40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge

Trista - June 10, 2019

Dorothy Dandridge was a Hollywood trailblazer. A Black woman in the height of Hollywood’s Jim Crow era, Dandridge became the first Black woman nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award. She also starred in several films depicting interracial romances, one of which was even banned from airing in the US for years due to an interracial kiss. Despite finding a surprising amount of success given the racism she endured, Dandridge’s career and life were tragically cut short by a suspected accidental overdose at only 42 years of age.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
Dandridge on the set of La Fabuleuse Aventure de Marco Polo. Wikimedia.

40. She Came From a Show Family

Dorothy Dandridge was born on November 9, 1922, to Ruby Dandridge. Her mother, Ruby, was an aspiring actress whose greatest claims to fame were radio work on the programs Amos ‘n Andy and the Judy Casanova Show. She also appeared in one film, A Hole in the Head in 1959. Ruby’s father performed in minstrel shows for a living, so the performance arts ran in her blood for at least two generations.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
Dorothy Dandridge’s father, Cyril. Pinterest.

39. Her Father, A Baptist Minister, Left the Family

Unlike her aspiring actress mother, Dorothy’s father, Cyril Dandridge, was a very traditional man. He was a Baptist minister and cabinetmaker by trade. The couple separated while Ruby was pregnant with Dorothy, with Cyril leaving the family shortly before her birth. The financial strain of being a single parent-led Ruby to create a singing and dancing act with her children.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
Children outside a school. Wikimedia.

38. Dorothy Didn’t Get to Attend School

Ruby toured her children around what was known, at the time, as the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” a group of venues through the south, midwest, and northeast that were friendly to Black performers. To make ends meet, the singing and dancing group comprised of Dorothy and her sisters had to tour regularly. With no laws to demand otherwise, Dorothy attended no schooling as a young child.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A promotional image of the Dandridge Sisters. Copper Colored Gal.

37. She Outgrew the Family Act

Dorothy and her sisters’ group was initially called The Wonder Children, but their name morphed into The Dandridge Sisters once they grew older. In 1934, they debuted under that name with Etta Jones as an additional member. After six years together, Dorothy became increasingly interested and successful in acting and left the group to pursue a solo career.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A photograph of Hollywood High School. Seeing-Stars.

36. Dorothy Finally Received Schooling in Hollywood

At the height of the Great Depression, paying work on the Chitlin’ Circuit dried up, so Ruby moved her family to Hollywood. Despite still starting in bit parts on television and radio, Dorothy was finally able to attend school for the first time in her life regularly. At the time, there were no laws in place to make sure children received a minimum amount of schooling.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A still of Dandridge in Four Shall Die. Copper Colored Gal.

35. She Was Immediately Typecast

Dorothy portrayed a murderer in her first feature film starring role in Four Shall Die in 1940. At the time, Black actors were frequently cast as violent and criminal types, and very rarely the hero. Despite trying to avoid future violent and criminal roles, Dandridge was still typecast and had difficulty finding more exciting parts.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A movie poster for Carmen Jones. Wikimedia.

34. Dorothy Was Forced to Lip-Sync In Her Breakout Role

Despite having a beautiful singing voice thanks to her childhood work of performing in a song and dance group, Dandridge, unfortunately, had to lip-sync for her first musical film role. Carmen Jones’ director wanted a more operatic tone of voice than Dandridge could provide, and cast an actual opera singer to sing her parts.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A still of Dandridge in Bright Road. Turner Classic Movies.

33. Fighting Her Typecasting Led To Another Typecast

In an attempt to avoid the violent criminal typecasting that plagued so many Black actors in the era, Dandridge made a strong effort to cultivate a polite and clean-cut persona that would allow her to pursue more diverse roles. However, this backfired and ultimately led her to be typecast as a docile Black figure. She had to fight against this conception to land her role in the award-winning Carmen Jones.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
Dandridge’s Carmen Jones cover of Life magazine. Pinterest.

32. She Became The First Black Woman Featured On the Cover of Life Magazine

Carmen Jones was a critical and financial success, making back over ten times its budget at the box office – something unheard of for Black-led films at the time. The success of the film led to Dandridge being featured on the cover of Time Magazine in 1954. She became the first Black woman to achieve this accomplishment.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
An Academy Award trophy. Wikimedia.

31. Dorothy Was the First Black Woman Nominated for An Oscar

Dandridge was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Carmen Jones. She was the first Black woman ever to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Unfortunately, she lost to Grace Kelly for her work in The Country Girl.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A photograph of Grace Kelly from 1954. Virgil Apger / John Kobal Foundation / Getty Images.

