We’d love to have a full month profiling courageous people who broke down barriers and succeeded against all odds. But what makes stories of success so satisfying to read is that they’re often a celebration of a rare event. In reality, a lot of people who face obstacles aren’t guaranteed success simply because they fought the good fight. In a country whose entire history is one of oppressing non-white people, we want to take today to profile a woman who broke down barriers, but paid a heavy price and ultimately succumbed to forces working against her.
Movie star Dorothy Dandridge was born into a dysfunctional home in 1922. She never knew her father, who had left her mother while she was pregnant. Her mother Ruby was an aspiring actress who later found success acting in The Amos ‘n Andy Show. Ruby saw fame as a way out of poverty. When Dorothy showed a streak of entertaining talent as a toddler, Ruby told her ‘You ain’t going to work in Mr. Charley’s kitchen like me. We’re going to fix it so you be something else than that.’
Ruby was driven in her self-appointed role as stage mother. Ruby enlisted the help of an abusive piano teacher and a friend who was a cruel disciplinarian to mold Dorothy and her sister Vivian into performers. The family took to the road and performed at churches around the country. The group eventually landed engagements at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem and performed with top acts such as Cab Calloway.
In her teens, Dorothy earned a number of small roles, including appearances in the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races (1937), and Going Places (1938), with Louis Armstrong. While performing as a tap dancer in the musical Sun Valley Serenade (1941), she met and married Harold Nicholas.
In 1943, Dandridge was pregnant and while at her sister-in-law’s, went into labor. Indifferent to her condition, her husband took their car to play golf and left Dorothy stranded. Reluctant to go to the hospital without him, she waited and by the time she arrived at the hospital, she was experiencing a distressed delivery. Forceps were used and the baby, Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas, was born with severe brain damage. Harolyn would require constant care and would never speak and never recognize Dorothy as her mother. Dandridge always blamed herself for not getting to the hospital sooner and felt she was responsible for Harolyn’s condition. The stress of caring for a disabled child, along with her husband’s infidelities, led to the couple’s divorce in 1951.
Dandridge returned to the nightclub circuit as a solo singer. Performing with Desi Arnaz’s band and singing to sell-out crowds, she became an international star. But fame wasn’t enough to overcome racism. Performing in Las Vegas, Dandridge was informed that the pool of the hotel was off limits to Blacks. Indignant, she dared to enter the pool area in her bathing suit while an all-White crowd stared in disbelief. She defiantly dipped her toe in the water and left. The hotel management responded by draining the pool.
Dandridge once reflected on the stressors of trying to succeed in a White world, explaining:
“If you find yourself suddenly projected into a Caucasian orbit…you have an inner experience that is hard on the nerves. You must be at your best with each instant, for…you are ‘carrying the negro race.’ Negroes everywhere will recognize what I am talking about, but unless they have been thrown into the experience of having daily to deal with large numbers of Caucasians, they won’t be able to grasp what this experience can do to your neurological and psychological system.”
Despite the pressures and indignations, Dandridge won her first starring film role in Bright Road (1953), playing opposite Harry Belafonte. Her next role was also with Belafonte, as the lead in Carmen Jones (1954). The role made audiences take note of her stunning good looks and flirtatious manner and she found herself launched into stardom. Her role in Carmen Jones earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, making Dandridge the first African American to ever achieve the honor. Although she lost to Grace Kelly for Kelly’s performance in The Country Girl, Dandridge seemed on her way to reaching the level of fame enjoyed by White actresses like Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner. Life Magazine put her on the cover, another first for a Black woman.
During the filming of Carmen Jones, Dorothy began an affair with the film’s director, Otto Preminger, who was married. When she became pregnant, the studio forced her to have an abortion. Though their affair would last for four years, Preminger was controlling and abusive. He demanded that she only accept starring roles, which were limited due to her race. She turned down the supporting role of Tuptim in The King and I (1956) because she refused to play the role of a slave. In a The New York Times interview, Dandridge said, "If I were Betty Grable, I could capture the world." Belafonte concurred, noting that she "was the right person in the right place at the wrong time."
Danridge would end her affair when it became apparent Preminger had no intention of leaving his wife. Samuel Godlwyn offered her the starring role opposite Sidney Poitier in Porgy and Bess, angering the Black community which felt the negative stereotypes in the film were degrading. The film suffered costly setbacks and the original director was replaced by none other than Otto Preminger. Preminger berated Dandridge for her performance and insisted she undergo intensive coaching in the role.
On the rebound, Dandridge married her second husband, Jack Denison, in 1959. He too was abusive and mismanaged Dorothy’s money, losing much of her savings through investment in his failed restaurant. The couple divorced after only three years. Leading role opportunities dried up and Dandridge faced the threat of bankruptcy and troubles with the IRS. No longer able to afford the 24-hour private care for her daughter, Dorothy was forced to place Harolyn in a state institution. The gut-wrenching decision devastated Dandridge and led to a breakdown. She began drinking heavily and abusing anti-depressants.
She returned to her nightclub career but found only a fraction of her former success. On September 8, 1965, Dorothy Dandridge was found dead in her Hollywood home at the age of forty-two. Initially reported to be the result of an embolism, additional findings pointed to an overdose of an antidepressant. She reportedly had two dollars in her bank account at the time of her death.
Dorothy Dandridge broke racial barriers. She worked her way out of poverty and took her place among the stars at the Academy Awards. She held her own while acting with the most talented leading men of her day. Her beauty adorned the cover of the most renowned magazine of the era. But she carried not only the burdens of racism, but also the burdens of sexism. Like Marilyn Monroe and dozens of other leading women, she was used, abused and cast aside; her strength and talent no match for a system that was created to keep her out. We can be glad that much has changed, while at the same time acknowledging how much change still needs to occur. We remember women like Dorothy Dandridge, who help us appreciate what’s at stake in the on-going fight for equal rights.
To learn more about Dorothy Dandridge, we recommend African American Firsts: Famous Little-Known and Unsung Triumphs of Blacks in America. By Joan Potter (2002).