Dorothy Jean Dandridge

Singer & Actress

“Have you ever caught sight of yourself by accident and see yourself from the outside? That's who you really are.”

Dorothy Jean Dandridge was an American actress and popular singer. She is the first African-American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for best actress.

Born November 9, 1922, in Cleveland, Ohio, Dorothy Jean Dandridge sang at Harlem's famed Cotton Club and Apollo Theatre.

Dorothy's mother, the actress Ruby Dandridge, urged her two young daughters into show business in the 1930s, when they performed as a song-and-dance team billed as ‘The Wonder Children’. Dorothy left high school in the late 1930s and formed the ‘Dandridge Sisters’ trio with her sister Vivian and Etta Jones. They performed with the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra and at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem, where Dorothy — who had a mixed racial heritage, early on confronted the segregation and racism of the entertainment industry.

Dorothy Jean Dandridge

As a teenager, Dorothy began to appear in small roles in a number of films, including the Marx Brothers‘ film A Day at the Races (1937) and Drums of the Congo (1942). In 1945, she married Harold Nicholas of the dancing Nicholas Brothers (with whom she performed in the 1941 Sonja Henie musical Sun Valley Serenade); during their turbulent six-year marriage, Dorothy virtually retired from performing. A daughter, Harolyn, was born with severe brain damage in 1943; as Dorothy was unable to raise her herself, she placed the girl in foster care.

After her divorce in 1951, Dorothy returned to the nightclub circuit, this time as a successful solo singer. After a stint at the Mocambo Club in Hollywood with Desi Arnaz's band and a sell-out 14–week engagement at La Vie en Rose, she became an international star, performing at glamorous venues in London, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, and New York. She won her first starring film role in 1953's Bright Road, playing an earnest and dedicated young schoolteacher opposite Harry Belafonte.

Her next role, as the eponymous lead in Carmen Jones (1954), a film adaptation of Bizet's opera Carmen that also co-starred Belafonte, catapulted her to the heights of stardom. With her sultry looks and flirtatious style, Dandridge became the first African-American to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Though many believed she deserved to win, Dorothy eventually lost the award to Grace Kelly (The Country Girl).

Still, after the phenomenal success of Carmen Jones, Dorothy seemed well on her way to becoming the first non-white actress to achieve the kind of superstardom that had accrued to contemporaries like Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner. In 1955, she was featured on the cover of Life magazine, and was treated like visiting royalty at that year's Cannes Film Festival.

In the years that followed her success with Carmen Jones, however, Dorothy had trouble finding film roles that suited her talents. Her only other great film was 1959's Porgy and Bess, in which she played Bess opposite Sidney Poitier. She turned down the supporting role of Tuptim in The King and I because she refused to play a slave. It was rumored that she would play Billie Holliday in a film version of Lady Sings the Blues directed by Orson Welles, but it never panned out.

Dorothy Jean Dandridge

In the racially disharmonious 1950s, Hollywood filmmakers could not seem to create a suitable role for the light-skinned Dandridge, and they soon reverted to subtly prejudiced visions of interracial romance. She appeared in several poorly received racially and sexually charged dramas, including Island in the Sun (1957), co-starring Belafonte and Joan Fontaine, Tamango (1959), which she played the mistress of the captain of a slave ship, and Malaga (1960).

While making Carmen Jones, Dorothy became involved in a heated, secretive affair with the film's director, Otto Preminger, who also directed Porgy and Bess. Their interracial romance, as well as Dorothy's relationships with other white lovers, was frowned upon, not in the least by other African-American members of the Hollywood filmmaking community. She married her second husband, Jack Denison, in 1959, and lost the majority of her savings when his restaurant failed in 1962. He left her soon after.

As her film career and marriage failed, Dorothy began drinking heavily and taking anti-depressants. The threat of bankruptcy and nagging problems with the IRS forced her to resume her nightclub career, but she found only a fraction of her former success. Relegated to second-rate lounges and stage productions, Dorothy's financial situation grew worse and worse.

By 1963, she could no longer afford to pay for her daughter's 24–hour medical care, and Harolyn was placed in a state institution. Dorothy soon suffered a nervous breakdown. On September 8, 1965, she was found dead in her Hollywood home, an apparent suicide from a drug overdose.

Her unique and tragic story became the subject of renewed interest in the late 1990s, beginning in 1997 with the release of a biography, Dorothy Dandridge, by Donald Bogle, and a two-week retrospective at New York City's Film Forum. In 1999, the actress Halle Berry won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Dandridge in an acclaimed HBO movie, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.

Quick Facts

Birth Date:
November 9, 1922

Death Date:
September 8, 1965

  • Dandridge was also known as a singer or vocalist where she performed at the Apollo Theater and at the Cotton Club.
  • Dandridge was a member of the Wonder Children during the onset of her career. Then she was in The Dandridge Sisters. She also appeared in various movies. However, her roles were often unaccredited.
  • Before Dandridge accepted Porgy and Bess offered by Samuel Goldwyn, her film career was declined. The movie gave her a prominent role in Hollywood. However, the African-American community was not happy since her role in the movie degraded the black people.
  • Due to her role in Porgy and Bess, Dandridge earned a nomination for a Golden Globe Award in 1959.
  • Dandridge was a famous and notable movie star. There is no need to wonder that you can find her name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
  • Dorothy Jean Dandridge
  • Dorothy Jean Dandridge
  • Dorothy Jean Dandridge


BIO: +
PHOTO: LipstickAlley + DoctorMacro + PhilippeHalsman + GettyImages + Vintag

Last Updated

July 2016

Original Published Date

October 2012

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