September 25, 2020 | by Shannon
Dorothy Dandridge Tragically Dies at Age 42, And Endures More in Her Last Years 6 Years of Life Than Anyone Ever Should, But the Amazing Strides She Made with Her Career Onscreen Are Still Felt and Appreciated Today.
Click here to listen to my podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood. Episode 28 is all about Tamango (1958) and Dorothy’s Last Years.
1958’s Tamango would be be one of Dorothy Dandridge’s last films. Controversial for its time because of the interracial romance and onscreen kiss between Dorothy and co-star Curd Jurgens, the film would have a delayed and very limited release in the United States. Though Dorothy would deliver yet another beautiful performance, proving once again that she was an actress of considerable range, Tamango was in many ways indicative of her descent from the great stardom and acclaim she’d garnered with Carmen Jones (1954) and her Oscar nomination.
Only six years after the release of Tamango in the US, Dorothy Dandridge would be found dead in her apartment. She was only 42 years old.
Dottie's Tragic Last Years
Dottie’s last years would unfortunately be full of tragedy: an abusive marriage to a husband who used Dorothy for her fame and money, a career decline that her several comeback attempts couldn’t reverse, the disappearance of Dorothy’s sister Vivian, bankruptcy, pill and alcohol addiction, and the confinement of her daughter Lynn to a state institution, would overwhelm this woman who had always been a survivor. The convergence of all these tragedies would lead Dorothy to feel, in her own words, “very, very tired.”
If you missed Tamango (1958) on Turner Classic Movies, you can purchase this avant-garde film here on Amazon here [aff. link].
Let’s get to the plot.
Set in 1820, after France abolished slavery at home and in its colonies, Tamango begins off the coast of New Guinea. Renegade Captain Reiker (Curd Jurgens) has just purchased a large number of slaves from a local chief.
The slaves board Reiker’s ship for the long voyage to Cuba, where Reiker plans to sell them. But it quickly becomes apparent that it won’t be an easy voyage. This is a spirited group, many of whom refuse to accept their new status as slaves. And one youth in particular, who Reiker knows will sell for a very good price in Cuba, due to his handsome face, health, and strength, is the clear leader of the descenters.
His name is Tamango.
A Fighting Spirit
Tamango (Alex Cressan) was a warrior before he was captured and sold to Reiker. And his fighting spirit will stay with him throughout the voyage, despite the warnings of Aiche (Dorothy Dandridge), Reiker’s slave and mistress. Aiche tells Tamango at the end of his first punishment for attempting to start a revolt that
“A slave can never fight back, and the sooner you learn that the better.”
It’s clear that at one point, Aiche shared Tamango’s fighting spirit, but years of slavery and sexual abuse by her masters have broken that spirit.
Still, Tamango won’t listen, and spits in Aiche’s face before calling her “white man’s trash.”
Aiche doesn’t belong to the white man’s world, or that of the slaves. And in this moment, as she reels from Tamango’s cruel words, we know that before the end of the film, she will have to choose where her allegiance lies.
One night during a storm, a particularly cruel man on Reiker’s crew goes below deck among the slaves. In the midst of the tossing of the storm, he discovers the knife that Tamango snuck down to the slave quarters to secretly file through the chains that bind him and the other slaves.
Reiker’s man picks a fight with one of Tamango’s friends, and Tamango comes to his defense. The fight escalates, and Tamango kills Reiker’s man. With nowhere to hide the body, the slaves will undoubtedly be punished when the man’s body is found by the white crew. But Aiche tells Tamango of a loose floor board they can hide the body under. Rieker will think his man fell overboard during the storm. It’s a solidarity building experience for the slaves, and Aiche’s help gives Tamango hope that she will help them get the key needed to access Reiker’s guns, an element necessary to the success of their revolt.
A Complicated Relationship
Reiker and Aiche have a complicated relationship. Though he literally owns her, there seems to be at least an element of love and companionship, more than just physical relations, between the two. Reiker can sense that Aiche has become sensitive to the situation of the slaves. He also senses a revolt coming. When Aiche will not confess to him what she knows of Tamango’s plan, Reiker is hurt, and sends her down to live among the slaves. This confirms for Aiche that Reiker will never marry her, no matter how deep his feelings are for her.
The Revolt Moves Forward
The revolt moves forward. Tamango and his men are able to get a fair amount of guns, even though Aiche–who, after her brief time among the slaves is brought back up to Reiker’s quarters–can’t bring herself to help them get the key.
It seems at first that Tamango’s revolt will be successful, but things turn against the slaves, and they must retreat below deck to avoid the fire of Reiker’s men.
