Dorothy Dandridge

Dorothy Dandridge

"If I were white I could capture the world."

Illustrated by Catherine Chi

Illustrated by Catherine Chi

Dorothy was born to Ruby Dandridge in 1922. Ruby had left her husband while pregnant with Dorothy and he was determined to find his wife and two young daughters, so the three moved frequently around Cleveland to avoid him. Ruby worked as a maid but desperately wanted to become a performer. Dorothy Dandridge began performing with her six-year-old sister sister Vivian as "The Wonder Children" when she was four years old. Geneva "Neva" Williams moved in with the family and was romantically involved with Ruby while also managing and training her daughters, disciplining them harshly. "The Wonder Children" became rather successful and supported the whole family with their performances, which meant the girls had to be taken out of school to continue working. 

The Great Depression began, and Ruby moved the family west, where the two sisters teamed up with classmate Etta, to become trio,"The Dandridge Sisters." By 1935, The Dandridge Sisters had earned film roles in Marx Brothers, Jackson Brothers and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson pictures. A performance at The Cotton Club in New York City was very well-received and it was there that they met dance duo, "The Nicholas Brothers", who were both enchanted by the lovely 15 year-old Dorothy.

In 1939, The Dandridge Sisters went to perform in London, where again they were quite successful. Their great success, however, was matched by Dorothy's fatigue of performing under the watchful eye of manager Neva, who was not pleased with Dorothy's changing physicality. Neva would tape down Dorothy's breasts, trying to maintain her youthful, nonsexual appearance. At one point, wanting to see if Dorothy was still a virgin, Neva assaulted her. Dorothy fought back, punching Neva, and finally felt empowered to break out on her own.

She found herself in the production "Meet the People" which was otherwise an extremely white review. She also gained a part in a John Wayne film, then Sun Valley Serenade, where she performed with the Nicholas Brothers in the big number, "Chatanooga Choo Choo." 

In 1942, she married Harold Nicholas. They had dated happily for years, but once married, Nicholas began to lose interest and spent most of his free time golfing. Dorothy was very close to her sister-in-law, Geri, who was married to Harold's brother. She was with Geri and Nicholas when she began to feel labor pains, but he assumed it was a false alarm and went to play a round of golf.  When it became clear that Dandridge was truly going into labor, Geri tried to get her to the hospital, but Dorothy desperately wanted to wait for Nicholas' return.

For a while, the couple's new daughter, Harolynn brought stability and domesticity to the marriage. However, as Harolynn grew into a toddler, it became very clear that she was not up to speed developmentally. It tore the two further apart and, once it was determined that Harolynn's brain damage was directly caused by oxygen deprivation during labor, Dandridge was distraught at the thought that she could have prevented this and developed a reliance of prescription sedatives. She had several disturbing overdoses, that she claimed were accidental. Dandridge and Harold were divorced, and she had to hire and fully finance a full-time caregiver for their daughter.

Dandridge threw herself into her work to pay for the piling bills and became one of the first black full-time students at the LA Actors Lab (She studied alongside Marilyn Monroe, who became a life-long friend.) She loved the experience, but was forced to deal with prejudice when an innocent dance with a white actor at a Lab party threw her into the tabloids. Dorothy responded in the papers, putting her foot down about the unwarranted racist outburst, and many admired this outspoken moment.

Dandridge still had trouble getting consistent acting roles, and went back to nightclub performances, where she learned to fully embrace her role as sex symbol. She began to find herself in more film roles as well. Eventually Dandridge was recognized as having crossover potential, and starred in the Gerald Mayer directed film, Bright Road.

She headlined at The Last Frontier Hotel's club in a segregated Las Vegas, though she was not allowed to stay at the hotel. Eventually she demanded to stay there, and they consented, although a dip in the pool caused them to drain it for "maintenance."

Dandridge was still looking for a star-making role and fought hard for the role of Carmen in Carmen Jones, an all-black production of the opera, Carmen. She gave herself a makeover, confronted director Otto Preminger who had initially rejected Dandridge for the role, and earned the seductive chanteuse part, though her vocal talents were not utilized on set. Professional opera singers dubbed in all of the songs, but Dandridge's acting performance was remarkable nevertheless, and showed true range and potential. She had boundless charisma and sex appeal, and the film was massively successful. Dorothy became the first black woman to grace the cover of Life Magazine, the first African-American nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, and the first to headline at New York's Waldorf-Astoria. 

Dandrige began an affair with the married Preminger, director of Carmen Jones, while on set and he was rather controlling, demanding she turn down any role that was not a starring one. Eventually the calls stopped coming in, and she saw fit to break things off this him, largely because it became painfully clear that he was going to remain married to his wife.

After a three-year hiatus, Dandridge returned to the screen, in the financially successful Island in the Sun. This was the first of a string of movies where she was cast opposite a white actor in a romance, though code prohibited many normal romantic interactions such as kissing and saying "I love you."

When the role of Bess in Porgy and Bess was offered to her she gladly accepted. However, her former lover, Preminger, replaced the previous director on set and, still scorned from their past romance, he made the set a nightmare for Dandridge.

Dandridge was looking for a new, healthier relationship, but instead found yet another unhealthy one with hotelier, Jack Denison. He had led Dandridge to believe that he was interested in settling down and starting a family with her, but revealed on their wedding night that he was deeply in debt, and would need Dandridge to perform at his nightclub, which most of their funds were tied into, to draw a crowd and make some money. It was not at all the caliber of venue and audience that she was accustomed to and, between this situation and the mixed-reviews of Porgy and Bess, her star was fading, as were her funds.  After three years of unpleasant matrimony with Denison, Dandridge filed for divorce.

She was photographed at bankruptcy court, which Dandridge found deeply embarrassing. She could no longer afford private care for her now 19-year old daughter, Harolynn became a ward of the state.

Dorothy Dandridge was, by every definition, destitute. She was taking large amounts of alcohol with prescribed anti-depressants.  Things began to look up though, as she was granted a two-picture deal, was hard at work on an auto-biography and had come off some successful stage performances. When her manager came to pick up Dandridge for a flight to New York, where she had more performances scheduled, he found her dead after what was ruled an "accidental overdose." Dandridge was 42.


"Dorothy Dandridge was a triple threat- a talented dancer, singer, and actor- who broke color barriers by becoming a bonafide leading lady in a segregated society...as well as the first black woman Oscar nominee (Best Actress, for Carmen Jones). The decline of her career following this star-making vehicle sadly reflects the lack of opportunities for black leading actresses in Hollywood (past and present)." -Catherine Chi


The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation keeps music alive in our schools by providing durable, high-quality musical instruments to deserving, under-funded music programs nationwide. By increasing the school’s inventory of quality, playable instruments, music teachers are given the tools they need to deliver a quality music education to students who want to learn, re-energize their program, attract new students and instill a sense of pride and worth for the students and the entire school. In collaboration with committed school districts, the Foundation’s investments are strategically placed as part of a K–12 district-wide plan to achieve positive and lasting results. 

 

Diane Nash

Diane Nash

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth