Dandridge, Dorothy 1922–1965
Dorothy Dandridge 1922–1965
In both her life and her films Dorothy Dandridge was given the opportunity to play only one role, that of the so-called “tragic mulatto,” in which a beautiful, sensuous, light-skinned black woman fails to find acceptance among either whites or blacks and is doomed to a life of unhappiness and an early death. At the apex of her career in the mid-1950s, Dandridge was hailed as one of the world’s most beautiful women, her picture graced the cover of Life magazine, and she became the first black star ever to be nominated for an Oscar in the category of best actor or actress.
But Hollywood in the 1950s had no place for a black “love goddess,” as Ebony magazine described Dorothy Dandridge, and her career soon stagnated in a repetition of the tragic mulatto character, her talent and charisma never fully exploited for fear of racial controversy. As unhappy in her private life as she was frustrated in her film career, Dandridge died in 1965, a victim of drug abuse, prejudice, and her own great beauty.
Dandridge was born in Cleveland in 1922, the daughter of actress Ruby Dandridge and her estranged husband, Cyril. Both parents were of mixed racial origin, and young Dorothy inherited copper-colored skin and Caucasian features. From the age of three, Dorothy and her sister Vivian were performing with their mother at various church and social events in the Cleveland area. A talented singer, dancer, and actress, Ruby Dandridge was anxious to give her precocious girls a chance to escape the life of poverty and oppression they were otherwise nearly certain to find. The Dandridge girls were soon in demand as child prodigies of the stage, generally appearing under the auspices of black church associations.
Between the ages of five and eight, Dorothy Dandridge formed one half of The Wonder Kids, touring with her sister throughout the southern states on behalf of the National Baptist Convention. The little girls sang, danced, and performed humorous skits written by their mother and accompanied on the piano by their adopted “aunt,” Eloise Mathews. The continual travel and stage work honed Dorothy’s skills but did not provide her family with any regular income, and after a brief stop in Depression-era Chicago the Dandridge women moved out to Los Angeles to seek work in the film industry. A scout from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer noticed the youngsters, and they were
Born November 9, 1922, in Cleveland, OH; died September 8, 1965, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Cyril and Ruby (an entertainer and actress; maiden name, Butler) Dandridge; married Harold Nicholas (a dancer), 1942 (divorced); married John (Jack) Denison (a nightclub owner), 1959 (divorced, 1963); children: (first marriage) Harolyn (daughter). Education: Self-educated; studied acting at the Actors’ Laboratory; studied singing with Phil Moore.
Actress and singer. Performed as child entertainer in the South, 1926-1934; further stage performances in Los Angeles and small parts in films, 1934-1938; member of the singing Dandridge Sisters, performing in New York City’s Cotton Club and in London, c. 1934-42; nightclub entertainer, late 1940s-1965. Actress in films, including Sundown, 1941; Lady from Louisiana, 1941; Bahama Passage, 1942; Drums of the Congo, 1942; Atlantic City, 1944; Pillow to Post, 1945; Tarzan’s Peril, 1951; The Harlem Globetrotters, 1951; Bright Road, 1953; Carmen Jones, 1954; Island in the Sun, 1957; The Decks Ran Red, 1958; Porgy and Bess, 1959; Tamango, 1959; and Malaga, 1962.
Awards: Academy Award (Oscar) nomination for best actress for role in Carmen Jones, 1954; Golden Globe Award for best actress, Hollywood Foreign Press Association, for role in Porgy and Bess, 1959.
hired for small roles in films such as the Marx Brothers’ 1937 classic A Day at the Races.
By that time the girls had launched the Dandridge Sisters trio with a third singer named Etta Jones. After winning contests in the Los Angeles area they found steady work in New York at the famed Cotton Club, where Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington presided over the best jazz club in the country. There, 14-year-old Dandridge received her first important national exposure and was introduced to the premier black entertainers of the age, many of whom found her youthful beauty more than a little distracting. One of these was Harold Nicholas, who with his brother Fayard worked as the famous dance team of the Nicholas Brothers. Dandridge and Harold Nicholas began a four-year courtship that was often maintained at long distance as the two performers pursued their separate careers across the United States and Europe. They were married in 1942, and Dandridge became pregnant a short time thereafter.
Temporarily retired from the stage, Dandridge hoped to begin a life of a more settled nature with Nicholas and their daughter, Harolyn (nicknamed Lynn), but Dandridge’s marriage turned out to be a disaster from its beginning. As she later candidly admitted in her autobiography Everything and Nothing, Dandridge was inexperienced sexually and guarded in her emotions, a combination Nicholas found to be excellent cause to return to his previous womanizing. Dandridge raised her daughter as she herself had been raised—without the help of a man—only to discover that Lynn was mentally retarded and would need special care for her entire life. Dandridge underwent a crisis that eventually resulted in divorce and a second career as an adult actress and singer.
Two years’ study at the Actors’ Laboratory in Los Angeles confirmed Dandridge’s ambition to be a film actress in the tradition of earlier black stars such as Fredi Washington and Lena Horne. Like the latter, Dandridge made her way into film via her talents as a singer, which were greatly benefited at this time by a professional and romantic relationship with black composer Phil Moore. As a singer Dandridge had previously lacked range and passion, but under the guidance of Moore she developed her trademark style of sophisticated romance, concentrating on elegant renditions of torch songs by composers such as Moore and Cole Porter. She built a wardrobe of stunning costumes to accent her shapely figure and played at many of the more glamorous nightclubs around the country, generally, as she acknowledged in her memoirs, “singing Caucasian songs for Caucasian listeners.”
It was Dandridge’s appeal to white audiences that would prove both her good fortune and her undoing, for at the same time she found her career advancing, she discovered its fundamental obstacle: Dandridge’s appeal was overwhelmingly sexual, but contemporary racial mores did not allow her to have relations on screen or off with white males. She was perceived as an exotic beauty by white audiences, a unique status that allowed her to tease—but not touch—whites. Indeed, it was not until Dandridge and John Justin were paired in the 1957 film Island in the Sun that a black woman in the arms of a white man had ever been recorded on a Hollywood film.
The contradiction inherent in her film personality did not hinder Dandridge’s early singing career, however. As an isolated stage performer, she was free to adopt an erotic style without directly raising the issue of race, and in the early 1950s Dandridge was much in demand at clubs around the country. She was also much in demand by male admirers. Dandridge suffered through a long series of doomed relationships with a variety of men, mostly white, both famous and not so famous, none of whom offered her the security of marriage she seemed to have needed.
A 1951 Life magazine article cemented Dandridge’s growing fame and fortune. Made relatively wealthy by her singing career, Dandridge at last broke into major motion pictures with a role as an African princess in 1951’s Tarzan’s Peril. The film was not regarded as great art, but male viewers were titillated by the sight of a half-naked Dandridge writhing in captivity. Two years later she was given a more complex role in Bright Road, the story of a teacher struggling to reach a difficult pupil with the help of a school principal, played by Harry Belafonte. The role was unique in Dandridge’s career; the caring, thoughtful young teacher was far removed from her usual sex goddess persona, and it also offered clear proof that Dandridge had talent as an actress.
In 1954 Dandridge achieved the peak of her film career with a starring role in Carmen Jones, an all-black musical based on French composer Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen. The film’s director, Otto Preminger, needed a sultry, volatile woman for the title role; Dandridge was a possible choice, but Preminger thought her too inhibited and naturally elegant for the part. Dandridge returned for a second audition dressed as a whore—with an attitude to match. She landed both the part and the director.
Preminger and Dandridge remained lovers for a number of years, but more importantly Dandridge’s performance as the combative Carmen earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress. She did not win the Oscar, but as the first black ever to be nominated she appeared to have an unlimited future before her. Time magazine described Dandridge as “one of the outstanding dramatic actresses of the screen”—an accolade no white actress of comparable sex appeal had ever earned—and she made the cover of Life magazine as well. Carmen Jones was the high water mark of Dandridge’s life, affirming the faith she had maintained in her own abilities and holding out the promise of future work with the widely respected Preminger, whom Dandridge hoped one day to marry.
Carmen Jones was an all-black movie, however, and true Hollywood stardom would require the acceptance of Dandridge in the same glamour roles expected of white actresses. These Dandridge would never be granted. Despite her undeniable talent and beauty, Dandridge was hemmed in by the unwritten law that blacks could not be romantically involved on screen. Where Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, and a score of other white actresses spent their entire careers tempting white male viewers, Dandridge, who was generally considered the more skillful performer, found herself limited to increasingly rare “Negro films” or to the generic role of tragic mulatto in films with whites.
Thus, in 1959 Dandridge gave a strong performance as Bess in a film version of the black opera Porgy and Bess, winning the Golden Globe Award as best actress in a musical; while on the other side of the racial divide she found nothing more substantial than typecast roles in such mediocre fare as The Decks Ran Red (1958), Tamango (1959), and Malaga (1962). The 1957 production of Island in the Sun provided a somewhat meatier role for Dandridge, but it could only rehash the subject of interracial sex, not move beyond it. The most memorable aspect of all of these films was Dandridge herself, a true star restricted to roles that she knew to be unworthy of her potential and essentially dishonest about race.
Dandridge’s performances in her later films are marked by the increasing strain she felt as a woman caught between two worlds. As her film career faltered, the actress’s private life continued to be a source of endless grief, with one romance after another foundering on the rocks of racial difference. In 1959 she married her second husband, white nightclub owner John (better known as Jack) Denison. The marriage proved to be yet another disaster, however, and Dandridge later claimed in her autobiography that Denison had married her in the hope that she could support his troubled businesses.
If that were the case, Denison badly miscalculated, for Dandridge herself was soon in financial difficulties. Her income from film and nightclub work declined in the early sixties, and, even worse, she was persuaded to invest huge sums of money in Arizona oil wells. Little oil was found, and in March of 1963 Dandridge declared personal bankruptcy and lost everything she owned, including a house in the Hollywood hills. The marriage had ended a few months before, leaving Dandridge to face alone the prospect of poverty, middle age, and her failing career as an entertainer.
The situation was similar in some ways to that which she had overcome following the breakup of her first marriage, but a second comeback was far less likely at the age of 39. Dandridge nevertheless did her best to repair her screen career, signing a contract in 1965 to make two films with the Mexican producer Raul Fernandez; and in September of that year she was booked at a New York City nightclub for a two-week, $10,000 engagement. But this time the odds proved too great.
Dandridge had begun drinking heavily and taking drugs, including a prescribed anti-depressant called Tofranil. On September 8, 1965, she was found dead in her apartment in Los Angeles, apparently the victim of an overdose of Tofranil, although it remains unclear whether she intended to kill herself or even if Tofranil was capable of causing death in the amount taken. What is clear is that Dandridge for years had suffered from severe nervous disorders, the result in part of her predicament as a black female film star, and that in the last period of her life she had fallen victim to drug and alcohol abuse.
Though her films are now rarely watched, Dorothy Dandridge remains a unique example of thwarted talent and ill-starred beauty. Her career was made possible—and impossible—by post-war America’s ambivalent racial attitudes, according to which a beautiful black woman could be acclaimed as an actress and at the same time denied the roles that would naturally have come to a white woman of comparable star quality. At her peak between the era of racial segregation and the later civil rights movement, Dandridge both acted and lived out the role of “tragic mulatto,” suffering its consequences on screen and in her private life as well.
Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks, Continuum, 1989.
Dandridge, Dorothy, and Earl Conrad, Everything and Nothing, Abelard-Schuman, 1970.
Mills, Earl, Dorothy Dandridge, Holloway House, 1989.
Ebony, June 1962; March 1966; September 1986.
Essence, October 1984.
Life, November 5, 1951; March 23, 1953; November 1, 1954.
Time, February 4, 1952; May 2, 1955.
Dorothy Dandridge (1922-1965) was the first African American woman to receive an Academy Award nomination for best actress for her performance in the 1954 film Carmen Jones. Her glamorous image and turbulent life have inspired many to compare her to another equally tragic Hollywood figure, Marilyn Monroe.
One of the most strikingly beautiful and charismatic stars ever to grace Hollywood, Dorothy Dandridge blazed a number of significant trails during her short but noteworthy career as the first African American actress to achieve leading-role status. Yet hers was also a deeply troubled life, marked by the scars of a miserable childhood, a string of failed personal relationships, numerous career setbacks, and ongoing struggles with drug and alcohol abuse. Racism was also one of the demons with which she had to contend, for Dandridge came of age in an era when the entertainment world was rife with demeaning racial stereotypes.
A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Dorothy Jean Dandridge was born in 1922 to Ruby Dandridge and her estranged husband, Cyril. As children, Dorothy and her older sister, Vivian, traveled to schools and churches around the country performing in song-and-dance skits scripted by their mother, who longed for a career in show business. By 1930, Ruby Dandridge had left Cleveland with her daughters to seek her fortune in Hollywood. There the family survived on what Ruby could earn playing bit parts in the movies or on radio, usually as a domestic servant-the kind of character role typically offered to black actors and actresses at that time. Meanwhile, Dorothy was subjected to years of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother's female lover.
Achieved Early Fame in Nightclubs
Around 1934, Dorothy and Vivian teamed up with another singer named Etta Jones and, billed as the Dandridge Sisters, began touring with a popular band. Their talents eventually landed them a regular spot at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, New York where white audiences flocked to see a wide variety of black performers. Dorothy went on to make her Hollywood debut in 1937 with a bit part in the classic Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races, followed a couple of years later by an appearance of the Dandridge Sisters with jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong in Going Places. By 1940, however, the trio had disbanded, and Dorothy set out on her own.
In 1941 and 1942, Dandridge worked in several musical film shorts and Hollywood features before marrying Harold Nicholas of the celebrated Nicholas Brothers dance duo. While he pursued a film career, she temporarily set aside her ambitions to await the arrival of their first child in 1943. However the marriage was an unhappy one almost from the start, due to Nicholas's philandering. The couple's difficulties were compounded when their daughter, Harolyn (known as Lynn), was diagnosed as being severely mentally retarded due to brain damage suffered at birth. She was eventually institutionalized. For the rest of her life, Dandridge blamed herself for Lynn's condition.
Dandridge and her husband finally divorced in 1949. Deeply depressed over what she perceived as her failure as a wife and as a mother, she decided that the best way to cope with her sad situation was to keep busy. She took singing, acting, and dance lessons to regain her confidence and soon hit the road with a nightclub act that eventually took her all over the world. In 1951, she became the first African American to perform in the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. That same year, she also broke attendance records at the Mocambo in Hollywood. Despite her success, Dandridge constantly battled insecurities about her looks and her talent and such anxiety often left her feeling physically ill before, during, or after a performance. Additionaly, she absolutely detested the cigarette smoke, the drinking, and the often obnoxious male patrons she had to endure on the nightclub circuit.
Launched Film Career
Before long, however, Dandridge's film career began to blossom. In addition to some bit parts, she played an African princess in the 1951 movie Tarzan's Peril and a teacher in 1953's Bright Road. In 1954, she won the lead role in the movie that would make her a star-Carmen Jones, a lavish musical based on the nineteenth-century French opera Carmen by Georges Bizet that tells the story of a beautiful but fickle gypsy girl whose seductive ways lead to tragedy. In director Otto Preminger's updated version, set in Florida during World War II, Bizet's gypsy girl is transformed into a sultry black factory worker who corrupts a young black soldier, betrays him, and then pays the ultimate price for her actions. Featuring an all-black cast that, in addition to Dandridge, included Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, and Diahann Carroll, Carmen Jones proved to be a critical and commercial success. It not only established Dandridge as a bona fide sex symbol, it also earned her the honor of being the first African American to receive a best actor or actress Academy Award nomination.
Dandridge almost did not get to play Carmen Jones. When she first auditioned for Preminger, she struck him as being far too elegant and ladylike for the part. She, however, was determined to become a movie star, so she acquired an authentic-sounding southern accent, put on a tight skirt and low-cut blouse, applied heavy eye makeup and tousled her hair, and headed off for a second audition. This time, Dandridge electrified Preminger with her grasp of the character and won the part on the spot. She also captivated the director personally, but their liaison was an unfortunate one that caused Dandridge a great deal of sorrow.
Although Dandridge did not win the Oscar for Carmen Jones, which went to Grace Kelly for her role in The Country Girl, she still became the toast of Hollywood. Reporters and photographers trailed in her wake. Articles about her appeared in black as well as white publications, including a cover story in Life magazine that described her as one of the most beautiful women in America. Even the foreign press lavished her with attention. For a while, it looked as if Dandridge would be the one to force the movie industry to acknowledge the reality of racial integration.
Challenged Racial Stereotypes
Despite receiving such acclaim, Dandridge waited in vain for more demanding film roles to come her way. Instead, she was usually offered parts that were little more than variations on the Carmen Jones character-that is, lusty young women of dubious morality who meet with tragic ends. It was a frustrating turn of events for Dandridge, who took pride in working hard at her craft only to see herself locked into a racial stereotype. Sadly, studio bosses believed that white moviegoers would not accept African American actresses in roles other than that of the domestic servant or the trampy seductress.
As a result, three years passed before Dandridge starred in another film. This one, too, generated headlines, but not just for her performance. Island in the Sun (1957) was a daring foray into interracial romance that paired Dandridge with a white leading man. It was the first time a major American film had depicted such a relationship, and some audiences reacted with shock despite its extremely cautious approach to the subject matter. In the wake of the controversy, a number of theaters (mostly in the South) refused to show Island in the Sun. Nevertheless, it was a hit at the box office, and Dandridge went on to make several other movies dealing with the same theme, including The Decks Ran Red in 1958, Tamango in 1960 (a French production that could not obtain distribution in the United States), and Malaga in 1961.
Dandridge's final film triumph came in 1959 in the all-black musical Porgy and Bess, which many consider her finest performance. For her skillful portrayal of Bess (oppo-site Sidney Poitier as Porgy), Dandridge received a Golden Globe Award nomination for best actress in a musical.
Struggled against Depression
With the dramatic roles she wanted to play in short supply, Dandridge resumed her singing career after Porgy and Bess was released. It was while she was on tour in Las Vegas that she met white restaurateur Jack Denison, who, in 1959 became her second husband. Much like her first marriage, this one was a failure almost from the very beginning. Always fearful of poverty, Dandridge had saved much of the money she had earned as an actress, but soon lost everything after making a series of bad investments in her husband's business. Denison then took off, leaving her alone, broke, and depressed; she divorced him in 1962 and was forced to declare bankruptcy the following year. An attempt to revive her acting career went nowhere, and before long Dandridge had turned to pills and alcohol to ease her despair, which took a heavy toll on both her mental and physical well-being.
For a brief period in early 1965, it seemed that Dandridge might succeed in getting her life back in order. She left Hollywood for Mexico, where she checked into a health spa and worked at getting in shape. Several deals were in the works, including starring roles in a couple of new movies. However, on September 8, 1965, just a few days after returning to Hollywood, the forty-two-year-old Dandridge was found dead in her apartment of an overdose of antidepressant medication. Authorities could not determine whether it was an accident or suicide.
In January 1984, Dandridge finally received the recognition she had long deserved when her gold star was unveiled on Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame. A crowd of fans of all ages attended the ceremony, joined by a number of prominent black actors and actresses, including her former co-stars Belafonte and Poitier. As her biographer, Donald Bogle, noted in Essence, they had gathered there to honor "a pioneer" who "cleared a path for so many to follow" with her determination to make something more of herself than society was ready to accept. "After all these years," concludes Bogle, "there still has never been another woman in American motion pictures quite like Dorothy Dandridge."
Bogle, Donald, Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography, Amistad Press, 1997.
Mills, Earl, Dorothy Dandridge: A Portrait in Black, Holloway House, 1970.
Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.
Ebony, September 1986, pp. 136-146; August 1997.
Essence, October 1984; May 1997, p. 114.
Jet, February 6, 1984, p. 55.
