Actress, Singer. One of the most accomplished actresses of her time, she set a high on screen standard for the African-American female film stars who followed and continue to follow her. She rose to the top of her profession with her first starring role and became the first African-American woman to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Born in Cleveland, Ohio’s City Hospital, her mother was an aspiring actress who left her father with Dorothy’s older sister Vivian Dandridge five month’s before Dorothy’s birth. Later, the two sisters learned to sing and moved with their mother to Nashville, Tennessee, where their mother formed and wrote material for an act called “The Wonder Kids.” The girls toured the country, singing, dancing, and performing at social gatherings. In the early 1930s, the family settled in Los Angeles, California. With another girl, Etta Jones, they became the three Dandridge Sisters, and appeared briefly in several motion pictures, including the Marx Brothers movie “A Day at the Races” (1937). The girls later performed at the famed Cotton Club in New York City, New York, often on the same bill with Cab Calloway, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and W.C. Handy. Shortly after working in the film “Irene” (1940), the trio split up. Early in her solo career, Dandridge appeared in more than a dozen short musical films, notably as dream girl of the Mills Brothers singing group in “Paper Doll” (1942). She also played bit parts in feature movies, such as “Sun Valley Serenade” (1941), “Drums of the Congo” (1942), “Lucky Jordan” (1942), and “Hit Parade” of 1943 (1943). In 1942, she married the dancer Harold Nicholas from the Nicholas Brothers. The marriage later ended in divorce and the couple’s severely brain-damaged daughter was eventually put in a private institution. Dandridge had long aspired to be a film actress, and after her divorce devoted herself to fulfilling that dream. To support herself and to make contacts, she established herself as a nightclub singer, appearing at important clubs throughout the country. After appearing in a low-budget films, her major breakthrough came when she was cast opposite Harry Belafonte in “Bright Road” (1953). Soon afterward, Dandridge won the coveted title role in Otto Preminger’s “Carmen Jones” (1954), an all-black adaptation of George Bizet’s opera “Carmen.” Her performance in Carmen Jones won her an Academy Award nomination, the first for an African-American. She continued to work in nightclubs, but it was three years before she made another film. One of Dandridge’s most important later roles was in “Porgy and Bess” (1959). That same year, she won the Golden Globe Award for best actress in a musical film for her role in the film. Also in that year, Dandridge married the white nightclub owner Jack Denison, who is reported to have been abusive to Dandridge. In 1962, the couple divorced, and shortly thereafter Dandridge filed for bankruptcy. By 1965 her career was on the upswing again, but she also continued to drink heavily and would call various friends at night and talk for hours about everything that was going on in her life. During this time period, Dandridge was a very lonely woman and often sounded disoriented. She was given a prescription antidepresent drug which seemed to lift her spirits. She did nightclub work again but many critics noticed her performances did not contain the magic that they once held. Also in 1965, Dandridge sprained her ankle which resulted in a fracture in her foot. On the morning of September 8, 1965, she rescheduled an appointment she had for that morning to have a cast put on her foot for later that day. A friend of hers later went to Dandridge’s Los Angeles apartment but could not get an answer. He later returned around 2pm that afternoon and finally forced his way in the apartment where he found Dandridge dead lying on the bathroom floor in the nude with a blue scarf around her head. Her death was first attributed to a blood clot caused by the fracture in her foot but an autopsy revealed that she had died of an overdose of Tofranil, the antidepressant that she was taking. Whether the overdose was accidental or intentional remains a mystery to this day.
- November, 09, 1922
- September, 08, 1965
- Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale)