“America was not geared to make me into a Liz Taylor, a Monroe, a Gardner.”—Dorothy Dandridge.
Sad Hollywood stories are a dime a dozen, but the tragedy of Dorothy Dandridge feels unique. As one of the first African-American superstars of the screen and stage, Dandridge’s life was one of huge potential. How did “Carmen Jones” rise and fall from grace? What injury put her accidental death into doubt? Dance to these 42 dazzling facts about Dorothy Dandridge.
1. Golden Girl
In 1955, Dandridge became the first African-American woman to be nominated for Best Actress for her titular performance in Carmen Jones.
2. Save the Drama for Your Stage Mama
At least on her mother’s side, Dandridge came from a showbiz family. Her mother was the singer Ruby Dandridge, who trained the young Dorothy and her sister Vivian to perform as “The Wonder Children.”
3. Papa Does Preach
In stark contrast to Dandridge’s stage mother, her father worked as a cabinetmaker and Baptist. The couple split up right before Dandridge was born.
4. Who Needs an Education?
For almost five years, Dandridge toured nearly nonstop as one half of “The Wonder Children” with her sister. She rarely attended school—nonstop global tours will wreak havoc on any class schedule.
5. Back to the Books
It took the Great Depression for the young Dandridge to retire from the tour business and attend a real school. As the acting gigs dried up within the American economy, the Dandridge family settled down in Hollywood, of all places. Dandridge finally had time to attend junior high school…while also doing bit roles as servants on TV and film. Hey, showbiz families die hard…
6. Three is the Loneliest Number
In 1934, The Wonder Children grew out of their juvenile act and rebranded themselves as The Dandridge Sisters. Dorothy, her sister Vivian, and their friend Etta Jones performed across North America and even Europe. During this time, she became increasingly drawn to independent side projects. The group officially split up 6 years later.
7. Freckled With Fame
While still with the Dandridge sisters, Dorothy often went by the stage name of “Dot.”
8. Never Too Little to Start Building Those Screen Credits
Dandridge got her first on-screen acting job in a short for The Little Rascals—then called Our Gang. It was the glamorous role of “Cabin Kid (stand-in).”
9. Talent Has Standards
Dandridge embodied a killer for her very first major film role in Four Shall Die from 1940. She would make a point of avoiding such violent and dastardly characters in the future. Unfortunately, African-American actors of this era (and beyond) were all too frequently consigned to playing morally dubious characters. This made it hard for Dandridge to find work at basically every stage of her career.
10. Good at Pretending to Be Bad
Dandridge worked to discard her polite screen persona and nab her award-winning role in Carmen Jones. With help from make-up artists of the Max Factor brand, the actress ditched the buttoned-down respectability of her role in the movie Bright Road to look “freer” as she finally confronted the film’s director, Otto Preminger.
11. Even Legends Need Lip-Syncing
In spite of her lifelong musical training, Dandridge did not sing her own songs in Carmen Jones. The role called for a more “operatic” voice, whereas Dandridge was trained for the showtunes. Thus, the opera singer Marilyn Horne supplied the singing voice for Dandridge’s Oscar-winning role.
12. Not-So-Easy, Breezy, Beautiful Cover Girl
Dorothy Dandridge became the first black woman to ever be on the cover of Life magazine in November 1954.
13. Adding Color to Hollywood Royalty
In 1955, Dorothy Dandridge shared her 1955 Best Actress nomination with some big legends, including Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Judy Garland, and Jane Wyman. Dandridge ended up losing to Grace Kelly. However, her special status as the first black female nominee for Best Actress made her a worldwide sensation.
14. A Precedent Takes a Long Time to Repeat
It would take almost 50 years after Dandridge for an African-American actress to finally win the Best Actress trophy at the Oscars. Halle Berry won the gold for her 2002 role in Monster’s Ball.
15. The Birth of a Dream
Coincidentally, Dandridge was also born in the same Cleveland hospital as Halle Berry.
16. Couldn’t Have Done It Without You
Halle Berry dedicated part of 2002 Oscar speech to her career predecessor, Dorothy Dandridge. The younger actress put Dandridge in the same legacy as many African-American actresses who were trailblazers, giving her “moment [to] Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne,” and “Diahann Carroll” too.
17. Kiss and Tell
In the late 1950s, Dandridge had to fight scandalous and racy claims from the Hollywood tabloid Confidential. The magazine accused Dandridge, Irish actress Maureen O’Hara, and many other famous people of engaging in casual sex at hotels. Dandridge and O’Hara were the only stars to testify against these accusations in person. They successfully sued the magazine for libel, settling for thousands of dollars.
18. Nothing Like Bad Rules for a Good Defense
When accused of being a sexual libertine, Dandridge used the racial segregation laws of the 1950s as her alibi. After a magazine had accused her of an affair with white musician, Dandridge testified that she could never have carried on an affair with a white man, since Jim Crow laws forbid her from staying at the same hotels.
19. Love in Black and White
In the movie Island of the Sun, Dandridge played an Indian shop clerk who has a romance with a white man. What made the movie controversial for its time was not the non-Asian Dandridge taking on an Asian role. The themes of interracial romance were enough fire. The script was redone multiple times to work around the Motion Picture Production Code, which made it difficult and even illegal to show interracial relationships in detail.
