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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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