Written by Isabella Boston
When I think of elegance, grace, and beauty, I think of Dorothy Dandridge. Born to perform, she paved the way for other Black entertainers during a time when racial prejudice was strongly against them. She was an actress, singer, performer and the epitome of strength who refused to be stereotyped by the demeaning roles of Hollywood. White and Black audiences alike loved her as a beauty icon and sex symbol, calling her the “Black Marilyn Monroe,” due to the way the two starlets had been mistreated. But despite all the odds and many challenges, Dorothy rose to fame with her tenacity, ambition, and extraordinary talent.
Dorothy Jean Dandridge was born in Cleveland, Ohio on November 9, 1922, to an American actress named Ruby Dandridge and a Baptist minister, Cyril Dandridge.
Her parents separated before she was born leaving her mother alone to raise Dorothy and her older sister Vivian. Ruby soon took in her friend, and live-in lover, Geneva Williams. They orchestrated a song-and-dance act for the two talented girls and named them, The Wonder Children. The sisters toured the Southern United States for almost five years, rarely attending school due to their strict schedules. Ruby worked and performed around Cleveland while Geneva cared for the girls. But she had a bad temper and disciplined them with abuse and much cruelty.
During the Great Depression, Ruby found it hard to make ends meet, and moved the family to Hollywood, California. There she found steady work playing small domestic servant roles on radio and film. In 1934, The Wonder Children were renamed The Dandridge Sisters and went on to perform in high-profile nightclubs such as the Cotton club and the legendary Apollo theater.
Making the Movies
Dorothy made her first film debut by the time she was just 15. Warner Brothers signed a contract with The Dandridge Sisters, and they appeared in the film A Day at the Races. Dorothy appeared in several other small roles including Going Places, where she sang with the legendary Louis Armstrong.
Even though she and Vivian could land small movie roles, their scenes were oftentimes cut in the South where white audiences were not receptive to Black performers.
In 1940, Dorothy appeared in her first credited movie role, Four Shall Die, but the race film did little to further her career. And because she rejected the stereotypical parts projected on Blacks, such as house maids and slaves, she was left with limited film options. However, in 1941, she was able to land small roles with John Wayne in Lady From Louisiana, and with Gene Tierney in Sundown.
Marriage to Harold Nicholas
While performing at the Cotton Club, Dorothy met Fayard and Harold Nicholas, known as the popular Nicholas Brothers. They were considered two of the greatest tap dancers ever known and both were “taken” by Dorothy when they first met her. She later did a specialty act with the brothers in the film Chattanooga Choo Choo (1941).
Dorothy fell in love with Harold, and they married on September 6, 1942. She took a brief hiatus, retired from performing, and one year later, on September 2, 1943, gave birth to her only daughter, Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas. Due to complications at birth, baby Harolyn suffered severe brain damage and required life-long care. She never spoke nor was she able to recognize Harold as her father or Dorothy as her mother.
To add to this heartache, Dorothy’s marriage to Harold was an unhappy one. He was inattentive and a womanizer. The challenges of caring for a special-needs child put a strain on the already failing marriage and Dorothy filed for divorce in September of 1950.
Rise to Stardom
After the divorce, Dorothy returned to performing at nightclubs, but this time as a solo act. She met Desi Arnaz while performing at the Mocambo club in Hollywood and traveled with him and his band on a sellout 14-week engagement. This made her an international star performing at prominent venues in London, New York, Rio de Janeiro, and San Francisco.
Facing the Racism
Due to the color of her skin, Dorothy Dandridge was subjected to much racism, both subtle and blatant. Although she was allowed on stage, she wasn’t allowed to dine, or even spend the night, at the hotels and places where she performed. Nor was she permitted to speak with the white patrons who came out to see her. Like so many other Black entertainers during that time, Dorothy was denied simple human curtesy and struggled to find a place to eat, sleep, and even use the restroom while performing and traveling on the road.
In 1951, she earned a part in the film Tarzan’s Peril as Melmendi, Queen of the Ashuba, but just as the movie hit theaters, she found herself at the center of racial controversy. Censors complained about her revealing costumes and “blunt sexuality” between her character and Tarzan. However, the audiences loved it. The publicity landed her on the cover of Ebony magazine in April 1951. That same year, she also received a supporting role in the film, The Harlem Globetrotters.
In 1953, Twentieth Century Fox began casting for an all-black film called Carmen Jones, an adaption of the 1934 Broadway musical Carmen. A nationwide talent search was conducted, and Dorothy prepared for the leading role. However, famous movie director, Otto Preminger, did not think Dorothy was right for the part. He thought she was too elegant and glamourous to play the role of a “sex worker”.
Refusing to take “no” for an answer, Dorothy boldly told the director, “I am an actor…I can play a nun or a bi***."
Dorothy worked with the make-up artists of Max Factor and transformed her image with a wig and spit curls. She was sassy, seductive, and sophisticated. Preminger was impressed and gave Dorothy the leading role.
Dorothy received much praise from the film for her acting, singing, and dancing. She became the first Black American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award and was featured on the cover of Life Magazine in 1954 as her iconic character, Carmen Jones.
Troubled Love Life
However, Dorothy’s romantic life was chaotic. She had numerous affairs with white men who did not respect her, one being with director Otto Preminger. Although the relationship lasted for four years, interracial relationships were “taboo” at that time and the romance had to be kept a secret. To make matters worse, she became pregnant by Otto and the studio forced her to have an abortion. Dorothy finally ended the affair when it became clear to her that Otto had no intentions of leaving his wife to marry her.
The years following her success after Carmen Jones, Dorothy still found it difficult to land starring roles because of her race. According to The New York Times, She was quoted, “If I were Betty Grable, I could capture the world.” Actor Harry Belafonte, her former co-star, addressed this problem as well, stating she “was the right person in the right place at the wrong time.”
She continued to turn down the many demeaning roles, but in 1959, she did land a part worthy of her talents. She stared in the Academy Award winning film, Porgy and Bess, with actor Sidney Poitier.
Marriage to Jack Denison and Financial Ruin
Her luck with romance did not get better and in 1959, Dorothy married failing nightclub owner, Jack Denison. He was mean and abusive to her and swindled her out of $150,000.00 leaving Dorothy with $139,000.00 to pay in back taxes. The couple divorced in 1962.
Dorothy was forced to sell her Hollywood home and moved into a small apartment in West Hollywood California. The threat of bankruptcy, along with the constant harassment from the IRS, forced Dorothy to perform in second-class lounges and stage productions. Unlike before, she was only able to earn a fraction of her former success and by 1963, she could no longer afford her daughter’s 24-hour care. This gave Dorothy no other choice, but to put young Harolyn in a state mental institution. She was devastated.
Dark Times for Dorothy
Depressed and very much alone, Dorothy suffered a nervous breakdown and began drinking to deal with the anxiety and stress. She sought help through psychiatric counseling, but mental health treatment was primitive back then and she would occasionally overdose on her prescriptive medicines.
On September 8, 1965, Dorothy Dandridge, age 42, died under mysterious circumstances. She was found naked and unresponsive in her apartment a day prior to a scheduled trip to New York.
The Los Angeles pathology Institute initially reported the cause of death as an accidental overdose of the antidepressant imipramine, but the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office concluded the cause of death was due to a fat embolism from a right-foot fracture sustained five days prior.
It was reported Dorothy had little more than $2 in her bank account at the time of her death.
Her Legacy Lives On
In 1999, actress Halle Berry won a Golden Globe Award for her beautiful portrayal of Dorothy in the HBO special Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. The movie won five Emmy Awards and coincidently, both actresses were from Cleveland, Ohio and born at the same hospitals.
When Berry won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a leading role for Monster Ball (2002), she tearfully dedicated and shared the special moment with Dorothy Dandridge, Diahann Carroll, and Lena Horne, all who had helped pave the way, for not only for herself, but also for other great Black performers.
Dorothy Dandridge was a beautiful trailblazer who was loved and will be remembered by many. She had a huge impact on the entertainment world and is a constant source of inspiration for other Black artists today. Her strength, dignity, and spirit will forever live on through the lives of those who love her.
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Isabella Boston is a multi-talented writer and the Founder of Bella’s Attic Studio. She has several years of experience in content writing, copywriting, and social media strategies. She is the author of the romantic and rare memoir, Passion of Flames. Isabella is currently working to spread awareness on the dangers and inhumanity of human sex trafficking. She has special interests in fashion and beauty, health and wellness, and natural healing as it pertains to the body, mind, and soul. When Isabella is not writing, she enjoys playing the violin, learning new languages (currently Italian), and reading books of substance.
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2. Tisdale, J. (2020, July 30). Dorothy Dandridge: 6 fascinating facts about the singer and actor. CINEMABLEND. Retrieved August 30, 2022, from https://www.cinemablend.com/news/2551220/dorothy-dandridge-fascinating-facts-about-the-singer-and-actor
3. YOURDICTIONARY. (n.d.). Dorothy Dandridge. Biography Articles & Resources. Retrieved August 30, 2022, from https://biography.yourdictionary.com/dorothy-dandridge
4. Meares, H. H. (2020, October 14). Tragedy and triumph: The Dorothy Dandridge Story. Vanity Fair. Retrieved August 30, 2022, from https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/10/dorothy-dandridge-biography-life