Dorothy Jean Dandridge (November 9, 1922 – September 8, 1965) was an American film and theatre actress, singer, and dancer. She is perhaps one of the most famous African-American actresses to have a successful Hollywood career and the first nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the 1954 film Carmen Jones. Dandridge performed as a vocalist in venues such as the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater. During her early career, she performed as a part of The Wonder Children, later The Dandridge Sisters, and appeared in a succession of films, usually in uncredited roles.
In 1959 Dandridge was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Porgy and Bess. She is the subject of the 1999 HBO biographical film, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. She has been recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Dandridge was married and divorced twice, first to dancer Harold Nicholas (the father of her daughter, Harolyn Suzanne) and then to hotel owner Jack Denison. Dandridge died under mysterious circumstances at age 42.
Dorothy Dandridge was born on November 9, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio, to aspiring entertainer Ruby Dandridge (née Butler) (March 3, 1900 – October 17, 1987) and Cyril Dandridge (October 25, 1895 – July 9, 1989), a cabinetmaker and Baptist minister, who had separated just before her birth. She and her family were listed as African-American in the US Federal Census. Ruby created a song-and-dance act for her two young daughters, Vivian and Dorothy, under the name The Wonder Children, that was managed by Geneva Williams. The sisters toured the Southern United States almost nonstop for five years (rarely attending school), while Ruby worked and performed in Cleveland.
During the Great Depression, work virtually dried up for the Dandridges, as it did for many Chitlin' Circuit performers. Ruby moved to Hollywood, California, where she found steady work on radio and film in small domestic-servant parts. After that relocation in 1930, Dorothy attended McKinley Junior High School.
The Wonder Children were renamed The Dandridge Sisters in 1934, and Dandridge and her sister were teamed with dance schoolmate Etta Jones.
The Dandridge Sisters continued strong for several years, and were booked in several high-profile nightclubs, including the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater. Dandridge's first on-screen appearance was a small part in an Our Gang comedy short, Teacher's Beau in 1935. As a part of The Dandridge Sisters, she also appeared in The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1936) with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, A Day at the Races with the Marx Brothers, and It Can't Last Forever (both 1937) with the Jackson Brothers. Although these appearances were relatively minor, Dandridge continued to earn recognition through continuing her nightclub performances nationwide.
Dandridge's first credited film role was in Four Shall Die (1940). The race film cast her as a murderer and did little for her film career. Because of her rejection of stereotypical African American roles, she had limited options for film roles. She had small roles in Lady from Louisiana with John Wayne and Sundown with Gene Tierney (both in 1941). Dandridge appeared as part of a Specialty Number, Chattanooga Choo Choo, in the hit 1941 musical, Sun Valley Serenade for 20th Century Fox. The film marked a first time she performed with the Nicholas Brothers. Aside from her film appearances, Dandridge appeared in a succession of "soundies" – film clips that were displayed on jukeboxes, including "Paper Doll" by the Mills Brothers, "Cow, Cow Boogie", "Jig in the Jungle", and "Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter's Rent Party" aka "Swing for my Supper", among others. These films were noted not only for showcasing Dandridge as singer and dancer and her acting abilities, but also for featuring a strong emphasis on her physical attributes.
She continued to appear occasionally in films and on the stage throughout the rest of the 1940s, and though performing as a band singer in some good company, Count Basie in Hit Parade of 1943 and Louis Armstrong, Atlantic City 1944 and Pillow to Post 1945, other appearances were so-so fare. In 1951, Dandridge appeared as Melmendi, Queen of the Ashuba in Tarzan's Peril, starring Lex Barker and Virginia Huston. When the Motion Picture Production Code tut-tutted about the film's "blunt sexuality", Dandridge received considerable attention for wearing what was considered "provocatively revealing" clothing. The continuing publicity buzz surrounding Dandridge's wardrobe got her pictured on the April 1951 cover of Ebony. That same year, she had a supporting role in The Harlem Globetrotters (1951).
In May 1951, Dandridge spectacularly opened at the Mocambo nightclub in West Hollywood after assiduous coaching and decisions on style with pianist Phil Moore. This success seemed a new turn to her career and she appeared in New York and London with equal success. In a return engagement at the Mocambo in December 1952, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio agent saw Dandridge and recommended to Production Chief Dore Schary that she might make an appearance as a club singer, in her own name, in Remains to Be Seen, already in production. Her acquaintance with Dore Schary resulted in his casting Dandridge as Jane Richards in Bright Road—her first starring role, projecting herself as a "wonderful, emotional actress"—which the trailer was to later promote. The film, which centered on a teacher's struggles to reach out to a troubled student, marked the first time Dandridge appeared in a film opposite Harry Belafonte. She continued her performces in nightclubs thereafter and appeared on multiple early television variety shows, including Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town.
