Star of the Month: Dorothy Dandridge
September 4, 2020 | by Shannon
Dorothy Dandridge was a trailblazer.
Her stunning beauty, stylized nightclub singing performances, and dramatic abilities demanded attention. And in 1954, with her electric and timeless performance in Carmen Jones, Dorothy became the first African American female movie star. Her portrayal of the film’s title character would also earn her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, making Dorothy the first African American to achieve the honor.
The Right Person
Despite these accomplishments, Dorothy Dandridge would still find her opportunities as a beautiful African American actress in Hollywood limited. Dorothy, aware of where these limitations stemmed from, would once lament to a friend that if only she looked like Betty Grable, she could capture the world.
Harry Belafonte would say of his friend Dorothy that
“She was the right person in the right place at the wrong time.”
The truth behind Belafonte’s words is devastating: Dorothy’s beauty and talent deserved so much more than the handful of starring film roles she was offered.
But I think Dorothy Dandridge appreciated that her accomplishments in Hollywood, her role in redefining how African Americans were portrayed on screen, were bigger than herself. Dorothy would say in 1956 that she intended
“To endeavor in my own small way to widen horizons for others of my race, to try sincerely to be a credit to my people at all times.”
In these noble goals, Dorothy unquestionably succeeded. And this month I am beyond thrilled to highlight the beautiful, and too often tragic, life of this inspiring woman.
Here are a few things about Dorothy Dandridge you didn’t know:
She Had a Rough Childhood
Dorothy Dandridge was born November 9, 1922 in Cleveland, OH. Her mother Ruby was five-months pregnant with Dorothy when she left her husband Cyril Dandridge, taking Dorothy’s older sister, one-year-old Vivian, with her. It seems Cyril Dandridge wasn’t a bad husband, just a little too dull for the adventuresome Ruby who, even at five-months pregnant, found leaving her husband preferable to the stagnant life Cyril offered her living in his mother’s home…
Dorothy would grow up without a father, and she’d readily admit that the feelings of abandonment his absence brought would greatly shape the rest of her life. So too, would her mother’s choice of partner after Cyril.
Ruby Dandridge was indeed a woman ahead of her times: after leaving Cyril in 1922—not something many women did in the 1920s—Ruby began a romance with Geneva Williams, a woman who, like Ruby, also left an unsatisfying marriage behind. Geneva would move into the Dandridge home, and effectively raise Dorothy and Vivian while Ruby became the family breadwinner.
Tragically, Geneva Williams was often abusive to the two young girls in her care, mentally, physically, and with Dorothy, even sexually. The abuse would continue through Dorothy’s teen years. In her autobiography, [aff. link], Dorothy would call Geneva a “proxy parent,” and say that
“This substitute father—that is what it turned out to be—was a woman for whom I developed a permanent fear and hate. Somehow much that I am and much that I am not I attribute to the near-sinister creature who walked into our house to help my mother, and stayed for the first half of my lifetime.”
Through it all, it seemed as though Dorothy and Vivian could only depend on each other. With Ruby either oblivious, or turning a blind eye to Geneva’s abuse, the Dandridge sisters became extremely close. A childhood friend would later reflect that Dorothy and Vivian literally “had no one else to love but one another.”
She Was A Born Entertainer
Young Dorothy, or Dottie, as her family and friends would call her, was a born entertainer. So good in fact, that by about age three, Dottie could memorize and perform her mother’s Paul Laurence Dunbar poetry readings, which Ruby recited at local churches. Ruby Dandridge, with acting aspirations of her own, excitedly noted her daughter’s natural abilities and charisma. She desired for her two girls a future brighter than her own, and believed show business was the answer. In her autobiography [aff. link], Dorothy would recall Ruby telling her girls
“I don’t want you to go into service. You [are] not going to be a scullery maid. We’re going to fix it so you become something else than that.”
Is there anything more powerful than a mother’s sweet wish for a better life for her children?
And so young Dorothy and Vivian began their rigorous music and dance training. The irony would be that Geneva Williams, the same woman who abused the girls year after year, was also the teacher largely responsible for cultivating Dottie’s and Vivi’s natural talents. Geneva, her abuser, would also set the foundation for Dorothy’s successful entertainment career.
Young Dottie and Vivi began performing locally in Cleveland, and, after Geneva worked out a deal with Roger Williams University in Nashville, TN, the girls soon began touring churches across the south as “The Wonder Children.” Vivian said the name of their new act stemmed from the acrobatic stunts the sisters did in their performances. The Wonder Children became quite popular.
