Biography of Dorothy Dandridge, First Oscar-Nominated Black Actress

Dorothy Dandridge

 Silver Screen Collection / Contributor / Getty Images

Dorothy Dandridge (Nov. 9, 1922–Sept. 8, 1965) had everything it took to succeed in 1950's Hollywood—she could sing, dance, and act, and was beautiful—but she was born black. Despite the biased era in which she lived, Dandridge became the first black woman to grace the cover of Life magazine and to receive an Academy Award nomination for best actress in a major motion picture.

Fast Facts: Dorothy Dandridge

  • Known For: Groundbreaking black actor, singer, dancer
  • Born: Nov. 9, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio
  • Parents: Ruby and Cyril Dandridge
  • Died: Sept. 8, 1965 in Hollywood, California
  • Awards and Honors: Academy Award nomination, Golden Globe
  • Spouse(s): Harold Nicholas, Jack Denison
  • Children: Lynn
  • Notable Quote: "If I were white, I could capture the world."

Early Life

When Dorothy Dandridge was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on Nov. 9, 1922, her parents had already separated. Dorothy’s mother, Ruby Dandridge, was five months pregnant when she left her husband Cyril, taking their older daughter Vivian with her. Ruby believed her husband was a spoiled mama's boy who would never leave his mother’s house, so she left.

Ruby supported her daughters with domestic work. Dorothy and Vivian displayed an early talent for singing and dancing and began performing at local theaters and churches when Dorothy was 5.

Ruby’s friend Geneva Williams, moved in, and although she taught the girls to play the piano, she pushed them hard and cruelly punished them. Ruby never noticed. Years later, Vivian and Dorothy figured out that Williams was their mother's lover.

She and Williams labeled Dorothy and Vivian "The Wonder Children." They moved to Nashville, and Dorothy and Vivian signed with the National Baptist Convention to tour churches throughout the South. The Wonder Children toured for three years, attracting regular bookings and earning a solid income, but Dorothy and Vivian wearied of the act and long hours practicing. They had no time for activities normal for youngsters their age.

Lucky Breaks

The Great Depression dried up bookings, so Ruby moved them to Hollywood. where Dorothy and Vivian enrolled in dance classes. When Ruby heard the girls and a dance school friend sing together, she knew they were a great team. Now known as "The Dandridge Sisters," their big break came in 1935 when they appeared in the Paramount musical "The Big Broadcast of 1936." In 1937, they had a small part in the Marx Brothers' film "A Day at the Races."

In 1938 the trio appeared in "Going Places," performing "Jeepers Creepers" with Louis Armstrong, and was booked at New York's Cotton Club. Williams and the girls moved there, but her mother, having found small acting jobs, stayed in Hollywood.

In Cotton Club rehearsals, Dorothy met Harold Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers dance team and they began dating. The Dandridge Sisters were a hit and attracted lucrative offers. Perhaps to get Dorothy away from Nicholas, Williams signed them for a European tour. They dazzled European audiences, but the tour was shortened by World War II.

The Dandridge Sisters returned to Hollywood, where the Nicholas Brothers were filming. Dorothy resumed her romance with Nicholas. The Dandridge Sisters performed a few more engagements but eventually split up. Dorothy then began to work on a solo career.

Hard Lessons

Hoping to succeed without help from her mother or Williams, Dandridge landed small parts in low-budget films, including "Four Shall Die" (1940), "Lady From Louisiana" (1941), and "Sundown" (1941), and sang and danced with the Nicholas Brothers to "Chattanooga Choo Choo” in "Sun Valley Serenade" (1941) with the Glenn Miller Band.

Dandridge refused demeaning roles offered to black actors—savages, slaves, or servants—but the sisters worked steadily. They both married in 1942, with 19-year-old Dorothy Dandridge wedding 21-year-old Nicholas on Sept. 6. After a life of hard work, all she wanted was to be the ideal wife.

Nicholas started taking long trips, however, and when he was home he spent his time playing golf or philandering. Dandridge blamed her sexual inexperience for Nicholas's infidelity. When she happily discovered she was pregnant, she believed Nicholas would settle down.

Dandridge, 20, delivered a lovely daughter, Harolyn (Lynn) Suzanne Dandridge, on Sept. 2, 1943. She was a loving mother, but as Lynn grew, Dandridge sensed something was wrong. Her hyper 2-year-old cried constantly and didn't interact with people. Lynn was deemed developmentally disabled, likely due to lack of oxygen during birth. During this troublesome period, Nicholas was often physically and emotionally unavailable.

In 1949, she obtained a divorce, but Nicholas avoided paying child support. Now a single mother, Dandridge reached out to her mother and Williams to care for Lynn until she could stabilize her career.

Club Scene

Dandridge loathed nightclub performing but knew an immediate, substantial movie role was unlikely. She contacted an arranger she had worked with at the Cotton Club, who helped her become a sultry, dazzling performer. She was mostly well received but learned that racism in many places, including Las Vegas, was as bad as in the Deep South. Being black, she couldn't share a bathroom, lobby, elevator, or swimming pool with whites. Even when she was headlining, her dressing room was usually a janitor's closet or dingy storage room.

But critics raved about her performances. She opened at the famed Mocambo Club in Hollywood and was booked in New York, becoming the first African-American to stay in and perform at the Waldorf Astoria. Club dates gave Dandridge publicity to land film work. Bit parts flowed in, but Dandridge had to compromise her standards, agreeing in 1950 to play a jungle queen in "Tarzan’s Peril."

Finally, in August 1952, Dandridge got the lead in MGM's "Bright Road," an all-black production about a Southern schoolteacher. She was ecstatic about her role, the first of three film appearances she made with Harry Belafonte—who eventually became a close friend.

Stardom

Good reviews earned an even greater prize. The lead in the 1954 movie "Carmen Jones," based on the opera "Carmen," called for a sultry vixen. Dandridge was neither. Director Otto Preminger reportedly thought she was too classy to play Carmen. Dandridge donned a wig, a low-cut blouse, a seductive skirt, and heavy make-up. When she entered Preminger's office the next day, he reportedly yelled, "It's Carmen!"

"Carmen Jones" opened on Oct. 28, 1954, and was a smash. Dandridge's performance made her the first black woman on the cover of Life magazine. Then she learned of her Academy Award nomination for best actress. No other African-American had earned that distinction. After 30 years in show business, Dorothy Dandridge was a star.

At the Academy Award ceremony on March 30, 1955, Dandridge shared the nomination with Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Jane Wyman, and Judy Garland. Though Kelly won for her role in "The Country Girl," Dandridge at 32 had broken through Hollywood's glass ceiling.

Tough Decisions

While "Carmen Jones" was filming, Dandridge began an affair with Preminger, who was separated but still married. In 1950s America, interracial romance was taboo, and Preminger was careful to show only a business interest in her publicly.

In 1956, she was offered the supporting role of slave girl Tuptim in "The King and I," but Preminger advised against it. She regretted turning it down when "The King and I" became enormously successful. Dandridge's relationship with Preminger soon soured. She was pregnant, but he refused to get a divorce. He broke off their relationship and Dandridge had an abortion to avoid scandal.

Afterward, Dandridge was seen with many white co-stars. Anger over her dating “out of her race” flooded the media. In 1957, a tabloid reported on a tryst between her and a Lake Tahoe man. Dandridge testified in court that such a liaison was impossible because a curfew for people of color confined her to her room. She won a $10,000 settlement.

Bad Choices

Two years after "Carmen Jones," Dandridge returned to acting. Fox cast her alongside Belafonte in "Island in the Sun," a controversial movie dealing with interracial relationships. She protested the dispassionate love scene with her white co-star, but the producers were nervous. The film was successful but deemed nonessential by critics.

Dandridge was frustrated. She couldn't find opportunities to showcase her talents and her career lost momentum.

While the United States pondered race issues, Dandridge's manager Earl Mills secured a role for her in the French film "Tamango." The movie, which portrayed her in steamy love scenes with blond co-star Curd Jurgens, was a hit in Europe but wasn't shown in America until four years later.

In 1958, Dandridge was chosen to play a native girl in "The Decks Ran Red." Like "Tamango," it was considered unremarkable. Dandridge was desperate, so when she was offered the lead in a major production of "Porgy and Bess" in 1959, she jumped at it. The characters were stereotypes—drunks, drug addicts, rapists, and other undesirables—that she had avoided her entire career, yet she was tormented by her refusal to appear in "The King and I." Against the advice of Belafonte, who turned down Porgy, Dandridge accepted the role of Bess. Her performance won a Golden Globe, but the film didn't live up to the hype. 

Hitting Bottom

Dandridge married restaurant owner Jack Denison on June 22, 1959. Dandridge loved his attention, but his restaurant was failing, so she agreed to perform there to attract business. Mills, now her former manager, warned against it, but she listened to Denison.

Dandridge soon discovered that Denison was physically abusive. Adding insult to injury, an investment she had made turned out to be a scam. Dandridge was broke. She began drinking heavily while taking anti-depressants. She finally kicked Denison out of her Hollywood Hills home and filed for divorce in November 1962. Dandridge, who earned $250,000 the year she married Denison, filed for bankruptcy after losing everything.

Things got worse. She hadn't paid her daughter's caretaker for two months, so she was caring for Lynn, now 20, violent, and unmanageable. No longer able to afford private care, she had to commit Lynn to the state mental hospital.

Increasingly desperate, Dandridge contacted Mills, who agreed to manage her again and help her regain her health. He got her into a health spa in Mexico and planned several nightclub engagements there.

By most accounts, Dandridge was coming back strong, receiving enthusiastic responses for the Mexican performances. She was scheduled for a New York engagement but fractured her foot on a flight of stairs while in Mexico. The doctor recommended having a cast placed on her foot.

Death

On the morning of Sept. 8, 1965, back in Hollywood, Dandridge asked Mills to reschedule the appointment for her cast so she could get more sleep. When he went to pick her up that afternoon, he found her on the bathroom floor, dead at age 42.

Her death was initially attributed to a blood clot from her fractured foot, but an autopsy revealed a lethal dose of the anti-depressant Tofranil. Whether the overdose was accidental or intentional remains unknown.

Legacy

Dandridge's last wishes, left in a note given to Mills months before her death, were for all her belongings to go to her mother. Despite her Life magazine cover, her Oscar nomination, her Golden Globe, and her extensive body of work, only $2.14 remained in her bank account after her death.

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