DANDRIDGE, DOROTHY (Dorothy Jean Dandridge) (1922–1965) Actress, Singer

The first African-American leading lady to be nominated for a best actress Oscar, Dorothy Jean Dandridge was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on November 9, 1922. She made her show business debut at four, encouraged by her ambitious mother, Ruby. Ruby concocted a song-and-skit show featuring Dorothy and her older sister Vivian. Billed as the “Wonder Kids,” the Dandridge sisters toured throughout the South for five years.

To advance her daughters’ careers, Ruby relocated the family to Los Angeles in the early 1930s. There, she made a living playing bit parts on radio and in films, generally playing a domestic—then one of the few roles open to African-American actresses. Rudy also recruited a third singer, Etta Jones, and reshaped the Wonder Kids into the Dandridge Sisters. The new act had its greatest success in 1936, when the group began appearing regularly at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club. The trio also appeared in several films—most notably the Marx Brothers’ classic A Day at the Races (1937)—before parting ways in the early 1940s.

Dorothy Dandridge’s solo career was interrupted by her 1942 marriage to Harold Nicholas, one half of the tap-dancing duo the Nicholas Brothers. The union was already strained by Nicholas’s infidelities, when Dandridge in 1945 gave birth to a severely brain-damaged girl, whom the couple named Harolyn. Dandridge suffered enormous guilt after the birth and throughout her life blamed herself for Harolyn’s condition. Unwilling to deal with the difficult situation, Nicholas deserted his family, and Dandridge returned to show business to pay for Harolyn’s placement in a private institution.

Though hobbled by insecurities, Dandridge quickly found fame performing as a nightclub singer. Elegant, sultry, and astoundingly beautiful, she was sought after by the most exclusive venues, many of which had never before featured an African-American performer. Dandridge routinely insisted that the clubs she played reserved a table for members of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), thereby, at least for a night, integrating formerly segregated establishments. Dandridge also sought work in Hollywood.

After appearing in several undistinguished films, she won her signature role, the title character in Carmen Jones (1954). A recasting of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen with new lyrics written by Oscar Hammerstein II, the film featured an all-black cast and told the story of a sensual woman whose infidelity leads to the ruin of her lover, played by Harry Belafonte. As the sashaying Carmen, Dandridge made a spectacular femme fatale, and her performance was hailed by critics and the public alike. In addition to becoming the first African American nominated for a best actress Oscar, she was the first black performer to present an award during an Academy Awards telecast. In November 1954, Dandridge also became the first African American to appear on the cover of Life magazine.

Despite her fabulous success in Carmen Jones, Dandridge was soon disappointed by the lack of serious roles open to her. Her beauty and glamour made her a natural to be cast in romances, but at the time African-American couples were a rarity on screenand interracial romances were all but unheard of. Dandridge did make history in the controversial and unsuccessful Islands in the Sun (1957), in which her character was the first black leading lady to be held in the arms of a white actor. Her only other notable film role was in Porgy and Bess (1959), in which she played Bess opposite Sidney Poitier.

As Dandridge watched her film career fade, her personal life also began to unravel. After her longtime affair with Carmen Jones’s director, Otto Preminger, fell apart, she married restaurateur Jack Dennison in 1959. Dennison fiooded Dandridge’s money into his own restaurants and persuaded her to invest in risky oil deals. By the time the couple divorced in 1962, Dandridge was so debt-ridden that, much to her dismay, she had to place Harolyn in a public institution. Despite her desperate circumstances, Dandridge had begun to launch a successful comeback in the nightclub circuit, when on September 8, 1965, she was found dead in her Hollywood home at the age of 42. Dandridge had overdosed on an antidepressant, but it remains unclear whether her death was intentional or accidental.

Even though her career was short, Dandridge was never forgotten by her fans, especially African Americans who were inspired by her success at breaking Hollywood’s color barriers. In 1977, she was inducted into the Black Film Hall of Fame, and in 1983, with the lobbying of costars Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, she was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. By the mid 1990s, leading young African-American actresses, including WHITNEY HOUSTON and Vanessa Williams, were vying to portray Dandridge on screen. The first to succeed was Halle Berry, who starred in the acclaimed HBO television movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge in 1999.

Further Reading

Bogle, Donald. Dorothy Dandridge. New York: Amistad Press, 1997.
Dandridge, Dorothy, and Earl Conrad. Everything and Nothing: The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1970. Reprint: New York: HarperPerennial, 2000.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Carmen Jones (1954). Twentieth Century-Fox, VHS, 1994.
Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999). HBO Home Video, DVD/VHS, 2000.