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Dorothy Dandridge

The too-short life and career of Dorothy Dandridge is a story of an exceptionally talented woman who had to struggle her whole life for that talent to be recognized and who ultimately succumbed to the sum total of the roadblocks of her life. Born in 1923, Dandridge and her sister Vivian were pushed onto the stage by their ambitious mother when Dorothy was only four, a song-and-dance act called “The Wonder Children.” She was still a child when the Depression forced the family to move to Los Angeles in search of more lucrative film work, and a child still when she landed her first role, a bit part in the Marx Brothers comedy A Day at the Races (1937).
Hollywood in the 30’s and 40’s was still very segregated, and with so few American black families with money enough to attend movies, few movies were made featuring black actors in anything but the most stereotypical roles. Hattie McDaniel’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar® for Gone With The Wind in 1939 may have given Dandridge hope that more roles would open up, but it was still almost four years between her debut and her follow-up, Four Shall Die (1940), which established her as a credible actress, even if for roles that did not often come by. She showed Hollywood that her singing talent wasn’t limited to her childhood act in movies like Atlantic City (1944), and she developed a nightclub act that headlined in the biggest cities in the country. All the while, she was still struggling with racism, supposedly one hotel at which she was appearing felt so strongly about keeping her from using their facilities that it drained the swimming pool.

Dandridge with Sidney Poitier in Porgy and Bess.

While married to film dancing sensation Harold Nicholas, Dandridge parlayed her reputation as an actress and singer into the lead role in Carmen Jones (1954). But despite her lauded vocal ability, her singing voice was dubbed by opera star Marilyn Horne. Her acting couldn’t be ignored, though, and she was nominated for Best Actress, the first time a black woman had been nominated for that award, an amazing milestone despite her loss to Grace Kelly. But even a prejudice-breaking Oscar® does not necessarily break prejudices – she didn’t work in Hollywood again until Island in the Sun”in 1957. Her only remaining noteworthy picture, was Porgy and Bess (1959), in which she played Bess, opposite Sidney Poitier’s Porgy.
Dandridge became a mother, though her daughter was born brain damaged and had to be institutionalized. Divorced from Nicholas, married to Jack Denison, Dandridge went into a steep decline that included alcoholism, bankruptcy, and eventually an addiction to sleeping pills. Her fatal 1965 overdose caused speculation as to whether her death was accidental or a suicide. Though she had never commanded a fortune from the studios (her fee for Carmen Jones was a paltry $18,000), at the time of her death her bank account contained less than three dollars.


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