These years on the road would instill in Dorothy the great drive and discipline she’s later be known for during her career as a nightclub singer and actress. But, as Dorothy would say, this “abnormally early baptism in show business” also deprived her of a childhood, and would mark some of Dorothy’s first experiences with Jim Crow laws and segregation: separate stores, drinking fountains, restaurants, and boarding houses were all tragically part of young Dottie’s and Vivi’s tours of the south.
The Wonder Children act matured as Dottie and Vivi approached their teen years, and soon they teamed up with good friend Etta James to form a new trio, “The Dandridge Sisters.” After beating 25 white contestants on a Los Angeles radio program contest in 1934, up until the time Dorothy decided to go solo at age eighteen, the Dandridge Sisters trio gained attention for their beauty, dancing, and musical talents.
The girls performed in such prestigious venues as the Cotton Club, appeared as musical numbers in a few films, and even toured Europe. As other African American performers of the time, such as The Nicholas Brothers, would experience and note, though not spared the prejudices of the era, their immense talent gave the Dandridge Sisters entrée into worlds that were otherwise largely closed to African Americans at the time.
She Could Sing
This may sound a little redundant, as I’ve just told you about her early training and career, but Dorothy Dandridge could sing. Many Classic Hollywood fans don’t realize just what a gorgeous voice Dorothy had. There are even completely false rumors that Dorothy couldn’t sing at all!
Perhaps this bogus rumor stems from the fact that Dorothy’s voice was dubbed for the operatic singing style used in two of of her films, Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959). I’m sure that Dorothy’s distractingly drop dead gorgeous appearance also contributed to the rumor–how could someone that gorgeous also be so talented? But the fact of the matter is that Dorothy Dandridge could sing, and she based a successful career as a nightclub performer around her beautiful voice. As the great jazz musician and arranger Phil Moore would say of Dorothy’s talent,
“Everybody said she was beautiful. But she couldn’t sing. I wondered why [they said] she couldn’t sing because I’d known her as a child and maybe from thirteen…she could sing her butt off. She could just SING.”
When Dorothy became an international sensation with her nightclub act in the early 1950s, it was Phil Moore who tailored Dorothy’s performances around her beautiful voice and unique talents: no one, not even the great Lena Horne, possessed Dorothy’s unique ability to completely capture her audience with her physical beauty—shown to perfection in stylish gowns, her warm singing voice, elegant movements—Dorothy would become particularly known for the grace and emphasis she’d incorporate into her performances with her expressive hands, and the great vulnerability Dorothy was somehow able to convey to her audiences.
As far as I know, there are no video recordings of Dorothy’s actual nightclub act. But this (unfortunately unsynchronized) clip from Remains to Be Seen (1953), a film in which Dorothy had a musical number segment as a nightclub performer, most certainly gives us a taste of what it must have been like to watch and hear Dottie perform live. (Note the quick glimpse we get of June Allyson, one of the stars of the film, at the end of this clip!)
Dorothy never enjoyed singing in “the saloons,” as she’d call the nightclubs she performed at before, during, and after her film career: no matter how great a performance went, Dorothy could never shake the nerves, anxieties, and insecurities that plagued her before and after every performance. But if a Hollywood career as dramatic film actress hadn’t been her ultimate goal, there’s no doubt Dorothy Dandridge would still be remembered today for her stunning act and unique singing on the nightclub circuit.
She Married a Nicholas Brother
Have you heard of the Nicholas Brothers?
I need to take a quick tangent to share just a little bit about this amazing duo.
Brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas made a name for themselves during the Harlem Renaissance as the Nicholas Brothers, a dance team known for their handsome, classy appearance, machine gun tap dancing, and acrobatic darings. Watching this pair of talented brothers dance, it’s almost impossible to believe they never had any formal training. They’re that good.
Fred Astaire would call the brothers’ performance in the finale of 1943’s Stormy Weather the greatest dance routine he’d ever seen on film. Signature Nicholas Brothers moves, such as high jumps that landed in the splits, from which the brothers would then seemingly defy gravity to jump back up from again and again, have led such modern tap dancing greats as Gregory Hines to comment that if a dancer were to try to emulate the moves of Fayard and Harold in a film today, we’d need to use CGI!
One of my favorite dance numbers of the Nicholas Brothers from Down Argentine Way (1940). Take a minute to watch! Can you see how modern break dancing takes inspiration from these two??
The Nicholas Brothers are the fathers of flash dancing, their moves precursors to modern break dancing. When watching Fayard and Harold on the dance floor, you can even see where Michael Jackson must have taken inspiration for his impossibly smooth “moon walk.”
Can you tell I’m a fan of this miraculous pair? As a young dancer, I found myself inspired by the amazing routines of the Nicholas Brothers, and I still get the chills when I watch this talented duo dance.
