problems with the IRS she returned to performing in nightclubs, but did not regain her former success. Regulated to second-rate stage productions and lounges, her financial problems went from bad to worse. She could no longer afford to pay for private care for Harolyn and placed her in a state institution. Shortly thereafter, she suffered a nervous breakdown.
On September 8, 1965, Dorothy was found dead in her Hollywood home from a barbiturate overdose. She only had $2 to her name in a bank account.
Dorothy’s story of success, struggle, and tragedy became renewed in the late 1990s with the release of her biography, Dorothy Dandridge, by Donald Bogle in 1997. That same year the New York City Film Forum presented a two-week retrospective on Dorothy’s life and career. Actress Halle Berry portrayed Dorothy in the 1999 HBO film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which won Halle a Golden Globe and Emmy Award.
I Salute this AMAZING HER-story making Sista!
“Dorothy Dandridge.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web. 02 Mar. 2015.