30. She Shared Her Nomination Lineup With Legends

While she may have lost her 1955 Best Actress nomination, just being nominated in that year put her amongst the best of Hollywood royalty. The Country Girl, for which Grace Kelly won the award, was widely considered to feature one of her best performances. Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland were also nominated for Best Actress in 1955, making it a genuinely star-studded category.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
Dorothy Dandridge at the Oscars. Soul Pitt Media.

29. It Took 50 Years After Dandridge’s Nomination For A Black Woman to Win Best Actress

While Dorothy Dandridge broke barriers by being nominated in 1955, it was until the 2002 Academy Awards that a Black woman finally took home the Oscar. Almost 50 years after Dandridge’s nomination, Hally Berry won the Best Actress award for her work in the film Monster’s Ball.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
Halle Berry was the first black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress. Pinterest.

28. Halle Berry Acknowledged Dandridge In Her Acceptance Speech

Halle Berry knew full well that she was making history by winning her award in 2002. In her acceptance speech, she talked about the trail-blazing Black women in Hollywood who came before her and made her win possible. One of the people she mentioned was Dorothy Dandridge, in addition to Black stars Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
The skyline of Cleveland, Ohio. CNN.

27. It’s a Small World

Proving that the world can indeed be a small place, Halle Berry was even born in the same Cleveland, Ohio hospital as Dorothy Dandridge herself. Both women began their lives in Ohio only to move to larger cities to launch their careers. Dandridge landed in Hollywood while Barry moved to New York City.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A 1955 issue of the tabloid Confidential. Wikimedia.

26. Tabloids Targeted Dorothy

As nasty as tabloids can be today, they were far more vicious in the early and mid-20th century. The tabloid Confidential ran an exposé on Dandridge and other stars, claiming they were having pre- and extra-marital sex with famous Hollywood men at hotels around Los Angeles. Thankfully, there were libel laws at the time; Dandridge and actress Maureen O’Hara successfully sued for damages.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
An example of a Jim Crow-era segregation sign. African American Civil Rights Movement.

25. Jim Crow Actually Aided Her Defense

Jim Crow laws, which outlined and enforced numerous forms of racial segregation in the US, are a terrible stain on our country’s history. However, in one specific case involving Dorothy Dandridge, they really aided a Black person’s defense. Dandridge was able to point to the segregation rules in force at the hotels named in the Confidential exposé as proof that she would not possibly have been admitted to the hotels for trysts.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A still of Dandridge in Island In the Sun. People of Color In Classic Film.

24. She Starred In An Interracial Romance

In a sort of side-move towards progress, Dandridge starred in an interracial romance role in Island In the Sun, in which an Indian woman falls for a white man. While the progressive move towards depicting interracial relationships was positive for the time, casting a Black woman as a South Asian character is far from ideal. The movie had to tread lightly around the connection thanks to the era’s Motion Picture Production Code, which outright banned interracial relationships.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A still of Dandridge in Tamango. Indie Wire.

23. Dorothy Fought For Her Own Modesty

In 1958’s Tamango, a film about a slave rebellion aboard a slave ship, Dandridge was supposed to appear entirely in a tattered two-piece bathing suit and even shoot one scene while swimming naked. Dandridge refused to allow this invasion of her own modesty and had the wardrobe tailored to her personal desires and refused to complete the nude scene.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A movie poster for Tamango. Department of Afro American Research, Arts, & Culture.

22. The US Banned One of Her Films For Showing An Interracial Kiss

Tamango became famous in the US for being a banned film. The Motion Picture Production Code of the era explicitly banned interracial romances from being shown. An Italian movie, Tamango depicted a kiss between Dandridge and white actor Curd Jürgens. The film was not shown in the US until 1962, after the dissolution of the Hays Code in American filmmaking.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A still of Dandridge in Malaga. Copper Colored Gal.

21. False Memories of Other Interracial Kisses Lingered

In a case of shared false memory, sometimes called a Mandela Effect, many moviegoers of the 1950s thought that Dandridge actually shared her first interracial kiss in 1959 in the film Malaga. While white actor Trevor Howard did have an enormous amount of onscreen romantic chemistry with Dandridge, the film did not, at any point, show a kiss between its two stars.

 

20. Dorothy Was Active In the NAACP

Dandridge encountered constant hardships as a Black actress, from typecasting to segregation, the Hays Code’s limitations, and more. Inspired by those hardships, she was an active member of the National Association for the Advance of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League.

Image 23
A still from A Day At the Races. Alama Drafthouse Cinema.

