Dandridge, Dorothy (1923–1965)

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Dandridge, Dorothy (1923–1965)

African-American actress, singer and dancer, one of the first black actresses to enter the Hollywood mainstream and the first to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress. Name variations: Dottie. Pronunciation: DAN-dridj. Born Dorothy Dandridge on November 9, 1923, in Cleveland, Ohio; died by her own hand in her Hollywood apartment on September 8, 1965; daughter of Ruby and Cyril Dandridge; attended public schools sporadically but did not complete high school; married Harold Nicholas, in 1941 (divorced 1946); married Jack Denison, on June 22, 1959 (divorced 1962); children: (first marriage) Harolyn ("Lynn").

Appeared in black vaudeville with sister as "The Wonder Kids" throughout the South from the age of three; moved with family to Los Angeles (1930); began appearing in nightclubs and revues by her late teens, and in small film parts soon after; given the leading role in Carmen Jones (1954), a lavish, all-black adaptation of the Bizet opera, for which she was nominated for Best Actress; starred in the film version of Porgy and Bess (1959), for which she won the Golden Globe award for Best Actress.


A Day at the Races (1937); Lady from Louisiana (1941); Sundown (1941); Sun Valley Serenade (1941); Bahama Passage (1941); Drums of the Congo (1942); Hit Parade of 1943 (1943); Since You Went Away (1944); Atlantic City (1944); Tarzan's Peril (1951); Jungle Queen (1951); The Harlem Globetrotters (1951); Bright Road (1953); Remains To Be Seen (1953); Carmen Jones (1954); Island in the Sun (1957); The Decks Ran Red (1958); Porgy and Bess (1959); Tamango (1959); Moment of Danger (Malaga, U.K., 1960).

Dorothy Dandridge">

I was the first Negro that thousands of whites ever met.

—Dorothy Dandridge

In 1953, 20th Century-Fox assigned Austrian-born Otto Preminger his first musical, Carmen Jones, a lavish adaptation of the Bizet opera that was to feature an entirely African-American cast. Oddly, the problem for Preminger had nothing to do with being a 45-year-old Austrian directing an all-black film based on a French opera (there were no mainstream black directors in those days), the problem was finding a suitable leading lady for his Carmen. Most of the other lead roles had already been cast with some of the top African-American entertainers of the day—Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey , Brock Peters, and a young Diahann Carroll . So far, however, the right Carmen had eluded him—until the day a tall, strikingly beautiful woman with luxurious, jet black hair sauntered into his office, wearing a slit skirt and low-cut blouse. It took Preminger several minutes to recognize an actress that he knew well under the wig and provocative clothing; one he had considered too refined to play the earthy Carmen. Dorothy Dandridge was given the part that would prove to be her breakthrough role.

Dandridge was certainly no stranger to the limitations imposed on an African-American woman in a business run by white men. She had learned it first from her mother Ruby Dandridge , a singer and dancer who brought young Dottie and her sister Vivian along with her on the black Southern vaudeville circuit of the mid-1920s. Dorothy's father Cyril had left Ruby before Dottie was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1923. Struggling to earn a living for herself and her daughters, Ruby put Vivian and three-year-old Dottie on stage as "The Wonder Kids," playing throughout the South to African-American audiences in church halls and segregated auditoriums. The duo would recite poetry and perform skits their mother wrote for them. Ruby also brought along her friend Eloise Matthews , whom Dottie and Vivian came to call "Auntie Ma-Ma," as both piano-player and guardian for the two girls. Many years later, Dorothy claimed in her autobiography that she had been physically abused by Matthews, who kept the girls in line with violent threats that often became painfully real. "She did everything she could to destroy me," Dorothy wrote.

Jones, Etta (1928—)

African-American jazz and pop singer. Born in 1928.

Often confused with Etta James , Etta Jones sang jazz and pop, in an understated, vibrant fashion. She was a frequent partner of saxist Houston Person in the 1970s and 1980s. Her albums include: Don't Go to Strangers (1960), Something Nice (1960), Fine and Mellow (1987), and Sugar (1989).