By the time the Dandridge Sisters and the Nicholas Brothers met while appearing at the Cotton Club in 1938, the Nicholas Brothers were dancing gods, recognized and lauded for their unearthly talent.
Huge stars that the Nicholas Brothers were, it’s a testament to Dorothy Dandridge’s great beauty and sweetness that Harold, at the prime of his career with women literally falling at his feet, chose to pursue the relatively unknown Dottie.
The virginal Dorothy would marry Harold Nicholas at age nineteen on September 6, 1942. For the duration of the marriage, Dorothy would put burgeoning her career on hold.
It would prove an difficult union, and Dorothy would suspect that Harold began cheating on her just days after the wedding. As Dorothy would share in her autobiography [aff. link],
“I liked marriage, home life, cooking. My mother had taught me to be a good cook, and I tried holding his [Harold’s] interest with good meals. That didn’t keep him from philandering. To complicate it, he was in many ways very good to me. He was a good provider…I didn’t want for any comforts…What do you do with a man who is good to you materially, kind, charming—and kind and charming at the same time to other women? I liked him yet I hated him for what he was doing.”
Friends of Dottie’s would say that she never again loved any man the way she loved Harold. And despite the heartaches, Dorothy herself would call her early years with Harold and their young family the happiest of her life.
She Was A Good Mom
At twenty years old, young Dorothy Dandridge become a mother with the birth of her daughter, Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas, on September 2, 1943.
Dottie was an amazing mom, though nothing about motherhood, from her earliest labor pains, would be easy.
A Difficult Delivery
When Dorothy began to feel the baby was coming, husband Harold was so convinced she was wrong, that rather than drive Dottie to the hospital, he dropped her off at older brother Fayard’s house. Then Harold went to play golf.
For the whole day.
(Sounds a little bit like Esther Williams’ experience during her first pregnancy, doesn’t it?)
Well, Harold was wrong: the baby was, in fact, on her way.
Lucky for Dorothy, Fayard’s wife Geri was a remarkable woman, one of Dorothy’s few friends who would remain a rock for her through the ups and downs of life before, during, and after stardom. Despite the fact that Harold had taken their only car to the golf course and remained unreachable all day, Geri managed to get Dorothy through her labor and to the hospital just in time.
Dorothy’s desire to have Harold there for the birth was so great, she even tried holding back the delivery, hoping that Harold would arrive in time.
But he never came.
Eventually, forceps had to be used to pry baby Harolyn out.
Dorothy would forever blame herself and the difficult delivery for Harolyn’s ensuing brain damage. As Dorothy would later write in her autobiography [aff. link],
“Was it poor obstetrics, a basically difficult birth, or neglect from any source? No one can know. Nor can I be certain that there was a direct relationship between a delayed delivery and the kind of child that matured—but in my deepest heart I think there was some connection…Rightly or wrongly, I date much of what was to happen to me thereafter—in my personal life and in my career—for the incident of the delayed delivery. Whatever happened, I blame only myself.”
A Mother's Love
Initially, Harolyn, or Lynn as she’d be called, showed no signs of brain damage or delayed development. But when Lynn was still not talking by the age of two, Dorothy’s motherly intuition told her something was wrong. She’d spend the next three years in and out of doctor’s offices, taking Lynn for various tests before coming home to implement new treatment regiments. Dorothy desperately hoped that through her own time, love, and care, Lynn’s disabilities could be overcome. Absentee husband Harold would say decades later that
“It was a heavy load I left on her [Dorothy]. Cause for her to be there alone to do all this, that was a heavy toll.”
Eventually, doctors would definitively inform Dorothy that Lynn required special 24-hour care that Dorothy alone could not provide. They informed Dorothy she’d need to give Lynn up, that she should forget about her daughter, and try to have another child.
Fo a young, dedicated mother like Dorothy to hear such news was indescribably devastating. Dorothy would do her research, and find a woman she trusted who specialized in the care Lynn required:
“So I moved all the little mother and daughter pinafores out and let my daughter go to this wonderful woman.”
For the next thirteen years, Dorothy would make weekly payments to Lynn’s caregiver, Helen Calhoun.
But Dorothy couldn’t completely follow the advice of Lynn’s doctors. As Dorothy would write in her autobiography,
“Inside I never gave her up. It was myself that I began giving up.”
Providing for her little girl would be Dorothy’s main motivator for re-staring her career. She’d get no help from Harold for Lynn’s weekly care payments, and the two would divorce in November of 1951.
Throughout the highs and lows of her stardom, romances, and friendships, Dorothy’s love for her daughter would remain a constant. Lynn would be simultaneously the greatest hurt and greatest love of her life.
