Dorothy Dandridge

Oscar-Nominated Actress

Dorothy Dandridge
Dorothy Dandridge - About 1955. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Known for: first African American woman to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress; also known for her beauty and for her struggles with racial stereotyping, with limited roles available to her

Occupation: actress, singer
Dates: November 9, 1922 – September 8, 1965
Also known as: Dorothy Jean Dandridge

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Ruby Dandridge, of Jamaican and Mexican heritage
  • Father: Cyril Dandridge, of black and white heritage
  • Sibling: Vivian

Marriage, Children:

  • Husbands:
  1. Harold Nicholas (married 1942 - 1949; dancer and actor)
    • Daughter: Harolyn, born 1943
  2. Jack Denison (married 1959 – 1962; night club owner)

Dorothy Dandridge Biography

Dorothy Dandridge was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1922. Her parents separated before her birth.  Dorothy’s mother, Ruby, had her two daughters performing song and dance routines as the Wonder Kids, traveling around the country and appearing at Baptist churches and schools, mostly in the South.

The family moved to Chicago and then to Hollywood.  Dorothy had some years of regularly attending school.  Ruby played bit part character roles in Hollywood, especially in stereotypical roles like as a maid.  One of Ruby’s female lovers of the time abused Dorothy.

The Dandridge Sisters

In 1934, Dorothy, Vivian and Etta Jones began singing together as the Dandridge Sisters, and went on tour.  They won a talent competition on KNX radio in Los Angeles, beating 25 white competitors.

By 1936, the Dandridge Sisters act was appearing at the Cotton Club in Harlem, where they became regulars at the club where African American performers entertained a predominantly white audience.  They played on the program with such other notables as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and the dancers, the Nicholas Brothers.

First Film Appearances

The Dandridge Sisters also appeared that year in film, as themselves, in The Big Broadcast of 1936.  The following year, Dorothy Dandridge had a bit part in the Marx Brothers film, A Day At the Races.  In 1939, the Sisters performed on Broadway in Singin’ the Dream and in 1940 performed with Louis Armstrong in the movie Going Places.

The trio broke up, and in 1941 and 1942, Dorothy Dandridge made several solo appearances in films.

Marriage

In 1942, Dorothy Dandridge married Harold Nicholas, one of the dancers in the popular Nicholas Brothers act.  She dropped out of show business as he tended to a career in the movies.

In 1943, Dorothy Dandridge gave birth to her daughter, Harolyn, called Lynn.  The child suffered from brain damage at birth, and was severely mentally handicapped.  The marriage suffered from the stress of this tragedy, and also from Harold’s many affairs.  Dandridge divorced Nicholas in 1949, after putting her daughter into an institution.

Rebounding

For some time before and after the divorce, Dorothy Dandridge was seriously depressed.  She decided to study acting, singing and dance formally to improve her skills. She studied at the Actors’ Laboratory in Los Angeles.

She returned to live performing, having a brief romance and professional collaboration with the composer Phil Moore.

By 1951 Dorothy Dandridge was performing in clubs again, though she hated much about clubs.  She appeared at Macombo with the Desi Arnaz Band, and she was the first African American to perform at the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.

Film Success

In 1951, Dorothy Dandridge had a part in the movie Tarzan’s Peril, which was also titled Tarzan and the Jungle Queen – Dandridge played the jungle queen.  In 1953 she played a teacher in Bright Road; Harry Belafonte played the principal of the school.  It was an unusual role as Dandridge escaped the usual “love goddess” image.

In 1954, with Otto Preminger directing, Dorothy Dandridge had the title role in Carmen Jones, an adaptation of the Bizet opera Carmen with an all-black cast.

  She played against leading man Harry Belafonte; Diahann Carroll and Pearl Bailey had supporting roles.  She auditioned twice for the role; after being rejected the first time, she returned and projected a more coarse image and was hired.  Although she was successful as a singer, her voice was dubbed for the film.

For that role in Carmen Jones, Dorothy Dandridge was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress.  Hattie McDaniel had won for Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind, and Ethel Waters had been nominated for a supporting role, but this was the first time an African American woman was nominated for a lead role.  Grace Kelly took home the Best Actress Oscar that year, but the nomination brought Dorothy Dandridge considerable publicity.  Life magazine did a cover story on her, calling her the most beautiful woman in America; with that story, Dandridge was the first African American woman featured on the cover of Life.

The director of Carmen Jones, Preminger, and Dandridge had a long affair.

More Films

After her success with Carmen Jones, Dandridge began rejecting offers for other roles that seemed to be typecasting her in a similar role to the one she played in that movie.  Her next film was not until 1957: Island in the Sun.  The story of interracial romance, with two couples – Dandridge and John Justin playing one couple and Harry Belafonte and Joan Fontaine playing the other – was controversial, and the film was not shown in many theaters because of the topic, especially in Southern theaters.

This role was followed by other films that featured interracial romances: The Decks Ran Red (1958), Tamango (1960), and Malaga (1961).

In 1959, Dandridge starred in an all-black production of Porgy and Bess, with Sidney Poitier playing Porgy; her voice was again dubbed.  She won a Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a musical for this role, although the black community did not receive the production well.

Frustrations and Struggles

Frustrated with the limited roles available to her as an African American actress, Dorothy Dandridge returned to touring as a singer.

On tour in Las Vegas, she met Jack Denison, a night club owner who was white, and in 1959 married him. She invested heavily in his business and made other bad investments in Arizona oil, and soon went broke. Her daughter’s condition was also deteriorating.  Denison left Dandridge, they divorced in 1962, and in 1963 Dorothy Dandridge declared bankruptcy, losing her home.

In 1961 and 1962, Dandridge had parts on television in Father of the Bride and Beulah. In 1962, Dandridge appeared in a television series, Cain’s Hundred, and in the film The Murder Men.

Her increasing use of alcohol and pills led her, in 1965, to go to Mexico to recover her health. When she returned, she began making deals for movies; she had contracts for two films and a major night club booking.  But on September 8, 1965, Dorothy Dandridge was found dead.  Originally found to have died of an embolism, it was later found that she had died of an overdose of anti-depressant medication. It is not known whether it was accidental or a suicide, but suicide is largely assumed.

Posthumous Honors

In 1970, Dorothy Dandridge’s autobiography Everything and Nothing was published.  Co-Author Earl Conrad said she’d recorded tapes for him with which he worked to produce the book.

In 1984, Dandridge was awarded a gold star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame.

In 1999, a biopic, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, was produced by HBO as a made-for-television movie.  It starred Halle Berry and won many awards, bringing Dandridge’s story back to public attention.

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