After several years on the road, Ruby heard that there were jobs for African-Americans in Hollywood, and in 1930 seven-year-old Dorothy found herself in California, attending school for the first time while her mother auditioned for bit parts in radio plays and films as the black "mammy" or the wealthy white people's maid. Jobs were not as plentiful as Ruby had expected, and before long Dottie and Vivian—now joined by a third girl, Etta Jones —began appearing as The Dandridge Sisters, playing nightclubs and revues up and down the West Coast. The act was well-received, and all eyes fastened on Dottie who, with her lighter skin and Caucasian features, was the most "white-looking" of the three. By the mid-1930s, the girls were appearing at the Cotton Club in Harlem, although Dandridge—now 14—confessed she felt "small-town and raw" next to the professional chorus girls and singers they met on the New York circuit. Appearing on the same bill were the Nicholas Brothers, a successful song-and-dance act of the time. Harold and Fayard Nicholas befriended the girls, but it was Harold who seemed particularly cordial toward Dorothy.

In actuality, Dandridge was beginning to be noticed for her distinctive singing style and what one critic termed her "puma-lithe figure." When the Dandridge Sisters act broke up in the early 1940s, Dorothy found work in revues, like Duke Ellington's "Jump for Joy," and in feature films. In fact, her very first film appearance had been in 1937, when she was given a small walk-on in the Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races. Similar small roles followed, always as a maid, a "mammy," or in musical shorts that were, by any generation's standards, outrageous racial slurs. These were the only parts open to African-American actors in mainstream films of the time, with pay scales far below those of white actors, since blacks were barred from the actors' unions. But Dandridge needed to work and took what she could find.

In 1941, she and Harold Nicholas appeared in Sun Valley Serenade, attracting favorable attention for their rendition of "Chattanooga Choo Choo." During the shoot, Nicholas proposed marriage and Dandridge accepted. She would later claim the marriage was never happy; nonetheless, the following year, a child was born to the couple, a daughter named Harolyn, though Dandridge would call her "Lynn." Nicholas and Dandridge publicly disputed the events surrounding the day of Lynn's birth, with Dorothy claiming, and Harold denying, that he was out with another woman the night her labor pains began. Dandridge maintained she waited until morning for Harold to come home, by which time the baby had to be delivered using forceps. Whatever the truth, it became evident within two years that something was seriously wrong with the child. Although physically normal and beautiful like her mother, Lynn had not begun speaking by the time she was two, and tests revealed brain damage. Told that Lynn would never mature mentally, Dandridge was advised to institutionalize her. But she refused, choosing instead to place her daughter in the care of none other than Eloise Matthews, who would faithfully take care of Lynn for nearly 20 years. Not long after, Dandridge and Nicholas were divorced.

Dandridge turned all her attention on her career. While on a nightclub tour, she played New York's legendary La Vie en Rose; there, she attracted the attention of Harry Belafonte, with whom she would remain friends. She was on the cover of Look magazine, and her popularity and national attention brought her acceptance in all-white venues across the country. In Miami Beach, for example—where African-Americans lived in a segregated section of Miami and had to travel back and forth to their jobs at the large, beachside hotels—Dandridge threatened to quit her engagement at the Fontainbleau unless she was given a room at the hotel. The management relented. She also claimed to be the first black performer to play the Waldorf Astoria's Empire Room.

Dandridge began to see herself as a "flying wedge," a bridge between white-and-black audiences. "The audience," she wrote in her autobiography, "could 'integrate' with a colored woman who had Caucasian features." She also convinced herself that marrying a white man was inevitable, a way to affirm her standing as racial peacemaker—all this, at a time when America had yet to seriously face its deep racial divisions. "Color was the major tragedy in Dottie's life," her close friend Geri Branton told journalist Gail Lumet Buckley .

Her watershed year was 1953. Hollywood had by now discovered the largely untapped black moviegoing audience, and two films starring Dorothy Dandridge appeared that year, both for MGM: Bright Road, in which she played opposite Belafonte, and Remains To Be Seen. It was also the year that she landed the lead role in Carmen Jones and began a long-running affair with Preminger that she hoped would end in marriage. She had had the same hope for an earlier affair with actor Peter Lawford, which ended when Dandridge suggested marriage—a move that, in the mid-1950s, would surely have ended both their careers.

When Carmen Jones was released in 1954, Dandridge found herself the toast of Hollywood for her performance, becoming the first African-American with an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. (Hattie McDaniel had won for Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind in 1939.) Although Dandridge lost the award to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl, she felt vindicated in her role as integration's pioneer.