In 1953, a nationwide talent search arose as 20th Century Fox began the process of casting the all-black musical film adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein II's 1943 Broadway musical Carmen Jones, conceptually Georges Bizet's opera Carmen updated to a World War II-era African-American setting. Under consideration, but available to director and writer Otto Preminger to view for suitability was Dandridge's starring role from the previous year, Bright Road. This performance, and the general audience's acquaintance with it, did not find Preminger considering Dandridge for Carmen, feeling her presentation in 'Bright Road' would more suit well for the smaller role of the quiet Cindy Lou. Dandridge, recalling her experiences of having to dress down to the demure school teacher for the screen tests of 'Bright Road', outrageously worked on and created a look with the aid of Max Factor make-up artists, to obtain the appearance and character of the earthy title role Carmen, and confronted Preminger in his executive office. With this meeting, and a subsequent viewing of her freer looser appearances in the 'soundies' material, Preminger gave her the role. The remainder of the cast was completed with Harry Belafonte, Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, Diahann Carroll, Madame Sul-Te-Wan (uncredited), Olga James, and Joe Adams.
Despite Dandridge's recognition as a singer, the studio wanted an operatic voice, so Dandridge's voice was dubbed by operatic vocalist Marilyn Horne for the film. Carmen Jones opened to favorable reviews and strong box office returns on October 28, 1954, earning $70,000 during its first week and $50,000 during its second. Dandridge's performance as the seductive leading actress made her one of Hollywood's first African-American sex symbols and earned her positive reviews. On November 1, 1954, Dorothy Dandridge became the first black woman featured on the cover of Life. As Walter Winchell recalled, her performance was "bewitching" and Variety said her "performance maintains the right hedonistic note throughout".
Carmen Jones became a worldwide success, eventually earning over $10 million at the box office and becoming one of the year's highest-earning films. Dandridge was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, becoming the first African-American nominated for a leading role. At the 27th Academy Awards held on March 30, 1955, Dandridge shared her Oscar nomination with such luminaries as Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Judy Garland, and Jane Wyman. Although Kelly won the award for her performance in The Country Girl, Dandridge became an overnight sensation. At the 1955 Oscar ceremony, Dandridge presented the Academy Award for Film Editing to On the Waterfront editor Gene Milford.
On February 15, 1955, Dandridge signed a three-movie deal with 20th Century Fox starting at $75,000 a film. Darryl F. Zanuck, the studio head, had personally suggested the studio sign Dandridge to a contract. Zanuck had big plans for her, hoping she would evolve into the first African-American screen icon. He purchased the film rights to The Blue Angel and intended to cast her as saloon singer Lola-Lola in an all-black remake of the original 1930 film. She was also scheduled to star as Cigarette in a remake of Under Two Flags. Meanwhile, Dandridge agreed to play the role of Tuptim in a film version of The King and I and a sultry upstairs neighbor in The Lieutenant Wore Skirts. However, her former director and now-lover Otto Preminger, suggested she accept only leading roles. As an international star, Dorothy Dandridge rejected the two lesser roles and they were eventually given to Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno.
In 1957, Dandridge sued Confidential for libel over its article that described a scandalous incident, fictitious as it turned out, that it claimed occurred in 1950. In May 1957, she accepted an out-of-court settlement of $10,000.
Dandridge was one of the few Hollywood stars who testified at the 1957 criminal libel trial of Hollywood Research, Inc., the company that published Confidential as well as all of the other tabloid magazines from that era. Four months after her out-of-court settlement for $10,000, she and actress Maureen O'Hara, the only other star who testified at the criminal trial, were photographed shaking hands outside the downtown-Los Angeles courtroom where the highly publicized trial was held. Testimony from O'Hara, as well as from a disgruntled former magazine editor named Howard Rushmore, revealed that the magazines published false information provided by hotel maids, clerks, and movie-theater ushers who were paid for their tips. The stories with questionable veracity most often centered around alleged incidents of casual sex. When the jury and press visited Grauman's Chinese Theatre to determine whether O'Hara could have performed various sexual acts while seated in the balcony, as reported by a magazine published by Hollywood Research, Inc., this was discovered to have been impossible.
Dandridge had not testified during her civil lawsuit earlier in 1957, but in September she gave testimony in the criminal trial that further strengthened the prosecution's case. Alleged by Confidential to have fornicated with a white bandleader in the woods of Lake Tahoe in 1950, she testified that racial segregation had confined her to her hotel during her nightclub engagement in the Nevada resort city. When she was not in the hotel lounge rehearsing or performing her singing, according to her testimony, she was required to stay inside her room where she slept alone. Dandridge's testimony along with O'Hara's testimony proved beyond any doubt that Hollywood Research had committed libel at least twice. The judge ordered Hollywood Research to stop publishing questionable stories based on paid tips, and this curtailed invasive tabloid journalism until 1971, when Generoso Pope, Jr. moved the National Enquirer, which he owned, from New York to Lantana, Florida.
In 1957, after a three-year absence from film acting, Dandridge agreed to appear in the film version of Island in the Sun opposite an ensemble cast, including James Mason, Harry Belafonte, Joan Fontaine, Joan Collins, and Stephen Boyd. Dandridge portrayed a local Indian shop clerk who has an interracial love affair with a white man, played by John Justin. The film was controversial for its time period, and the script was revised numerous times to accommodate the Motion Picture Production Code requirements about interracial relationships. There occurred, however, an extremely intimate loving embrace between Dandridge and Justin that succeeded in not breaching the code. Despite the behind-the-scenes controversy, the film received favorable reviews and was one of the year's biggest successes.
Dandridge next agreed to star opposite German actor Curd Jürgens in the Italian production of Tamango (1958). A reluctant Dandridge had agreed to appear in the film only after learning that it focused on a nineteenth century slave revolt on a cargo ship travelling from Africa to Cuba. However, she nearly withdrew her involvement when the initial script called for her to swim in the nude and spend the majority of the film in a two-piece bathing suit made of rags. When Dandridge threatened to leave the film, the script and her wardrobe was retooled to her liking. United States Production code requirements did not apply to the Italian film production and the passionate kiss between Jürgens and Dandridge's character was permitted in the shooting of Tamango. This gave Dandridge her first, and only, on-screen kiss with a white actor. Tamango was withheld from American release until late 1959, and received mixed reviews from critics and achieved only minor success.
In MGM's The Decks Ran Red (1958), Dandridge co-starred with James Mason and Broderick Crawford as Mahia, a cook's wife aboard a large ocean liner where numerous deaths are arranged to take place. Despite being universally panned, the film generated a respectable audience due to the controversy surrounding Dandridge's wardrobe.
In late 1958, Dandridge then accepted producer Samuel Goldwyn's offer to star in his forthcoming production of Porgy and Bess, which would become her first major Hollywood film in five years. Her acceptance of the role angered the African-American community, who felt the story's negative stereotyping of blacks was degrading. When the initial director, Rouben Mamoulian, was replaced with Otto Preminger, he informed Dandridge that her performance was not credible, and that she needed intensive coaching to handle such a role. Porgy and Bess had a long and costly production. All the sets and costumes were destroyed in a fire and had to be replaced, which amounted to a loss of almost $2 million. Continuous script rewrites and other problems prolonged the production and ultimately pushed the film over its original budget. When it was released in June 1959, it drew mixed reviews and failed financially.
In 1959, Dandridge starred in a low-budget British thriller, Malaga, in which she played a European woman with an Italian name. The film, co-starring Trevor Howard and Edmund Purdom, plotted a jewel robbery and its aftermath. Some pre-release publicity invited the belief that Dandridge received her first, and only, on-screen kiss with a white actor (Howard) in this film. This was not so (see her film Tamangoabove), but the actor and actress, under László Benedek's direction, created some strongly understated sexual tension. The film was withheld from a theatrical release abroad until 1960, but went unreleased in the United States until 1962. Malaga was her final completed film appearance.
Dandridge first gained fame as a solo artist from her performances in nightclubs, usually accompanied by Phil Moore on piano. Although she was known for her renditions of songs such as "Blow Out the Candle", "You Do Something to Me", and "Talk Sweet Talk To Me", she recorded very little on vinyl. It is unknown whether her lack of recording were due to personal choice or lack of opportunity.
In 1958, she recorded a full-length album for Verve Records featuring Oscar Peterson with Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, and Alvin Stoller (Catalogue #314 547-514 2) that remained unreleased in the vaults until a CD release in 1999. This CD also included four tracks from 1961 (with an unknown orchestra) that included one 45 rpm record single and another aborted single:
The tracks "It's a Beautiful Evening" and "Smooth Operator" were aborted for release as a single and remained in the Verve vaults until the Smooth Operator release in 1999. These are the only known songs Dandridge recorded on vinyl. Several songs she sang, including her version of "Cow-Cow Boogie" were recorded on soundies and are not included on this list.
Dandridge married dancer and entertainer Harold Nicholas on September 6, 1942, and gave birth to her only child, Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas, on September 2, 1943. Unfortunately, Harolyn was born brain-damaged and required constant care. By 1948, their marriage had deteriorated and Nicholas abandoned his family. Due to his adultery and abandonment, the couple divorced in October 1951.
While filming Carmen Jones (1954), the director Otto Preminger began an affair with his film's star, Dandridge. It lasted four years, during which he advised her on career matters, demanding she accept only starring roles. Dandridge later regretted accepting his advice. She became pregnant by him in 1955, but was forced to have an abortion by the studio. She ended the affair when she realized that Preminger had no plans to leave his wife to marry her. Their affair was depicted in the HBO Films biopic, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, in which Preminger was portrayed by Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer.
Dandridge married Jack Denison on June 22, 1959. They divorced in 1962 amid financial setbacks and allegations of domestic violence. At this time, Dandridge discovered that the people who were handling her finances had swindled her out of $150,000 and that she was $139,000 in debt for back taxes. Forced to sell her Hollywood home and place her daughter in a state mental institution in Camarillo, California, Dandridge moved into a small apartment at 8495 Fountain Avenue in West Hollywood, California.
Dandridge became involved with the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. As a result of the racism she encountered in the industry, she developed an interest in activism.
On September 8, 1965, Dandridge spoke by telephone with friend and former sister-in-law Geraldine "Geri" Branton. Dandridge was scheduled to fly to New York the next day to prepare for her nightclub engagement at Basin Street East. Branton told biographers that during the long conversation, Dandridge had veered from expressing hope for the future to singing Barbra Streisand's "People" in its entirety to making this cryptic remark moments before hanging up on her: "Whatever happens, I know you will understand." Several hours after her conversation with Branton ended, Dandridge was found dead and naked by her manager, Earl Mills.
Two months later, a Los Angeles pathology institute determined that the cause was an accidental overdose of imipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant. The Los Angeles County Coroner's Office, however, came to a different conclusion: “Miss Dandridge died of a rare embolism—blockage of the blood passages at the lungs and brain by tiny pieces of fat flaking off from bone marrow in a fractured right foot she sustained in a Hollywood gymnasium five days before she died.” She was 42 years old.
On September 12, 1965, a private funeral service was held for Dandridge at the Little Chapel of the Flowers; she was then cremated and her ashes interred in the Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
Many years passed before the entertainment industry acknowledged Dandridge's legacy. With the blaxploitation era passed, and starting in the 1980s, stars such as Cicely Tyson, Jada Pinkett Smith, Halle Berry, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Kimberly Elise, Loretta Devine, Tasha Smith, and Angela Bassett acknowledged in the public media Dandridge's contribution to the through image of the black American in American motion pictures.
In 1995 movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, Wesley Snipes played "Noxeema Jackson", a drag queen whose dream is to play Dorothy Dandridge in a movie about her life and work, since he admires her and knows all her career.
In 1999, Halle Berry took the lead role of Dandridge in the HBO Movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, which she also produced and for which she won the Primetime Emmy Award, Golden Globe Award, and Screen Actors Guild Award. When Berry won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Monster's Ball, she dedicated the "moment [to] Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll." Both Dandridge and Berry were from Cleveland, Ohio and were, in fact, born in the same hospital.
For her contributions to the motion picture industry, in January 1984 she was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6721 Hollywood Boulevard. Dorothy Dandridge is also the most prominent figure of a huge mural of celebrities painted on an exterior wall of Hollywood High School.
There is a statue of Dorothy Dandridge at Hollywood-La Brea Boulevard in Los Angeles, designed by Catherine Hardwicke, built to honor multi-ethnic leading ladies of the cinema, including Mae West, Dolores del Río and Anna May Wong.
Recording artist Janelle Monáe performs a song entitled "Dorothy Dandridge Eyes" on her album The Electric Lady, with Esperanza Spalding.
A character in the 1969 movie The Lost Man states she named herself after Dandridge, citing that 'I loved her [...] it was a terrible tragedy when she died.'
In the February 2016 episode of Black-ish entitled "Sink or Swim", Dre refers to Beyoncé as being the "Dorothy Dandridge" of our time, pointing out the star power of Dandridge during her day.
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