20. Redressed for Success
Dorothy’s modesty almost got in the way of her role in Tamango (1958). The script called for the actress to spend most of the film in a ragged two-piece bathing suit…and even swim nude! Dandridge had the wardrobe retailored to her preferences.
21. Banned for a Smooch
Dandridge’s foray into Italian film was banned in America for some time. Why? Racism. Tamango is controversial for depicting Dandridge’s first (and only) on-screen kiss with a white male actor.
22. It’s Called Acting, Lonely People
However, It’s wrongfully believed that Malaga (1959) shows Dandridge’s first and only kiss with a white actor. Her sexual tension with actor Trevor Howard was just so intense that many audiences must have imagined they kissed. They didn’t.
23. Acting Out Activism
Dandridge’s hardships as a black actress in Hollywood inspired her to take up activism. She was deeply involved in both the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and the National Urban League.
24. Making Her Marx
Blink and you’ll miss her: as a young entertainer, Dandridge shows up in a bit role in the Marx Brothers classic film A Day in the Races.
25. Stay-at-Home Mom, Meet Wandering Eye
Dandridge temporarily retired from acting to settle into married life with Harold Nicholas in 1942. Nicholas returned his wife’s commitment by pursuing other women.
26. Some People Have It Harder
Dandridge wasn’t naïve. The actress was very self-aware about how her race limited her roles. She once declared, “If I were Betty Grable, I could capture the world.”
27. Master of Her Own IMDb Page
In 1956, the actress famously turned down a role as Tuptim in The King and I. At the time, she abided by a strict “no slave roles” policy.
28. Lights, Camera, Adultery
Hollywood director Otto Preminger gave Dandridge her career-making role in Carmen Jones, but he also gave her a little something else: the two embarked an on-set affair that lasted off-set for over 4 years.
29. Bedroom Talk Isn’t a Career Consultation
During her affair with Otto Preminger, Dandridge based her career decisions on his advice. For one, the director insisted that she only take leading lady roles. Dandridge would go on to regret this.
30. Lost Beginnings
In fact, the affair with Preminger gave Dandridge many regrets. In 1955, she became pregnant and the studio forced the actress to have an abortion.
31. The Curtains Close
Despite their multiyear affair, Otto Preminger had no plans to leave his wife for Dandridge anytime soon. His inability to put a ring on it—combined with, I assumed, the pregnancy and failed career advice—snuffed out their relationship.
32. 99 Problems and Cash Is One
Dandridge faced serious money problems towards the end of her career. For one, her financial managers apparently took advantage of her and stole $150,000 in her name. She also found out she owed $139,000 in back taxes. Maybe “money problems” was me underselling it…
33. Single Mother Blues Would Be Underselling It
In 1943, Dandridge had her first and only child, Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas, with her husband Harold Nicholas, a dancer and entertainer. Unfortunately, Harolyn was born with brain damage and required long-term care. Within five years, Dandridge’s husband abandoned them both.
34. Homeless in Hollywood
Dandridge’s financial difficulties got so bad, she had to sell her Hollywood mansion. Even worse, she could no longer afford private care for her disabled daughter, and had to place her in a state mental hospital.
35. Points for Persistence
Dorothy Dandridge met her second husband on the rebound from her affair with Otto Preminger. The new suitor, Jack Denison, was a Las Vegas restaurant owner who would send flowers to Dandridge’s dressing room every single night. Subtle.
36. When Prince Charming Becomes Prince Harming
The initial charm of Jack Denison as a husband didn’t last. Dandridge’s second spouse proved to be, at the very least, verbally abusive. They married in 1959 but split up by 1962.
37. Homeless in Hollywood Hills
The loss of her home and the difficulty of caring for her daughter took a mental toll upon Dandridge. Friends recall her moving in and out of various apartments and calling them up to accuse neighbors of stealing petty things from her place.
38. Swan Song
The exact circumstances of Dorothy Dandridge’s death remain a Hollywood mystery. The actress called up friends on September 8, 1965 to prepare for her flight to New York for nightclub appearances. She apparently sang Barbara Streisand’s “People” in its entirety over the phone before hanging up with these chilling last words: “Whatever happens, I know you will understand.”
39. Gone Toon Soon
Several hours after her known last phone call, Dandridge was discovered naked and unconscious in her apartment by her manager, Earl Mills. She was just 42 years old.
40. This is a Case for the FBI
Dandridge’s cause of death has conflicting stories. A pathology institute has argued her death was caused by imipramine (an antidepressant) overdose. However, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office had insisted she died of a fat embolism, caused by an injury from her right foot.
41. All We Are Is Dust in the Wind
If you think a very late-term autopsy could unpack the mystery of Dandridge’s death, I have bad news for you. Dandridge was cremated and her ashes are interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park’s Freedom Mausoleum.
42. Seeds in a Garden You’ll Never See Grow
Dandridge died in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that mainstream Hollywood really acknowledged her contribution to the canon of black history. In addition to Halle Berry, black female entertainers such as Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Angela Bassett have publicly acknowledged Dandridge’s groundwork in establishing black people’s place in American film.