Dorothy Jean Dandridge (November 9, 1922 – September 8, 1965) was an American film and theatre actress, singer and dancer.
Dorothy Dandridge was the first African American woman nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award for her lead role in Carmen Jones. At the 27th Academy Awards held on March 30, 1955, Dandridge shared her Oscar nomination which such luminaries as Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Judy Garland, and Jane Wyman. Although Kelly won the award for her performance in The Country Girl, Dandridge became an overnight sensation.
Dandridge performed as a vocalist in venues such as the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater.
In 1959, she was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Porgy and Bess.
Ruby Dandridge, created a song and dance act for her two young daughters, Vivian and Dorothy, under the name The Wonder Children, that was managed by Geneva Williams.
The Wonder Children were renamed The Dandridge Sisters in 1934, and Dandridge and her sister were teamed with dance schoolmate Etta Jones. The Dandridge Sisters continued strong for several years, and were booked in several high-profile nightclubs, including the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater.
Dandridge’s first credited film role was in Four Shall Die (1940). She had small roles in Lady from Louisiana with John Wayne and Sundown (both 1941) with Gene Tierney. Dandridge appeared as part of a “Specialty Number” in the hit 1941 musical film, Sun Valley Serenade for 20th Century Fox. The film marked the first time she performed with the Nicholas Brothers.
In 1953, a nationwide publicity search arose as 20th Century Fox began the process of casting the all-black musical film adaptation of Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1943 Broadway musical Carmen Jones, conceptually Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen updated to a World War II era African American setting.
Director and writer Otto Preminger initially did not consider her for the role, feeling her sophisticated look was more suited for the smaller role of Cindy Lou. Dandridge, recalling her experiences of having to dress down to a demure school teacher for the screen tests of Bright Road, outrageously reinvented a look with the aid of Max Factor makeup artists, to obtain the appearance and character of the earthy title role, Carmen, and confronted Preminger in his executive office. With this meeting, Preminger gave her the role.
Despite Dandridge’s recognition as a singer, the studio wanted an operatic voice, so Dandridge’s voice was dubbed by operatic vocalist Marilyn Horne for the film.
On November 1, 1954, Dorothy Dandridge became the first black woman featured on the cover of Life.
On February 15, 1955, Dandridge signed a three-movie deal with 20th Century Fox starting at $75,000 a film. The head of the studio, Darryl F. Zanuck, had personally suggested the studio sign Dandridge to a contract. He purchased the film rights to The Blue Angel and intended to cast her as saloon singer Lola Lola in an all black remake of the original 1930 film.
In late 1958, Dandridge accepted producer Samuel Goldwyn’s offer to star in his forthcoming production of Porgy and Bess, which would become her first major Hollywood film in five years. Her acceptance of the role angered the African-American community, who felt the story’s negative stereotyping of blacks was degrading.
Dandridge married dancer and entertainer Harold Nicholas on September 6, 1942, and gave birth to her only child, Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas, on September 2, 1943. Harolyn was born brain-damaged, and the couple divorced in October 1951.
While filming Carmen Jones (1954), the director Otto Preminger began an affair with his film’s star, Dandridge. It lasted four years, during which period he advised her on career matters, demanding she accept only starring roles, advice Dandridge later regretted accepting. She ended the affair when she realized that Preminger had no plans to leave his wife to marry her.
Dandridge married Jack Denison on June 22, 1959; they divorced in 1962 amid financial setbacks and allegations of domestic violence. At this time, Dandridge discovered that the people who were handling her finances had swindled her out of $150,000 and that she was $139,000 in debt for back taxes. Forced to sell her Hollywood home and place her daughter in a state mental institution in Camarillo, California, Dandridge moved into a small apartment at 8495 Fountain Avenue in West Hollywood, California.
On September 8, 1965, Dandridge spoke by telephone with friend and former sister in law Geraldine “Geri” Branton. Dandridge was scheduled to fly to New York the next day to prepare for her nightclub engagement at Basin Street East. Branton told biographers that during the long conversation, Dandridge had veered from expressing hope for the future to singing Barbra Streisand’s People (1964 song) in its entirety to making this cryptic remark moments before hanging up on her: “Whatever happens, I know you will understand.” Several hours after her conversation with Branton ended, Dandridge was found dead and naked by her manager, Earl Mills.
Two months later, a Los Angeles pathology institute determined the cause to be an accidental overdose of Imipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant. Yet the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office came to a different conclusion: “Miss Dandridge died of a rare embolism blockage of the blood passages at the lungs and brain by tiny pieces of fat flaking off from bone marrow in a fractured right foot she sustained in a Hollywood gymnasium five days before she died.” She was 42 years old.