Multi-talented, incredibly beautiful, and disciplined in the performing arts since childhood, Dorothy Dandridge could have been as big as Beyonce if she was just born 80 years later. Instead she was born in 1922. A time when opportunities for African Americans were incredibly limited, and the opportunities that did exist were incredibly demeaning. Her life was never easy and neither was her career. And yet, that never stopped Dandridge from fighting. Even against the insurmountable odds she faced, Dandridge went head first into the battle against the racism that permeated through Hollywood.
The Beautiful Dorothy Dandridge
As I mentioned earlier, Dandridge’s life was not easy. Her mother, Rudy, was an aspiring entertainer who left Dorothy’s father before she was even born. Dorothy would never meet her father, while her sister, Vivian, barely remembered him at all. After the divorce Rudy became what we now call a “stage-mom” and placed all her dreams and aspirations of stardom onto her children. She even allowed her long-time friend-turned-lover, Geneva Williams, to take over the role of disciplinarian, forcing the sisters to practice to the point of physical and mental exhaustion. If her impossible standards weren’t met, the pair would be cruelly punished.
Rudy and Geneva fashioned the young entertainers as “The Wonder Children,” and the act went on the road. For years they toured the Southern portion of the United States with the National Baptist Convention. This nomadic lifestyle would cause young Dorothy to not only miss out on a proper education, but a normal childhood as well.
The Dandridge “Sisters”
When the Great Depression hit, the sisters found themselves out of work. The family then packed up and moved to Los Angeles, hoping to find a more forgiving job market. They soon met another aspiring youngster, Etta Jones, and reinvented themselves as “The Dandridge Sisters.” The trio was spotted in venues up and down California, sharing the spotlight with established figures such as the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra and Cab Calloway. Behind their growing success, however, the Dandridge sisters encountered the unrelenting segregation and racism of the entertainment industry. For starters, many of the venues they toured were white only. Although they were allowed to sing and dance for white audiences, that was pretty much it. Too often the sisters were not allowed to eat in the restaurants or even use the bathroom of the very venues they entertained in, due to the color of their skin. It was an incredibly harsh and demeaning lesson for the teenaged Dandridge to learn.
By the mid-1930s, The Dandridge Sisters were featured in films such as Teacher’s Beau and the Marx brothers’ A Day at the Races. Their popularity quickly ballooned and soon they found themselves on the stage of the famed Cotton Club. More New York gigs followed, including a stint at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The sisters reached their zenith when they began their tour of Europe. Unfortunately for them, so did tensions between nation-states, and World War II erupted not long after they began their tour. Needless to say it was cut short and the sisters returned home.
At this point Dandridge was in a relationship with Harold Nicolas, one half of the dancing duo, The Nicolas Brothers, and they helped Dandridge get a bit role in the race film Four Shall Die. Remember when I said that Dorothy could have been Beyonce. Well, one of the reasons I say that is because not long after her role in Four Shall Die, The Dandridge sisters broke up and Dorothy moved forward with her solo career. Bye Kelly and Michelle…I mean Vivian and Etta.
In 1941 Dandridge had small role in the John Wayne vehicle Lady From Louisiana. She then appeared in a dance number with now hubby Harold Nicholas in the film Sun Valley Serenade. Like many sequences featuring black performers, their dance routine was cut from many theaters in the American South. Dandridge played the supporting role of Princess Malimi in Drums of the Congo but was soon back to small, uncredited roles in films like Lucky Jordan and Happy Go Lucky. She managed a small but respectable role in Hit Parade of 1943. Soon after, however, Dandridge decided to take an extended break from performance to work on her marriage. In 1943 Dandridge gave birth to her and Harold’s only child, a daughter Harolyn. What should have been one of Dandridge’s most joyous moments in her life quickly turned into a nightmare.
When Dandridge went into labor, Harold was nowhere to be found as his extensive touring schedule kept him away from home. As the baby grew, it was obvious something was wrong. Little Harolyn couldn’t speak and was unresponsive to most external stimulus. She was diagnosed with brain damage and the doctor said it was because of the lack of oxygen to the brain during the home delivery. By this time Dandridge also became aware of her husband’s frequent philandering while on tour. She became increasingly depressed and internalized her problems. Not only did she blame herself for her child’s mental condition but also blamed herself for her husband’s cheating ways – believing her lack of sexual experience caused him to cheat. She kept out of the spotlight, only singing in nightclubs from time to time to support her daughter’s medical needs. It was only after her divorce from Nicolas in 1949 did she return to performing.
The Dandridge that returned to the Nightclub scene was not the one that left. This new incarnation of Dandridge was no longer the cute-as-a-button dancer next door but rather, a sophisticated and sexy siren of song. The revamp was an entirely professional move. She wanted to make movies again but felt her only avenue was through the nightclub scene. Once again, she was forced to sing at all white venues that wouldn’t allow her to socialize with guests who paid good money to watch her perform. Despite the money she brought in to these clubs, everything from bathrooms, to swimming pools and even dressing rooms were off limits. Instead, Dandridge got storage spaces and service entrances. But the pain and planning eventually paid off and Hollywood once again came knocking. However, her return to Tinsel Town didn’t mean an end to her experience under racism.