19. She Performed in a Marx Brothers Film

While it was only a bit part, Dandridge could still lay a claim to being in a film of the great Marx Brothers. She appeared, briefly, in the 1937 film A Day at the Races, which was a huge commercial hit.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
Dandridge and first husband Harold Nicholas. Adoringly Dorothy Dandridge.

18. Dorothy Briefly Gave Up Acting for a Faithless Husband

In 1942, Dandridge embarked upon a brief retirement from acting. She intended to settle down with her husband, Harold Nicholas, and start a family. However, Nicholas rewarded her sacrifice and care by cheating on her with numerous other women. She returned to acting soon after this discovery. Nicholas later abandoned both Dandridge and their daughter.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
Dorothy Dandridge in the trailer for The Decks Ran Red in 1958. Wikimedia.

17. She Was Fully Aware of the Discrimination She Faced

As a Black woman in the United States in the 20th century, Dandridge was fully aware of the vast array of powers lined up against her success. She faced racist directors and co-stars, segregated entertainment venues, and a production code that banned interracial relationships. Dandridge once famously said that she knew if she were Betty Grable she’d have been able to capture the world.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A photograph of Dorothy Dandridge. KnownPeople.net.

16. She Refused All Slave Roles

In 1956, Dandridge was offered another Asian role, this time as the Burmese slave girl Tuptim in The King and I. Dandridge refused the character, and maintained a strict no-slave role policy throughout much of her career. She broke that rule for 1958’s Tamango, but the film portrayed a slave uprising so successful that France banned it from playing in their African colonies.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A photograph of Otto Preminger. Roger Ebert.

15. She Had An Affair With Her Director

The breakout moment of Dandridge’s career was convincing director Otto Preminger to cast her in Carmen Jones against her typecast image of a docile, polite woman. The edgier role found her nominated for her first, and only, Oscar. However, the position came with another benefit: a secret romance with the director that lasted for over four years.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
Otto Preminger on set. Senses of Cinema.

14. Her Director Lover Gave Her Shoddy Career Advice

During their four-year love affair, Preminger frequently gave Dandridge advice on how to advance her career. Perhaps the Austro-Hungarian director’s opinion would have benefitted a white woman, but it did little for the challenging career predicaments of a Black actress in Jim Crow-era Hollywood. He encouraged her only to take leading roles, but those were in desperately short supply for Black actresses, and ultimately that advice hurt Dandridge’s career.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A still of Dorothy Dandridge. YouTube.

13. Her Studio Forced Her to Have an Abortion

Hollywood studios had immense control over the lives of their stars in the first half of the 20th century. Studios “owned” celebs and would lend them out to other studios like stud horses. They had the power to force child stars, like Judy Garland, to take drugs to work longer. They hid movie stars’ homosexuality in an era where the public wouldn’t tolerate such knowledge. Moreover, in 1955, they forced Dorothy Dandridge to undergo an abortion.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A still of Dandridge in Cain’s Hundred. Wikimedia.

12. The Abortion Ended Her Relationship

The 1955 forced abortion of Otto Preminger’s child ended the relationship between Preminger and Dandridge. After the abortion, Dandridge realized that Preminger had no plans to leave his current wife and children, and she wanted a more stable, long-term relationship. The stress of the abortion and the terrible career advice were the nails in the coffin of their doomed affair.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A photograph of Dorothy Dandridge. CBS News.

11. Her Financial Manager Robbed Her

As is all too common with stars, Dandridge was taken advantage of by shady financial managers. Not only did they not pay her taxes correctly, leading to a tax bill of over $139,000 in back taxes, they also stole over $150,000 from her directly. These misdeeds left her in serious financial hardship.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
The logo of the Internal Revenue Service. Wikimedia.

10. Dorothy Ran Afoul of the IRS

Thanks to the duplicitous and fraudulent management of her financial managers, Dandridge ended up owing back taxes of over $139,000 to the IRS. In a tale that has become all too common for Black actors and entertainers, in particular, the IRS did not take kindly to Dandridge’s late payment.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
Dorothy Dandridge with her daughter, Harolyn. Showbiz Post.

9. Her Only Child, A Daughter, Was Born With Severe Brain Damage

Early on in Dandridge’s career, when she took a brief hiatus to start a family with ex-husband Harold Nicholas, Dandridge gave birth to a daughter, Harolyn. She was born in 1943 with severe and permanent brain damage that required daily care. Dandridge found herself with a permanently disabled daughter and a husband who cheated on her before abandoning them both.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A photograph of Dorothy Dandridge and her daughter. Copper Colored Gal.