At this point, Tamango and his people are effectively sitting ducks. But they’ve got one bargaining chip: Aiche, who they capture and take below to slave quarters with them. Tamango’s revolt still has a chance at success if Reiker’s love for Aiche is stronger than his fear of what the slaves will do if the revolt is successful.
It’s a stalemate between the white crew above deck and the slaves below until Reiker’s men convince him that this is a “them or us” situation: if Reiker doesn’t kill the slaves, sacrificing Aiche in the process, the slaves will kill the white crew. Reiker reluctantly loads a cannon with grapeshot, and shoots it below deck.
Just before the explosion, the slaves can sense the end is near, and Tamango tells Aiche she is free to return above deck and live, if she desires.
Aiche begins to make her way above deck, but is overcome with the emotion of the song the slaves sing as they bravely await the end.
Aiche chooses to stay with the slaves below deck. She’s finally found the sense of camaraderie and belonging she’s longed for. Aiche joins in singing the haunting tune just before the cannon booms. The singing immediately stops.
All is quiet below deck.
Aiche, Tamango, and his people have made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. But it’s a victorious death, for as Tamango tells his friends just before they sacrifice their lives,
“Even if we die, we’ll win, because they can sell living men, but you can’t sell dead ones. Me? They won’t sell me.”
And that’s the end of the film.
Superstardom and a (Disappointing) Contract
If you remember from my post on Carmen Jones (1954), in 1955, after the great success of Carmen Jones, Twentieth Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck offered Dottie a dream three-year-contract. She would earn $75,000 a film to start, and $125,000 by the final film. As a non-exclusive contract, Dorothy could continue with her nightclub engagements, or even make films at other studios if she desired. Perhaps best of all, the contract guaranteed that her name would appear above the title of each film she made for Zanuck. It was an unprecedented contract for an African American star.
Dorothy interpreted the contract to mean she would be playing leading roles, and the roles she’d be offered would be African American characters. After proving herself more than capable of carrying a film with her performance in Carmen Jones, and earning an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, Dorothy’s interpretation of the contract seemed both warranted and logical.
But Darryl Zanuck had other ideas…
Zanuck wasn’t necessarily against Dottie playing African American leading roles, he just wasn’t going to go out of his way to search for, or create, these types of vehicles for her. In Zanuck’s mind, Dorothy’s new contract could be satisfied by offering her feature roles as various “exotic” beauties. These roles had previously been played by white actresses, so this still was new ground Zanuck was breaking…
But can you imagine how Dorothy must have felt when she realized that this was what he had in mind for her career?
How could she not be terribly disappointed?
The Beginning of the End
Worse still, the first “exotic” beauty role Zanuck offered Dorothy after Carmen Jones was as an Asian concubine slave in The King and I (1956).
While Dorothy chaffed at being offered the role of a slave, Otto Preminger, not just Dorothy’s clandestine romance at this point, but also the guiding force of her career, advised Dorothy to turn down the role. As Otto saw it, Dorothy should accept nothing less than the best, and a feature role in a film, no matter how prestigious, just didn’t cut it.
After debating back and fourth with herself on the issue, Dorothy ultimately decided to trust Otto: she turned down the role.
It was a decision she came to regret. As Dorothy wrote in her autobiography [aff. link]
“It was a role I should have played, I now believe…my decline may have dated from that decision.
Artistically I started going downhill from that moment. My decision not to play Tuptim [the role] upset my contract….There is a subtle line you have to walk in business relations. Make one wrong move and you can be sent spinning in wrong directions for a long time thereafter, even forever after…
With that decision and with the steps that followed, I upset several years of work. Those were the years when I should have been playing in one big picture after another, whether starring or secondary roles, but I should have been performing regularly.”
A Three Year Screen Absence
It would be a full three years between Carmen Jones (1954) and Dorothy’s next film role in 1957’s Island in the Sun.
In those three years, it was back to the nightclubs, or “saloons,” as Dorothy called the club scene she so hated. There would still be the Oscar nomination, the Cannes Film Festival, and her belief that the relationship with Otto Preminger was on the road to marriage to distract Dorothy from the disappointing turn her film career had taken. But it wouldn’t be much longer before Dottie came to believe that the high point of her career—Carmen Jones (1954)— was behind her.
Effects of Stardom
The dizzying degree of Dottie’s stardom in these years directly following the success of Carmen Jones (1954) had lasting consequences, one of which was the beginning of Dorothy’s use of prescription pills. Sister Vivian would say that Dorothy’s pill habit began at the time of her Oscar nomination, that the pills helped Dorothy deal with the anxieties that came with this great achievement. Dottie soon became reliant on Miltown, a tranquilizer, to help her cope with the growing anxieties of superstardom.
And then, not long after the 1955 Oscars, during Dorothy’s singing engagement at the Empire Room in New York City’s Waldorf Astoria, she and Vivian had an argument over money, possibly about a loan Vivian wished to take from Dottie. The argument unfortunately led to an estrangement between the two sisters, and Dorothy lost her closest confidant. Vivian would quite literally disappear from her life. At one point Dottie even hired a private detective to find her sister, but Vivian, living under various aliases and in a few different countries over the years, could not be found. Dorothy tragically commented on her sister’s disappearance in her autobiography [aff. link]
“I had a heartache over my sister Vivian. She had been married twice, and each marriage had failed. At the time of the Carmen Jones premiere, she was in New York with me, but [shortly] after that I never heard from her again. The last I heard she was in Southern France…I phoned, wrote, reached people who knew her. She was nowhere. I have not heard from her yet. Nobody has.”
Dorothy would never see her sister again. According to Dorothy’s good friend and former sister-in-law Geri Nicholas Branton, next to Lynn, losing Vivian was the other great tragedy of Dottie’s life.
The End of a Romance
By the fall of 1956 when Dorothy signed on to star in Tamango, she was even more dependent on prescription pills and therapy—during this period, she’d meet with her therapist upwards of five times a week—to cope with the disappointing path her career had taken. On top of the career despondency, Dorothy realized her relationship with Otto Preminger would not end in marriage. The realization was yet another devastating blow for Dorothy:
“I added a new dimension of failure when I grasped that Otto was yet another confrontation with a white man who would not follow through.”
The man who had molded her stardom with Carmen Jones, who Dottie trusted to guide her career, who “put champagne in her life,” by exhorting Dorothy to accept nothing but the best, would not give her the marriage and home life she so craved. Surprisingly, given the significance of their relationship in Dottie’s life, Preminger’s mention of Dorothy in his autobiography is nothing more than an actress he made two films with, and maybe saw a couple times through the years.
Tamango Filming Begins
By the time Tamango began filming in Nice during the spring of 1957, Dorothy had lost her enthusiasm for the project. Though a slave role, she initially saw great opportunity for character development. But now the only excitement she could find for the film was completely practical:
“The picture ceased to interest me, but it had to be made. I would be able to get out of saloon singing forever, I told myself.”
To compound matters, while sailing to France to begin filming, Dorothy read the recently revised script, only to find that it was very different from the one she had approved. Now, the focus of the film was the slave/master romance, which Dottie believed cheapened the story and took attention away from the slave revolt. Ultimately, she used her star power to get the script revised yet again, putting the focus back on the revolt.
An Underappreicated Performance
The revised script, lavish attention from the European press, and a brief romance with co-star Curd Jurgens were just what Dorothy needed at the time. She received the full star treatment during filming of Tamango, including a chauffeur, maid, hairdresser, and $125,000 compensation for her work on the film.
Dottie’s performance as Aiche, so different from any other character she had ever portrayed, underscored yet again the great range Dorothy possessed as an actress. We can feel Aiche’s longing to fit in with one of the the two worlds she’s stuck between. We sympathize with Aiche’s once strong but now broken spirit that has weathered so much abuse over the years as she’s been sold from one master to another.
Though Tamango would be a great success in Europe, the interracial love scenes would prove too daring for American film distributors, and Tamango would not be shown in the US until August 1959, and then only in very limited release. It’s a shame more audiences and those in positions of power in Hollywood didn’t see Dorothy’s performance in Tamango. The film would unfortunately do very little for her career.
Carmen Jones (1954) co-star Brock Peters would even say he believed the film was indicative of the downward projection Dottie’s career was now on:
“When she did that one, I knew she was going down.”
By the US release of Tamango, Dorothy’s personal life had also reached new lows as she tried to make her second marriage work.
Dorothy and Jack Denison
Dorothy met Jack Denison—the white man she would marry in 1959—back in 1955 while performing at the Riviera in Las Vegas, where Denison was maitre d’. Denison would spend a good deal of time trying to convince Dorothy that he was much more than a maitre d’, that he held interests in various Vegas casinos, and had tons of money stashed away. In an interview with Jet before their marriage, Denison even flat-out lied, calling himself the Vice President of the Riviera when he and Dorothy met. It was a position he never held anywhere, and was indicative of the other lies he’d tell Dorothy throughout their courtship and marriage.
Denison took advantage of Dorothy’s weakened emotional state after her break up with Otto Preminger to insert himself into her life. Depressed over her career, Dottie eventually convinced herself that Denison could provide her with the steady home life she craved, and the financial stability that would allow her to work only if she desired.