Dandridge finally returned to the big screen after a six-year hiatus in 1951. Unfortunately, as par for the course for black actors at the time, it was in a less-than flattering role. During this time in Hollywood, most actresses of color were stuck in the stereotypical roles of the neutered housemaid or the “exotic” other, driven by their lust and sexuality. In Tarzan’s Peril she played Melmedi, an African Queen aka the latter of the two. Dandridge flat-out refused to play a maid, probably losing a couple of opportunities with that decision. I, for one, applaud the decision to choose dignity over denigration.
She returned to the nightclub scene and pretty much killed it (in a good way). She remained a staple in Hollywood before heading back east to New York, where she became the first black women to perform at the Waldorf Astoria. She became renown for beauty and sex appeal during her performances. Although she actually strongly abhorred how club owners hyper-sexualized her in their promotions, she understood the unfortunate concept of “sex sells,” no matter how much she hated it.
Her worked paid off in spades in 1953 when Dandridge was finally cast in her first starring role as Jane Richards, opposite Harry Belafonte in the Bright Road. The role was neither a maid nor an exotic character from worlds away. No, Jane Richards was a dedicated young teacher who believes the best of one her most troubled students. The role was everything a black actress at the time could ask for. Unfortunately, however, the film tanked. Badly. And the abysmal box-office performance was said to have hurt Dandridge’s chances at landing further leading roles.
Luckily, the film didn’t affect her popularity in the nightclubs. By the next year, Dandridge’s nightclub popularity was so strong that Twentieth Century Fox took their chances and signed her to a three-picture contract.
When Dandridge got wind that an all black reincarnation of the Bizet opera Carmen was in the works, she saw her chance to prove her worth as an actress. The title role Carmen Jones was brazen and sexy, yet vulnerable and tragic – the type of role any woman would want. When she first went to audition for Otto Preminger, the film’s director, she dressed in her Saks Fifth Avenue best, hoping the outfit would make her appear as a dignified, serious actor. Unfortunately, the plan backfired and Preminger basically said she wasn’t “earthy” enough for the role. Well, that didn’t stop Dandridge. The next time she showed up in a short skirt, tight shirt with dark make up and a “come hither” attitude. As we all know, she got the part.
Although the part of Carmen Jones was a fast-talking, tough hearted vixen, Dandridge was anything but. She spent much of her time on the set focusing on her performance rather than socializing with the cast. She did, however, begin a romance with the married but long-time separated Otto Preminger, who was hell-bent on helping Dandridge become a star. Their work paid off as the film was a box-office smash, attracting both white and black audiences from all walks of life. Dandridge, even if just for a short time, did indeed become a star.
She became the first black woman to ever grace the cover of Life magazine. Not long after, she became the first black women to receive a Best Actress Academy Awards nomination. She ultimately lost to Grace Kelly.
With Carmen Jones under her belt, Dandridge assumed that roles would come pouring in. She was, after all, the hottest nightclub attraction in the worldm and a Best Actress nominee. But for the rest of her life, it would appear to be fate’s cruel joke.
In 1955 she was offered the role of Tuptim in The King and I. After discussing the role with Preminger, she refused. He thought she should not degrade herself by playing a slave after having just been nominated for an Oscar and she agreed. Although morally righteous in her stance, it did nothing for her career and the offers she assumed would pour in began to dry up. It would be three years before she made another silver screen appearance, this time opposite James Mason and Joan Fontaine in Island in the Sun. In 1958 she appeared in the forgettable The Decks Ran Red. Her only other role of note came in 1959 with Otto Preminger’s Porgy and Bess. Although a strong role that tested her ability as an actress, she faced backlash from the black community who thought she had “sold out” by playing a seemingly stereotypical role of drug addict. She would appear in one more film, 1960’s Malaga opposite Trevor Howard.
During this time she became pregnant by Preminger. He broke up with her and she had an abortion. She then married Jack Denison, who can only be described as gold digger. After Jack put much of her money towards bad investments, by 1962, Dandridge found herself broke and Jack split…because, ya know, gold digger. Although she continued to work in the nightclub scene, her popularity had dwindled to a fraction of what it once was, and by 1963, she could no longer pay for the 24-hour care her daughter needed. Lynn was then placed in a state institution. Soon after, Dandridge suffered a nervous breakdown. By the end of her life she became dependent on drugs and alcohol, which would lead to her premature death in 1965, when she overdosed on anti-depressants. She was just 42 years old.
Although her life ended tragically, no one can deny the impact that Dandridge had on the entertainment world. She rose to stardom at a time when black people couldn’t even use the same fountain as white people, and fought for roles that brought dignity to her people. She is a source of constant inspiration for women of color in the entertainment industry today. Without her, there is no Janet. There is no Rihanna. There is no Beyonce. So everyone bow down to original Queen: Queen D.
Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub