Singer and actress Dorothy Dandridge sang at Harlem's famed Cotton Club and Apollo Theatre and became the first African American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for best actress. She was a beautiful actress and singer whose star shone too briefly. Dorothy Dandridge, a fragile boned beauty with skin often described as "cafe au lait", was sadly a victim of her own circumstances.
Dorothy Jean Dandridge was born in Cleveland Ohio's City Hospital on November 9, 1922. Her mother was an aspiring actress named Ruby Dandridge. Ruby had walked out on Dorothy's father, Cyrus, five months previous to Dorothy's birth taking her first child, Vivian, with her. Cyrus still lived with his mother and Ruby had come to the conclusion that he would never amount to anything and she resented the fact that they did not have their own home.
A friend of Ruby's named Geneva Williams soon moved in with them and Geneva became instrumental in teaching the girls singing, dancing and piano. As the talents of Dorothy and Vivian improved, Ruby and Geneva began to plan a future for themselves that they hoped would bring them fame and security. The girls would now be called The Wonder Children and they would be their ticket. They moved to Nashville and The Wonder Children were signed with the National Baptist Convention to tour churches throughout the southern states.
Their act became a family affair with Geneva at the piano while Dorothy and Vivian performed a variety of skits that included singing, dancing, acrobatics, impressions and the ever popular poetry recitations. Mama Ruby became the business manager and she handled all the business affairs and sometimes even joined in the act herself.
The Great Depression put a halt toThe Wonder Children tour and Ruby planned what they would do next. She had wisely studied films and intuitively felt that their future would be in Hollywood. They settled into a house on Fortura Street and Dorothy and Vivian were enrolled in Hooper Street School and a dancing school for afternoon classes. In the meantime, Ruby was using her vivacious personality to gain a foothold in the Hollywood community.
As a teenager, Dandridge began to appear in small roles in a number of films, including the Marx Brothers film A Day at the Races (1937) and Drums of the Congo (1942). In 1945, she married Harold Nicholas of the dancing Nicholas Brothers (with whom she performed in the 1941 Sonja Henie musical Sun Valley Serenade); during their turbulent six-year marriage, Dandridge virtually retired from performing. A daughter, Harolyn, was born with severe brain damage in 1943; as Dandridge was unable to raise her herself, she placed the girl in foster care.
After her divorce in 1951, Dandridge returned to the nightclub circuit, this time as a successful solo singer. After a stint at the Mocambo club in Hollywood with Desi Arnaz's band and a sell-out 14-week engagement at La Vie en Rose, she became an international star, performing at glamorous venues in London, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, and New York. She won her first starring film role in 1953’s Bright Road, playing an earnest and dedicated young schoolteacher opposite Harry Belafonte.
In 1954, Dorothy played the much coveted role of Carmen Jones, again starring opposite of Harry Belafonte This movie brought her fame and recognition. She received an Academy Award nomination for her role in the film. She was the first black woman in history to receive the honor of being nominated in the category of Best Actress. Dandridge eventually lost the award to Grace Kelly (The Country Girl). Still, after the phenomenal success of Carmen Jones, Dandridge seemed well on her way to becoming the first non-white actress to achieve the kind of superstardom that had accrued to contemporaries like Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner. In 1955, she was featured on the cover of Life magazine, and was treated like visiting royalty at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.
In the years that followed her success with Carmen Jones, however, Dandridge had trouble finding film roles that suited her talents. Her only other great film was 1959's Porgy and Bess, in which she played Bess. Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis, Jr. were her co-stars in the film. Porgy and Bess was not as successful as Carmen Jones and the reviews were mediocre. Dorothy managed to rise above it all, however and won a Golden Globe Award for her performance.
While making Carmen Jones, Dandridge became involved in a heated, secretive affair with the film's director, Otto Preminger, who also directed Porgy and Bess. Their interracial romance, as well as Dandridge's relationships with other white lovers, was frowned upon, not in the least by other African-American members of the Hollywood filmmaking community. She married her second husband, Jack Denison, in 1959, and lost the majority of her savings when his restaurant failed in 1962. He left her soon after.
Dorothy turned down the supporting role of Tuptim in The King and I because she refused to play a slave. She later felt that her refusal to play Tuptim was the beginning of her downfall in Hollywood. The role was given to Rita Moreno and the film was a huge success. It was rumored that she would play Billie Holliday in a film version of Lady Sings the Blues directed by Orson Welles, but it never panned out.
As her film career and marriage failed, Dandridge began drinking heavily and taking antidepressants. The threat of bankruptcy and nagging problems with the IRS forced her to resume her nightclub career, but she found only a fraction of her former success. Relegated to second-rate lounges and stage productions, Dandridge's financial situation grew worse and worse. By 1963, she could no longer afford to pay for her daughter's 24-hour medical care, and Harolyn was placed in a state institution. Dandridge soon suffered a nervous breakdown. On September 8, 1965, she was found dead in her Hollywood home, an apparent suicide from a drug overdose.