8. Her Husband Left Her and Their Disabled Daughter

In addition to cheating on her with numerous women during their marriage, Harold Nicholas left Dandridge and their permanently disabled daughter high and dry when she was less than five years old. A single mother with growing financial hardship due to financial mismanagement on the part of her financial advisors, Dandridge was quickly finding herself in a dire situation.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
An engraving of the East Tennessee Asylum for the Insane. Canton Asylum.

7. Dorothy Was Forced To Commit Her Daughter to an Asylum

With her mounting financial woes, it was only a matter of time before Dandridge was no longer able to afford the incredibly expensive personal in-home care for her permanently disabled daughter. With no way to care for her daughter herself while still earning an income, Dandridge was forced to make the incredibly difficult decision to admit her daughter to a state-run asylum.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
Dorothy Dandridge singing on stage. Gorgo Laughs.

6. She Lost Her Home

A bitter divorce and the gross ineptitude and theft of her financial managers left Dandridge in dire financial ruin. She was forced to sell her Hollywood home and put her daughter into a public-run mental asylum. She went from being an Academy Award-nominated actress to having to rent a tiny, dingy apartment.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
Jack Denison and Dorothy Dandridge. Copper Colored Gal.

5. Her Second Husband Wooed Her With Flowers Every Night

Dandridge met her second husband shortly after separating from married director Otto Preminger. Jack Denison was a Las Vegas restaurant owner who showed his affection for Dandridge by having fresh flowers sent to her dressing room every single night. Even in 1959, when their romance began, this must have been a costly way to show interest.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
Dorothy Dandridge and Jack Denison. Pinterest.

4. Her Second Husband Was, At the Least, Verbally Abusive

Dandridge’s second marriage lasted less than three years. Married in 1952, they were engaged in a bitter divorce with allegations of domestic violence by 1962. Reports indicated that Denison was, at the very least, verbally abusive to Dandridge. It is entirely possible, based on her divorce accusations, that he was physically abusive as well.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A photograph of Dorothy Dandridge. IMDB.

3. Dorothy Was Constantly In and Out of Apartments

With her continuing financial woes, worsened by her acrimonious divorce from second husband Jack Denison, Dandridge rarely stayed in any one place for long. Friends reported that she was always moving in and out of apartments. She would often become convinced that landlords or neighbors were stealing from her, prompting yet another move.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A newspaper headline of Dandridge’s death. Pinterest.

2. She Was Found Dead At Only 42

Only hours after phone calls to friends in which she stated, ominously, “Whatever happens, I know you will understand,” Dorothy Dandridge was found dead in her apartment at age 42. Her date of death was September 8th, 1965. Dandridge was supposed to fly out to New York later that night for some club appearances.

40 Facts About The Tragic Life of Dorothy Dandridge
A photograph of Dorothy Dandridge. Fine Art America.

1. Controversy Remains Over the Cause of Her Death

There still is debate among forensic scientists as to the exact cause of Dandridge’s death. One pathology institute insists that she died of a likely accidental overdose of the antidepressant imipramine. However, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office argues that she died of a fat embolism after an injury to her right foot earlier that week. Her body was cremated shortly after her death, so we will never know precisely what snuffed out her shining light.

 

Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Black Past – Dorothy Dandridge (1922-1964)

TCM – Introducing Dorothy Dandridge

The Atlanta Journal Constitution – Chitlin’ Circuit: Black Performers’ Soulful Showcase During Segregation

Vanity Fair – Tragedy and Triumph: The Dorothy Dandridge Story

Today – Halle Berry Says Her Historic Oscar Win Is One Of Her ‘Biggest Heartbreaks’

The Washington Post – The Fragile Flame Of Dorothy Dandridge

Chicago Tribune – Dorothy Dandridge’s Story A Hollywood Tragedy

Medium – Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Dorothy Dandridge vs. The World

MSN – Fascinating Facts About The Life Of Dorothy Dandridge

History Channel – Golden Age Hollywood Had a Dirty Little Secret: Drugs

Cheat sheet – Judy Garland Was Given Amphetamine-Based Diet Pills From Her Studio

Cinema Blend – Dorothy Dandridge: Fascinating Facts About The Singer And Actor

Biography Tribune – Who Is Dorothy Dandridge’s Daughter Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas?

Factinate – Tragic Facts About Dorothy Dandridge, Hollywood’s Fallen Star

Mental Floss – Grave Sightings: Dorothy Dandridge

Face To Face Africa – Died With $2 In Her Account, Dorothy Dandridge Was First Black Actress To Earn Oscar Nomination

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