Dorothy Jean Dandridge, U.S. Actress and Singer (1923-1965)
Dorothy Dandridge was an unlikely civil rights champion. Beautiful, talented, fragile—and ultimately tragic, she fought for acceptance in a world that was slow to offer it. Honored with an Academy Award nomination and her photograph on the cover of Life magazine, she was the first black woman to receive either honor.
But the cost of fame was very high.
Her Early Life: The Wonder Children
Ms. Dandridge was born November 9, 1923 in Cleveland, Ohio. Her mother, Ruby, was an avid performer, both in church functions and professionally in radio, where she performed on Amos 'n Andy. Their household was rife with domestic troubles and Ruby kicked Dorothy's father out before the girl was even born; she did not even know him until she was nearly grown.
Little Dorothy often watched while her mother rehearsed her parts. At about six years old, she stood in for her mother reading poetry—reciting it letter-perfect from memory. This performance absolutely delighted her audience, and Ruby quickly had the idea that Dorothy and her older sister Vivian could be something very special.
Ruby's constant companion was Neva Williams, an accomplished singer—Ms. Williams coached the girls with the harshness of a taskmaster. Young Dorothy and her sister Vivian were billed as "the Wonder Children"—they became a very popular act, performing at churches in several states. The little girls education and social lives suffered from all the travel.
California & Beyond: The Dandridge Sisters
In 1929, the Great Depression ripped across the United States. Ruby and Geneva saved up for four bus tickets which transported them and the out-of-work Wonder Children to the magical land of Los Angeles, dreaming of work in the entertainment industry. Sadly, the twin specters of unemployment and prejudice were as strong in the Golden State as they had been in the Midwest.
Their perseverance paid off with the assistance of agent Ben Carter and casting director Charles Butler, and the girls began to show up on film and stage. Dorothy scored a part in the Marx Brothers' 1937 film A Day at the Races performing in a mighty jazz musical number (led by Harpo Marx in a high-spirited classic scene). The dream factory wore the girls out, but Neva and their mother continued to spur them on.
In the closing years of the 1930s, Dorothy, Vivi and their friend Etta Jones became "the Dandridge Sisters," playing at New York City's legendary Cotton Club and taking the act abroad, where they found enthusiastic audiences. Meanwhile, tensions between the girls and Neva Williams' increasingly bizarre behavior threatened to rip the act apart.
By the age of 16, young "Miss Dee" had seen much of the U.S. and Europe. She had been on stage and screen, and had worked with such notables as Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Maxine Sullivan, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, to name but a few. Eventually, she wanted to go beyond the Dandridge Sisters act. This saddened the other girls, but was allowed by Ms. Williams, as long as the money kept coming in.
Success and Turmoil
At this point, doors began to inch open for Dorothy. Between 1940 and 1944, she appeared in no less than eleven films, ranging in quality from mediocre to excellent. She also showed up in a number of soundies, which were sort of proto-music videos—short films that could be watched on specially-equipped jukeboxes.
Dorothy married her sweetheart, a young dancer named Harold Nicholas in 1942. She continued to work, dreaming of a 'normal family' while her womanizing husband sometimes stayed away from home for days. She became pregnant, but inadequate obstetric care resulted in her baby daughter, Lynn, being born with a severe mental handicap that required her to be under constant care for her entire life. Dorothy's white picket fence dreams began to evaporate.
She showcased her singing skills in several films and soundies, and also in Duke Ellington's musical Jump For Joy. This led to singing engagements at some fine nightclubs across the country. In the early 1940s, most African-American roles were broad stereotypes: lazy, shiftless or dishonest. Dorothy always tried to stay away from these demeaning parts and brought a dignity and strength to of all her characterizations.
Her unfaithful husband, her daughter's condition, the rigors of her career, and the constant spectre of racism took its toll on Ms. Dandridge. Her marriage disintegrated, and they parted ways in 1951. During this stressful time, she had three barbiturate overdoses (supposedly accidental) that sent her to the emergency room.
Through it all, Dorothy continued to appear on the big screen (and once in the new medium of television). She dated several eligible bachelors, including director Gerald Mayer and the Rat Pack's Peter Lawford.
Carmen Jones: Dorothy's Greatest Moment
The 1954 musical motion picture Carmen Jones was conceived as an all black retelling of Georges Bizet's magnificent opera. Directed by the illustrious Otto Preminger, it was an ambitious, arty project. Preminger was initially unimpressed with Dorothy, but she persevered and eventually got the lead. Critics showered her with praise and she earned her Oscar nomination for this performance.
After Carmen Jones, Dorothy became romantically entangled with Preminger. He was arrogant and domineering, insisting she turn down offers which he though beneath her talents (among many others, this included a role in The King & I). She broke off the relationship after two years and no film work.
In order to revive her career, she and composer Phil Moore worked up an act and took it to many exclusive clubs in the U.S. and Great Britain. Their professional successes were tarnished as the partners became romantically involved and were subjected to frightful racism from press and public. Combined with Dorothy's nearly crippling stage fright and her daughter's mounting health care bills, Ms. Dandridge was having a very hard time keeping her bleak moods at bay. It has been speculated that she suffered from bipolar disorder, moving from periods of intense activity to insurmountable depression.
Miss Dee's Descent
Dorothy continued to carve a place for herself in the pantheon of film goddesses. She had several great roles in the late 1950, but her depression was becoming worse all the while. She suffered for three years in a marriage to a man who was physically abusive and deeply in debt. As the she divorced him, she found herself nearly bankrupt, struggling with alcohol and barbiturate dependency. Things looked bleak—her 19-year old daughter became a ward of the state when Dorothy could no longer afford to keep her in a private care facility. Ms. Dandridge slipped from one period of hopelessness to another.
After declaring bankruptcy in 1962, Dorothy decided to stake it all on one more comeback, this time with the help of her friend Earl Mills. A publisher gave her an advance to write her autobiography, which she threw herself into with gusto. She cut back on the alcohol and pills and started a strict program of exercise. She signed a deal for several engagements to sing at some very exclusive clubs.
It was all too late. On September 8, 1965, Mills knocked on her door, but there was no answer. Notes scattered about her West Hollywood apartment told the sad story of a woman who was exhausted and felt that her life had been entirely in vain. Dorothy Dandridge died at 41 years of age, from a barbiturate overdose. She was cremated and a service was held at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.
There are two wonderful biographies of the woman whom Lena Horne referred to as "...our Marilyn Monroe." Her autobiography, Everything and Nothing, was published in 1970, and an amazingly detailed biography by Donald Bogle* is still in print as of this writing. Dorothy Dandridge has been featured on A & E's Biography program and portrayed by Halle Berry in the 1999 television film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge .
In her short life, Dorothy Dandridge charged against the barriers that had existed for the black actors and she helped to break some of them down. But breaking down barriers is not a pretty business and she was ultimately torn apart by the world she was trying to change. This beautiful and talented young woman dreamed of fairness in the entertainment industry and she did her part to bring that about. The actors of today must surely owe a debt of gratitude to Dorothy Dandridge.
*It is a fascinating book, but it is pretty long! If you thought this article was verbose ...
The imdb (IMDb mini-biography by Denny Jackson)
"Dorothy Dandridge: Little Girl Lost (A & E Biography, 1999).
Bogle, Donald, "Dorothy Dandridge; A Biography" (Berkley Boulevard Books, New York, 1997).