New Yorker, August 18, 1997, pp. 68-72.
People, July 28, 1997.
Premiere (special issue on women in Hollywood), winter 1993, pp. 85-89.
Time, September 1, 1997, p. 73.
John-Hall, Annette, "Brief Flame," Philadelphia Online,http://www3.phillynews.com/packages/history/notable/dot26.asp (April 1, 1998).
Wayne, Renee Lucas, "Rediscovering the Black Bombshell: Maybe Dorothy Dandridge Will Finally Get Her Due," Philadelphia Online,http://www.phillynews.com/dailynews/97/Sep/18/features/DAND18.htm (April 1, 1998).
Nationality: American. Born: Cleveland, Ohio, 9 November 1922. Family: Married Harold Nicholas (divorced); daughter: Harolyn. Education: Attended the Actors Lab in Los Angeles. Career: Motion picture debut in 1936 with the Dandridge Sisters performing a musical number in The Big Broadcast of 1936.Awards: Oscar nomination for the title role in Carmen Jones, 1954. Died: West Hollywood, California, 8 September 1965.
Films as Actress:
The Big Broadcast of 1936 (Taurog) (as a member of the Dandgridge Sisters)
A Day at the Races (Wood) (uncredited, she appears in a musical number); It Can't Last Forever (MacFadden) (as a member of the Dandridge Sisters)
Going Places (Enright) (as a member of the Dandridge Sisters)
Irene (Wilcox) (uncredited, as a member of the Dandridge Sisters); Four Shall Die (Popkin) (as Helen Fielding)
Bahama Passage (Griffin) (as Thalia); Lady from Louisiana (Vorhaus) (as Felice); Sundown (Hathaway) (as Kipsang's bride); Sun Valley Serenade (Humberstone) (as Specialty)
Drums of the Congo (Cabanne) (as Malimi); Lucky Jordan (Tuttle) (uncredited, as maid)
Hit Parade of 1943 (Rogell) (as herself)
Atlantic City (McCary) (as herself); Since You Went Away (Cromwell) (as Officer's wife)
Pillow to Post (Sherman) (as herself)
Ebony Parade (as herself)
The Harlem Globetrotters (Brown) (as Ann Carpenter); Tarzan's Peril (also known as Tarzan and the Jungle Queen) (Haskin) (as Melmendi, Queen of the Ashuba)
Bright Road (Mayer) (as Jane Richards); Remains to be Seen (Weis) (as herself)
Carmen Jones (Preminger) (title role)
The Happy Road (Kelly)
Island in the Sun (Rossen) (as Margot Seaton)
The Decks Ran Red (Stone) (as Mahia)
Porgy and Bess (Preminger) (as Bess); Tamango (Berry) (as Aiche)
Moment of Danger (also known as Malaga) (Benedeck) (as Gianna)
Cain's Hundred (TV series); The Murder Men (Peyser)
By DANDRIDGE: books—
With E. Conrad, Everything and Nothing, New York, Abeland-Schuman, 1970.
On DANDRIDGE: books—
Mills, Earl, Dorothy Dandridge: A Portrait in Black, Holloway House, 1970.
Bogle, Donald, Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography, Amistad, 1997.
On DANDRIDGE: articles—
Robinson, Louie, "The Prviate World of Dorothy Dandridge," in Ebony, June 1962.
Sanders, Charles, "Tragic Story of Dandridge's Retarded Daughter," in Jet, 22 August 1963.
"Dorothy Dandridge—Hollywood's Tragic Enigma," in Ebony, March 1966.
"The Dorothy Dandridge Story," in Essence, October 1984.
Leavy, W., "The Real-Life Tragedy of Dorothy Dandridge," in Ebony, September 1986.
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Considered one of Hollywood's greatest talents, Dorothy Dandridge was also one of Tinsel-town's greatest tragedies. Racism impeded the career of this African-American performer, who, nonetheless, set several precedents in the Hollywood motion picture industry. A child actress/performer who went on to star in such films as Carmen Jones and Island in the Sun, and the television series Beulah and Father of the Bride, Dandridge was the first African-American woman to be nominated in the Best Actress category for the Academy Awards and one of the first African-American women to be featured in film about interracial romance.
Dandridge was born on 9 November 1922 to Cyril and Ruby Dandridge. As a child, she performed with her older sister and only sibling, Vivian. Billed as the Wonder Kids, the sisters toured Baptist churches around the country with a two-act show scripted by their mother. In 1934, after moving to Chicago and subsequently Los Angeles, the Wonder Kids changed their stage name to The Dandridge Sisters and added the talents of thirteen-year-old Etta Jones. As a trio, they triumphed in an amateur competition on radio station KNX Los Angeles, defeating twenty-five white contestants.
Two years later they were invited to perform at New York's famed Cotton Club, a nightclub that featured African-American talent and catered to white audiences. The act was so successful that they were given a spot in the regular program, performing on the same bill as legendary jazz artists Cab Calloway and W. C. Handy. Another prominent act found regularly in the line-up was the dynamic dance team of Harold and Fayard Nicholas, the Nicholas Brothers.
In 1936 The Dandridge Sisters debuted in Hollywood, performing a musical number with theater and film star Bill Robinson in Paramount Picture's The Big Broadcast of 1936. They followed it up by appearing in the Marx Brothers classic, A Day at the Races, performing with Ivie Anderson and the Crinoline Choir singing "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm." After several one-night gigs and recording dates with Jimmie Lunceford and his Orchestra, the trio dissolved. In 1941 and 1942, Dandridge performed solo in several musical film shorts: Yes Indeed, Sing for My Supper, Jungle Jig, Easy Street, Cow Cow Boogie, and Paper Doll. She married dancer Harold Nicholas in 1942. The newlyweds lived in Los Angeles so that they could both pursue careers in motion pictures. Shortly after marrying, Dandridge became pregnant with her daughter Harolyn, who was born in 1943. Several years later, after institutionalizing her daughter, left severely retarded from the misuse of forceps during delivery, Dandridge divorced her adulterous husband and returned to the nightclub circuit, traveling the globe. In 1951 she appeared with the Desi Arnaz Band at the Macombo and, in that same year, became the first African American to perform in the Empire Room of New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
Dandridge continued to work in Hollywood films, and in 1954 obtained the role that would define her career, the lead in Otto Preminger's all-black musical extravaganza Carmen Jones. The film, which featured Harry Belafonte, as well as Pearl Baily and Diahann Carroll in supporting roles, was a critical success, winning a Golden Globe Award for Best Musical Motion Picture of 1954, an Audience Award from the Berlin Film Festival in 1955, and an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for Dandridge, the first ever received by an African-American woman.
Time magazine thought the success of the film would create more opportunities for African Americans in the film industry, but that was not the case. Rather than being offered a wide variety of roles that would make use of her talents, Dandridge was typecast into the stereotypical roles commonly given to African-American actresses. As Dandridge explained in an interview in Ebony, "I consider myself an actress, and I have always been a confident one. I interpret a role to the best of my ability, and more often than not, and more often than I'd like, the role calls for a creature of abandon whose desires are stronger than their sense of morality." Her roles were so sexualized that she was cast mainly as the object of male desire, most often that of white males. In 1957, she was paired with John Justin in the highly controversial film Island in the Sun, which offered not only a romance between a white man and African-American woman, but also the reverse, with a couple played by Harry Belafonte and Joan Fontaine. The trend of interracial romance continued with Dandridge in such features as The Decks Ran Red (1958) and Tamango (1959).
Frustrated by her inability to find challenging roles in feature films, Dandridge returned to live performance. During a tour, she met in Las Vegas restauranteur Jack Dennison, whom she married in 1959. Three years later Dandridge divorced him and found herself bankrupt after a series of bad investments. She tried to resurrect her failing career, but found little opportunity, making only a few television appearances. She died in her West Hollywood apartment on 8 September 1965.
In 1999, the biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, produced by and starring Halle Berry, was broadcast on the cable network Home Box Office (HBO). The made-for-television movie, directed by Martha Coolidge, received popular and critical acclaim—winning the Screen Actor's Guild and Golden Globe Awards for Berry, the American Society of Cinematographer Award for Outstanding Cinematography, and Coolidge's nomination for a Best Directing Award from the Directors Guild of America.
c. November 1923
September 8, 1965
The daughter of a minister and a stage entertainer, the actor and singer Dorothy Dandridge was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and was groomed for a stage career by her mother, Ruby Dandridge, who separated from her husband and began touring the country as a performer shortly after Dorothy, her second daughter, was born. While still a child, Dandridge sang, danced, and did comedy skits as part of her mother's show. When their mother settled in Los Angeles, she and her older sister, Vivian—together they had been billed as "The Wonder Kids"—attended school and appeared in bit parts in films, including the Marx Brothers comedy A Day at the Races (1937). During the 1940s, Dorothy and Vivian joined with another young African-American woman, Etta Jones, to form an act called "The Dandridge Sisters," and the three embarked on a tour with the Jimmie Lunceford band. Dandridge met her first husband, Harold Nicholas (of the Nicholas Brothers dancing team), while she was performing at the Cotton Club in Harlem. A brain-damaged daughter, Harolyn, was born to the couple before they divorced.
During this time, Dandridge managed to secure a few minor Hollywood roles, appearing in such films as Drums of the Congo (1942), The Hit Parade of 1943 (1943), Moo Cow Boogie (1943), Atlantic City (1944), Pillow to Post (1946), and Flamingo (1947). The early 1950s witnessed the flowering of her movie career, as she acquired leading roles in the low-budget films Tarzan's Perils, The Harlem Globe-Trotters, and Jungle Queen (all made in 1951). Dandridge, who was exceptionally beautiful, worked actively at cultivating a cosmopolitan, transracial persona, brimming with sexual allure. She also became increasingly well known as a nightclub singer. Indeed, Dandridge's performances at New York's La Vie En Rose in 1952 were in such demand that the club—then on the brink of bankruptcy—was saved from financial collapse. She was one of the first African Americans to perform at the Waldorf-Astoria's Empire Room, and she appeared at such prestigious clubs as Ciro's (Los Angeles), the Cafe de Paris (London), the Copacabana (Rio de Janeiro), and the Chi Chi (Palm Springs).
Dandridge's big break as a motion picture actress came in 1954, when she secured the title role in Otto Preminger's all-black production Carmen Jones, a role for which she became the first black actor to be nominated for an Oscar for a performance a leading role. That she had achieved celebrity stature was evidenced by her appearances on the cover of Life, as well as in feature articles in other national and international magazines. However, three years were to pass before Dandridge made another film, largely because, in racist Hollywood, she was not offered roles commensurate with her talent and beauty, and she felt she could no longer settle for less. Her next film, Island in the Sun (1957), was the first to feature an interracial romance (between Dandridge and white actor John Justin); the film was poorly received, however, as were The Decks Ran Red (1958), Tamango (1959), and Malaga (1962), all of which touched on interracial themes. Although Dandridge won acclaim in 1959 for her portrayal of Bess (opposite Sidney Poitier) in Otto Preminger's film of Porgy and Bess, she received fewer and fewer film and nightclub offers as time passed. After divorcing her second husband, the white restaurant-owner Jack Dennison, she was forced to file for bankruptcy and lost her Hollywood mansion. Her sudden death in 1965 was attributed to an overdose of antidepressants; she was forty-one years old. Dandridge's autobiography, Everything and Nothing, was published posthumously in 1970; in 1977, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. In 1999, a film biography of her life, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry, was produced for television by HBO Pictures.
Bogle, Donald. Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography. New York: Amistad, 1997.
Dandridge, Dorothy, and Earl Conrad. Everything and Nothing: The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1970.
Sylvester Melvin R. "Dorothy Dandridge: The Tragic Life of an Actress Called the Dream Goddess." Available from <http://www.liu.edu/cwis/cwp/library/african/movies.htm>.
Schoell, William. Heartbreaker: The Dorothy Dandridge Story. Greensboro, N.C.: Avisson Press (Avisson Young Adult Series), 2002.
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