She Loved to Cook
Dorothy Dandridge was one of the most glamorous women of her era, yet this bombshell was also known for the spotless homes she owned and the delicious meals she cooked.
As a girl, Dorothy learned how to cook soul food from her mother Ruby. Dorothy’s love for these flavors of her youth never left her.
During her years in the nightclubs, after a long night of performing, Dorothy loved nothing better than
“…to stop being the elegant lady up on the platform singing…When I get into my own kitchen, I can find corn bread and hush puppies and rice, and it helps me to get my footing again.”
Dottie’s other favorite soul foods she enjoyed preparing included collard greens and chitlins. She was also known to experiment with French recipes. In fact, as a Hollywood star, Dorothy’s parties would be known for her elegant and unique way of serving both her soul food and European cuisine favorites.
She Was Friends with Marilyn
After turning over the care of her beloved Lynn to Helen Calhoun, and separating form Harold Nicholas, Dorothy actively re-started her singing career. She also began devoting more time to her first love, acting. Dorothy would take classes at the renown Actor’s Lab in Hollywood, a west coast acting studio that taught the techniques of Lee Strasberg and New York’s Group Theatre.
Dorothy chose the Actor’s Lab for her training partly because of its respected technique, but mostly because at the time, the Lab was one of the few studios to accept students of all races. At the Actor’s Lab, Dorothy enjoyed participating in completely integrated classes. And one of the friends she made during her years at the Lab was none other than the young Marilyn Monroe.
Dottie and Marilyn weren’t just classroom buddies either: often, Marilyn would come over to Dorothy’s place to hang out. These two future mega stars would share their acting dreams and aspirations with each other, even offering a shoulder to cry on when one or the other experienced a heartbreaking romance.
I love this anecdote Dorothy’s good friend and former sister-in-law Geri Nicholas Branton shared about Dottie and Marilyn:
“Oh, they were friends alright. The spent all day at the Lab. They had exercise class there. And sometimes Marilyn forgot to bring her leotards. And Dottie would lend her hers. Marilyn wasn’t as neat as Dottie. Dottie was a perfectionist, and if somebody used something like that, she was through with it.”
I wonder how much one of those long-lost leotards, worn by two of the world’s most beautiful and glamorous women EVER, would go for today??????
She Died Young, Tragically, and Mysteriously
I’ll cover Dorothy’s untimely death more at the end of the month, but her passing at the age of forty-two in September 1965 remains a bit of a mystery.
Was Dorothy’s death a suicide, as her friend Geri Nicholas Branton believed, brought on by a purposeful overdose of the prescription pills Dorothy had become so dependent on in her last years as she grappled with bankruptcy, and the end of her abusive second marriage?
Or, as a Los Angeles pathology institute would conclude, was Dorothy’s death an accidental overdose?
Or was the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office correct in their assessment that Dorothy’s death was the result of an embolism in her right foot, brought on by a sprain she suffered just days before her body was found?
Opinions on the circumstances and motivations surrounding her death remain mixed, but there’s no question that Dorothy Dandridge left this earth much too soon.
She Was the First African American Female Movie Star
Though there were many trailblazing African American actresses and singers who came before her—such as Fredi Washington and Lena Horne—who undoubtedly paved the way for Dorothy’s unique film opportunities, Dorothy Dandridge was the first African American female movie star.
With 1954’s Carmen Jones, Dorothy became a bonafide, indisputable star. Audiences of all races couldn’t ignore Dorothy’s beauty and appeal in her electrifying portrayal of the film’s title character. And her talent demanded respect—Dorothy’s skill as an actress brought Carmen Jones to life. She would deservedly earn a Best Actress nomination for her work, making Dorothy Dandridge the first African American Actress so honored.
Dorothy would still find countless film opportunities closed to her on the basis of race: she’d still be offered slave roles, she’d still be asked to portray various “exotic” ethnicities, and she’d still find her African American screen characters forbidden from any interracial kissing on film—with one exception. But there’s no denying that Dorothy Dandridge was a star. And she’d be a star who greatly contributed to changing and broadening the opportunities available to future African American Actresses. Halle Berry’s dedicating her 2002 Best Actress win to Dorothy, among others, was indeed a well-deserved homage to the actress who so challenged the status quo of African American women on film.
Celebrate Dorothy With Me!
And that wraps up my introduction to our lovely September Star of the Month, Dorothy Dandridge!
Don’t forget to catch Dorothy’s films, playing on Turner Classic Movies this month.
And be sure to join me next week as I review one of Dorothy’s early film roles that paired her on screen with Harry Belafonte for the first time, 1953’s Bright Road.