When Dorothy Dandridge (1922-1965) departed Jefferson High School in the late 1930s, her first stop was the Cotton Club in Harlem. She and sister, Vivian, and friend, Etta Jones, performed with the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra and Cab Calloway at the famous night spot, but it wasn’t long before Hollywood called. Her glamorous looks and sex appeal landed her small roles including in the Marx Brothers’ “A Day at the Races” (1937) and, after a stint with the Desi Arnaz Orchestra at the Mocombo in Hollywood, she rocketed to international stardom at venues in London, Paris and Rio de Janeiro.
Dandridge won her first starring role in 1953’s “Bright Road” opposite Harry Belafonte. The two would team up again in “Carmen Jones” (1954), producer Otto Preminger’s star-studded adaptation of Bizet’s “Carmen.” Dandridge became the first African American to be nominated for the Best Actress for that role, but lost to Grace Kelly (“The Country Girl”).
Dandridge was on her way to becoming the first non-White actress to achieve the kind of superstardom that had accrued to contemporaries like Marilyn Monroe or Ava Gardner and was featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1955. Her only other great film was playing opposite Sidney Portier in the 1959 application of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” The racially divisive 1950s, sadly, would frustrate Hollywood producers in creating a suitable role for the light-skinned Dandridge.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Dandridge was 5 years old when she and her sister began performing at local theaters and churches. She learned piano before she was 10, dance shortly thereafter, and the pair was billed as “The Wonder Children” and was subsequently signed by the National Baptist Convention to tour churches in the South.
Bookings fell off during the Great Depression, and the family moved to Los Angeles where the daughters were enrolled in dance classes at Hooper Avenue School. The sisters met Jones there and became “The Dandridge Sisters,” getting their first break in the 1935 Paramount musical “The Big Broadcast of 1936.”
In 1938, the trio appeared in the film “Going Places” where they performed “Jeepers Creepers” with Louis Armstrong. It is believed that Dandridge left school that year after receiving news that the trio was booked for an extended stay at the Cotton Club. Dandridge, now 16, began dating future husband Harold Nicholas of the famous Nicholas Brothers dance team. A European tour soon followed and the girls were said to have dazzled audiences until the start of World War II. She returned to Hollywood and began to carve out a solo career.
Dandridge landed bit parts in low-budget films like “Four Shall Die” (1940), “Lady From Louisiana” and “Sundown” (1941). She sang and danced with the Nicholas Brothers to “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in “Sun Valley Serenade” (1941) along with the Glenn Miller Band, and portrayed an African princess in “Drums of the Congo” (1942). She and Nicholas were married the next year, but frequent road trips that kept him away—and rumored philandering—seemed to doom the marriage until she became pregnant in 1943. The child was autistic and, dealing with a crumbling marriage and trying to fashion a successful show business career, Dandridge sought psychiatric help and began using prescription medications that would lead to an early dependency. In 1955, she signed a three-picture deal with 20th Century Fox starting at $75,000 per film, highlighted by Darryl F. Zanuck’s proposed all-Black remake of “The Blue Angel” in which she would portray saloon singer Lola-Lola.
After her divorce in 1949, Dandridge returned to the nightclub scene, reborn as a sexy, sultry performer and was well received on a national tour. At the time, Dandridge was “forbidden” to speak to White audiences and, despite being the headliner at many of the clubs, her dressing room was usually a janitor’s closet or a dingy storage room. Anxious to return to the big screen, Dandridge in 1950 reluctantly agreed to play a jungle queen in “Tarzan’s Peril”; her true breakthrough came two years later in “Bright Road,” an all-Black production based on a schoolteacher’s life in the South.
In reference to “Carmen Jones,” Preminger thought Dandridge was too classy to portray the indelicate vixen, but she was determined to change his mind. She found an old wig at Max Factor’s studio, a low-cut blouse worn off the shoulder, and a tight, seductive skirt. She tousled her hair, applied heavy make-up and walked into Preminger’s office: “It’s Carmen!” he reportedly yelled. At age 32, the Academy Award nomination would etch Dandridge into the hearts of her fans. It was around this time that Dandridge and Preminger began a secret romance (he cast her in 1959’s “Porgy and Bess” opposite Sidney Portier), but the success of “Carmen Jones” didn’t translate into more roles that suited her talents. She told the New York Times in 1956: “If I were Betty Grable, I could capture the world.”
Dandridge turned down the supporting role of Tuptim in “The King and I” because she refused to be cast as a slave. Orson Welles reportedly wanted her to portray “Billie Holiday” in an original version of “Lady Sings the Blues,” but it never panned out. She appeared opposite German actor Curd Jurgens in the Italian production of “Tamango” (1957), about a 19th-century slave revolt, but almost walked away when the initial script called for her to swim in the nude and spend much of the film in a skimpy two-piece bikini. By then she had recorded several dozen “torch songs” for Columbia Records, but many were unreleased.
Dandridge married restaurateur Jack Denison in 1959, but lost much of her savings to bad investments. With her daughter Harolyn now in a state institution, Dandridge began to drink heavily, abuse antidepressants, and suffered a nervous breakdown in 1963. On Sept. 8, 1965, Dandridge was found dead in her West Hollywood apartment, the result of an accidental barbiturate overdose. Her ashes were placed at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 671 Hollywood Blvd.