But Hollywood saw it differently. Studio heads preferred seeing Dandridge as a black sex goddess; it gave them a way to titillate audiences with forbidden interracial love that, while plainly indicated, was never actually portrayed explicitly on screen. She was, in fact, the latest in a long line of stereotyped feminine "mulattos," cast as tragic figures caught between their African-American heritage and their Caucasian features. In her next three films—Island In The Sun, The Decks Ran Red, and Tamango—she portrayed just such a character, falling in love with a white man only to be rejected and cast aside. Far from being the bridge between black and white, Dandridge found herself reinforcing on screen the very barriers she thought she was demolishing. Island In The Sun, in fact, was banned in Alabama for promoting "race mongrelization," and Tamango had to be shot in France when an American studio and distributor could not be found. Before long, Dandridge had to admit to herself that her dream would be unrealized. "Nothing that I had—beauty, money, recognition as an artist—was sufficient to break through the powerful psychological bind of racist thinking," she wrote.

But there was one more triumph in store. Columbia Pictures had hired Rouben Mamoulian to direct its production of Porgy and Bess. Mamoulian chose Dandridge as his female lead to play opposite Sidney Poitier's Porgy. Soon after casting was completed, however, Mamoulian was replaced by Preminger. Although their affair had cooled, Dandridge and Preminger had remained professionally friendly, and Dorothy still had hopes for their future. But Preminger seemed intent on calling an end to it all. Years later, Poitier recalled the first day of shooting, reporting that Preminger, as if to warn Dandridge that any further relations were out of the question, went out of his way to humiliate her before cast and crew. She was "stripped naked" by Preminger's abuse and insults, said Poitier. Nevertheless, when the film was released the following year, Dandridge's performance was hailed as her best work to date. In 1959, she won the Golden Globe award—the Hollywood Foreign Press' version of the Oscar—as Best Actress.

That same year, she married again. The groom, this time, was white. He was Jack Denison, a former Las Vegas maitre d' who had recently

purchased a night club on Hollywood's Sunset Strip in partnership with Sammy Davis, Jr. Denison suggested Dandridge return to her show-business roots by performing at his club, hoping her name would bring in an audience and give his business venture a successful launch. Despite her film successes, however, her name failed to draw the crowds, and it was not long before Denison's club was forced to close. In 1962, she and Denison divorced amid speculation in the press that he had been physically abusing her.

Dandridge's downward spiral quickened. Movie offers had stopped. She lost nearly all her savings in a get-rich-quick oil scheme, then discovered she owed nearly $130,000 to creditors. She was forced to declare bankruptcy, and, on the day she was being evicted from her Hollywood Hills home, her daughter Lynn—now grown—was returned to her. For 20 years, Dandridge had refused to institutionalize her daughter, but now, with no money for home care, she had no choice.

Taking a small apartment, cushioning her pain with pills and liquor, Dandridge made one last effort to go back to work. She took whatever singing jobs she could find and signed a contract with a $10,000 advance for her autobiography, Everything and Nothing, which didn't materialize until five years after her death. One of her final public appearances was in a stage production of Show Boat, but the drugs and alcohol had taken their toll. Dandridge barely made it through the run of the show.

By spring 1965, she told an old friend and former manager that she felt she was dying and asked him to make sure she was cremated in whatever she was wearing at the time of her death. She struggled on through the summer, but it was this same friend who, on September 8, discovered Dandridge's body on the bathroom floor of her apartment. The Los Angeles County coroner reported that she had died of an overdose of an anti-depressant prescribed by her psychiatrist. She was 42.

In the early 1950s, when Dandridge's career was beginning its meteoric climb, she was invited to a dinner for Achmed Sukarno, then the president of Indonesia, who is reported to have told her, "Never forget, with the white man you will never be equal." But it was Dorothy Dandridge's tragedy that she dedicated herself to showing the world that African-Americans and whites could be on an equal footing. The reality of her era, on the eve of the fight for civil rights, finally crushed her. "Dorothy was at the mercy of fantasies," said Geri Branton. "She thought that because she ate in the dining room with the big shots, she had conquered racism."


Buckley, Gail Lumet. "Dorothy's Surrender," in Premiere. Vol. 6, no. 13. September 15, 1993.

Dandridge, Dorothy, with Earl Conrad. Everything and Nothing. NY: Abelard-Schuman, 1970.

suggested reading:

Bogle, Donald. Dorothy Dandridge. Amistad Press, 1997.

Null, Gary. Black Hollywood: The Negro In Motion Pictures. NY: Citadel Press, 1975.

related media:

Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry, HBO, August 1999.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York