Tragic Facts About Dorothy Dandridge, Hollywood’s Fallen Star

“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 black superstars of the screen and stage, Dandridge’s life was one of huge potential. She was a singer, actress, performer, and so much more, but how did the academy darling “Carmen Jones 1954″ rise and fall from grace? Read and share these 42 dazzling facts about Dorothy Dandridge.

Facts About Dorothy Dandridge

1. Golden Girl

In 1955, Dandridge became the first black woman to be nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards for her titular performance in Carmen Jones. Keep in mind this was three years before Sidney Poitier became the first black male thespian to get nominated for Best Actor. Dorothy Dandridge movies are still world-class today.

Carmen Jones 1954

2. Singer for Life

At least on her mother’s side, Dandridge came from a showbiz, performer family. Dandridge was born on November 9, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 in Cleveland. The couple split up right before Dandridge was born.

4. Share the Stage

For almost five years, Dandridge toured nearly nonstop as one half of “The Wonder Children” with her sister, who was also a performer. 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).”

Dorothy Dandridge FactsThe Little Rascals (Our Gang), Hal Roach Studios

9. Talent Has Standards

Dandridge embodied a killer for her very first major film role in the drama Four Shall Die from 1940. She would make a point of avoiding such violent and dastardly characters in the future. Unfortunately, black 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. She continued this trend in The Decks Ran Red.

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 the showtune singer Dandridge was trained for other parts.  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.

Cover of Life Magazine

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 and Judy Garland. 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, and she continued it with hits like The Decks Ran Red.

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 Academy Awards 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. Oh, the drama!

18. Nothing Like Bad Rules for a Good Defense

When accused of being a sexual libertine, the singer and actress 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 in 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.

Island in the Sun

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.

Dorothy Dandridge FactsTamango,CEI Incom

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.

Medieval England Quiz

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.

Dorothy Dandridge FactsFlickr

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 1954, 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 Nicholas 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.

Dorothy Dandridge Daughter

35. All a Twitter

The singer and actress 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.

40. Living it up With Louis

In her heyday, Dandridge was a frequent performer with jazz legend Louis Armstrong. She recorded Watch’a Say with her good friend Louis for the film From Pillow to Post.

38. Swan Song

The exact circumstances of Dorothy Dandridge’s death at age 42 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.”

Dandridge died at age 42

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.

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.

43. Point to Poitier

Eventually, Sidney Poitier overtook Dandridge and became the first African-American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. Poitier won in 1963 for Lillies of the Field.

42. Share the Wealth

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.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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