Dorothy Dandridge: History, Major Achievements & Facts
When Dorothy Dandridge cat walked her way into the Hollywood limelight, playing the classic femme fatale self-titled role of Carmen Jones, the world rose to applaud her flawless delivery. She won the love of many movie lovers and filmmakers from that moment. A 1954 Oscar nominee, she also appeared on the cover of Life magazine which handed her the bragging rights as the first black woman to have achieved that. Dorothy also distinguished herself as a fantastic singer and dancer.
Childhood & Family
Even while she was in her mother’s womb, Dorothy Jean Dandridge was caught up in a season of family turmoil. It was as though fate had mercilessly marked her for a hard life right from her conception.
The actress was born in Cleveland, Ohio to an aspiring actress, Ruby Dandridge and Baptist minister, Cyril Dandridge. Dorothy’s mother left her father five months prior to her birth. Ruby took her first daughter, Vivian, with her. Dorothy’s parents had been separated once before. This time around, Ruby was determined to leave for good and carve her own path. She was tired of the small life her husband had chosen for himself and did not want to keep being a part of it.
This domestic strife that welcomed Dorothy’s birth proved to be a most pivotal moment in her life. She would go through life trying to make meaning out of her parents’ situation and of her own identity.
Dorothy and her sister, Vivian, took singing and piano lessons from Geneva Williams, a friend of their mother’s who had moved in with them. As their talents improved, they became known as the Wonder Children.
The family relocated to Nashville, where Ruby launched them into a show business. Their performances became a family affair. Dorothy and Vivian would do various skits ranging from singing to acrobatics, Geneva would sit at the piano while Ruby assumed the managerial duties.
They landed gigs at churches nationwide during the Great Depression (1929-1939). The increasing economic difficulties, however, affected the flow of their performances and income. Ruby figured they should redirect their attention to Hollywood, which she felt would provide more stability in terms of their finances. Hence, the family moved to California, where the Dorothy and her sister were admitted to Hooper Street School. In the afternoons, they attended a dancing class.
Ruby changed their group name, and invited a friend, Etta James, to sing with the girls. They became known as the Dandridge Sisters. The group gained considerable popularity in California and later earned success at the prestigious Cotton Club in New York. It was there that the young actress met entertainer Lena Horne and dancer Harold Nichols of the famed Nicholas Brothers.
Dorothy stepped into Hollywood in an era of heightened racial discrimination. As a black girl, she did not enjoy the same privileges of her white counterparts. She was given more sensual roles which watered down her acting skills.
Her minor role in the 1935 “Our Gang” comedy short film “Teacher’s Beau” served as a launch pad for her illustrious career. The film, which was directed by German-born American film director Gus Meins, saw Dorothy appear alongside Matthew Beard, Scotty Beckett, and Carl Switzer.
When she hit her mid-teens, she started playing minor parts in several films, including “The Big Broadcast of 1936” (1936), “It Can’t Last Forever” (1937), “A Day at the Races” (1937) and “Going Places” (1938).
In 1942, she was cast as a maid in “The Night Before the Divorce”, a comedy film directed by German filmmaker Robert Siodmark. The 1940s saw her appear in films such as “Drums of the Congo” (1942), “Hit Parade of 1943” (1943), “Since You Went Away” (1944), and “Pillow to Post” (1945), among others. In “Atlantic City” (1944), a film directed by Raymond Benedict McCarey, she had a role as a singer.
During an engagement at the Cotton Club, Dandridge met Harold Nicholas, a dancer and entertainer . They married at a Hollywood ceremony on September 6, 1942. Guests at their wedding included Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel, jazz singer Etta Jones, and choreographer Nick Castle. But, they had an unhappy marriage that deteriorated because of Nicholas’ womanizing and inattentiveness. By 1948, Nicholas had abandoned his family. Dandridge filed for divorce in September 1950, and it was finalized in October 1951.
Dorothy Dandridge was married twice. In 1942, at a wedding in Hollywood, she tied the knot with Harold Nicholas, an American entertainer and tap dancer. The marriage lasted until 1951, when the pair decided to part ways. The couple had a daughter called Harolyn, who was physically challenged. The marriage was made even more frustrating by the philandering Harold. She placed Harolyn in foster care and filed for divorce.
On the set of the 1954 musical film “Carmen Jones,” she started a 4-year affair with the film’s director Otto Preminger. She got pregnant but later aborted it. Dorothy broke things off when she realized Otto would not be leaving his wife (Mary Gardner) anytime soon. Their relationship was alluded to in Martha Coolidge’s biological drama film “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” starring Halle Berry and Klaus Maria Brandauer.
Dorothy Dandridge’s second marriage was to Jack Denison but the duo split up after three years due irreconcilable differences and domestic violence issues.
Dorothy Dandridge garnered a reputation as a tented singer and performed a number of stints at nightclubs. She also performed with Cuban actor and musician, Desi Arnaz’s band for 14 weeks at La Vie en Rose.
As her fame spread, she appeared at elite venues in such cities as Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco and London. She joined the cast of the film “Bright Road,” and starred as Jane Richards opposite Philip Hepburn and Harry Belafonte.
Following her role in “Carmen Jones,” she appeared in “ Island in the Sun” as Margot Seaton. In the 1958 film “Tamango,” she played the role of Reiker’s mistress, Aiché.
She also portrayed various characters in such films as “The Decks Ran Red,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Malaga,” “The Murder Men” and the television series “Cain’s Hundred.” The Hollywood star made guest appearances on “Cavalcade of Stars”, “The Colgate Comedy Hour”, “Light’s Diamond Jubilee”, and “The Ed Sullivan Show”. She featured as a presenter at the 27th Annual Academy Awards held on March 30, 1955. At the ceremony, she presented the Academy Award for Film Editing to Gene Milford [for the film “On the Waterfront”].
Dorothy Dandridge’s other theatre credits include “Swingin’ the Dream,” “Meet the People,” “Sweet ‘n’ Hot,” “Crazy Girls” and “Show Boat.”
Struggles & Death
She declined the supporting role of Tuptim in “The King and I” because she was required to play the character of a slave. Later, she opined that her rejection of the role might have accounted for her downward spiral in Hollywood. Rita Moreno took the role in the film which turned out to be a major success.
As her film career dried up, her second marriage took a turn for the worse and eventually failed. Dorothy took to the bottle and relied heavily on antidepressants. Between 1947 and 1958, she became a target of the FBI who placed surveillance on her professional connections.
Some Red Scare-era newspapers published scandalous stories about her which drastically affected her Hollywood career. Down the lane, her finances took a nosedive, leading her to turn to her former nightclub career. She however failed to garner any significant success.
By 1963, her finances were in shambles. She was forced to move her disabled daughter into a state institution. Not surprisingly, Dorothy endured a nervous breakdown. In September 1965, she was found dead in her Hollywood apartment from drug overdose. She was only 42.
Following the Blaxploitation film era in the 1980s, the likes of Tasha Smith, Kimberly Elise, Janet Jackson and Jada Pinkett paid homage to Dorothy’s contribution towards the Black-American image in American film.
Dorothy Dandridge became a posthumous recipient of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in early 1984.
Did you know?
In one of the episodes of the critically acclaimed TV show “Black-ish”, American singer and songwriter Beyoncé was compared to Dorothy Dandridge.
Dorothy Dandridge: Fast Facts
Born: Dorothy Jean Dandridge
Date of birth: November 9, 1922
Place of birth: Cleveland, Ohio, United States
Died: September 8, 1965; Los Angeles, California
Cause of death: Drug overdose
Buried at: Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California
Mother: Ruby Dandridge
Sister: Vivian Dandridge
Spouses: Harold Nicholas (1942-1951); Jack Denison (1959-1962)
Daughter: Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas (born on September 2, 1943)