Dottie’s friends couldn’t understand her interest and the growing seriousness of her relationship with Denison. Gerald Mayer, Dorothy’s former romance and director of Bright Road (1953), would describe Jack Denison as
“almost a cliché of a slick smooth maitre d’ who would smile a lot and would say complimentary meaningless things. There was something really not likable about him despite his being good looking.”
Geri Nicholas Branton believed it was a self-destructive streak in Dottie that led her to marry Jack Denison on June 23, 1959. Geri’s analysis seems accurate, for Dorothy had to sedate herself to get through the wedding. She even fell asleep at the dinner reception after the ceremony.
On their honeymoon, any remaining illusions Dorothy had that Jack Denison would be a provider were squashed when Denison informed Dorothy that he was broke. Despite all the savings she’d just invested in the opening of Jack’s new restaurant in Hollywood, Denison told Dorothy that if she didn’t give him more money, his place would go under.
Denison also informed Dorothy that he needed her to start performing at his restaurant….
So the man Dorothy married not only wanted to take her money, he also wanted to force her back into the life she believed he would rescue her from: singing in the saloons. Her husband’s saloon, no less.
But Dorothy’s name didn’t bring the customers in. It was a terrible blow to her confidence as a performer, and further hurt her reputation in Hollywood. Denison’s restaurant went under, and Dorothy’s pill and alcohol cycle worsened, only now she had a husband to support and his debts to pay. When Denison became habitually abusive, Dorothy finally filed for divorce in 1962.
The Blows Keep Coming
It seems impossible, but the blows to Dorothy Dandridge kept coming after her divorce from Jack Denison.
Having sunk all her savings into Denison’s restaurant, Dorothy next discovered that the investments she planned to retire on were all a big scam. Jerry Rosenthal and Sam Norton, the same attorneys who had swindled Doris Day out of her lifelong earnings with their fraudulent oil well scheme, did the same thing to Dorothy Dandridge.
Dorothy estimated that she lost $150,000 in bad investments with Rosenthal and Norton, about the equivalent of $1.3 million in 2020.
Then the government claimed Dorothy owed back taxes.
Then Dorothy’s home was foreclosed on after she got too far behind on mortgage payments.
In March of 1963, Dorothy filed for bankruptcy.
Dorothy's Greatest Hurt
Finally, “the whole world tumbled around my head,” as Dorothy would write in her autobiography [aff. link], when Helen Calhoun, the woman who had cared for Dorothy’s daughter Lynn over the past decade, informed Dorothy the day after bankruptcy court that Lynn would be returned to her. After ten years of never missing a payment, two missed payments was all it took…
Dorothy’s worst fear came true when Lynn, now age nineteen, was ruled a danger to herself and others by the state of California, and sent to live at Camarillo State Hospital (CAM), a state psychiatric institution. Dorothy had vowed her daughter would never be put in a state institution, but now she didn’t have the means to provide for Lynn’s care in any other way.
A Fighter to the End
Despite the constant tragedy upon tragedy, Dorothy Dandridge still seemed to have a bit of her fighting spirit left. She picked herself up, and tried for another career comeback. As Dorothy assessed her financial situation in her autobiography [ aff. link],
“It was only a million bucks, I told myself, so go get another.”
It’s possible Dorothy’s final try at a career comeback would have succeeded, but we’ll never know.
On September 8, 1965, Dorothy Dandridge was found dead in her apartment by her manager, Earl Mills. She was only 42 years old.
Though her death would initially be reported as the result of an embolism in her right foot, brought on by a sprained ankle Dorothy sustained just days before her passing, the LA County Chief Medical Examiner concluded in November of 1965 that the cause of death was an overdose of Tofranil, a drug used to treat psychiatric depression.
An independent team of psychiatrists led an investigation into whether the overdose was suicide or accidental, questioning Dottie’s friends and family about her emotional health in the days before her death. The results concluded that the overdose was a “probable accident.”
Was it Suicide?
Despite the fact that Dorothy left a handwritten note with manager Earl Mills entitled “To Whomever Discovers Me After Death—Important,” with instructions for what do with Dorothy’s body and money in the case of her death, Mills would insist that Dorothy had too much to look forward to at this time of her promising comeback for her death to have been a suicide. On the day of her death, Dorothy had been preparing for her latest series of nightclub bookings, which Mills insisted she was enthusiastic about.
But Dorothy’s good friend Geri Nicholas Branton was confident that Dorothy’s death was a suicide:
“Dorothy had been trying to kill herself for a long time. I know it was a suicide. She had talked of it many times….I always listen to that when people—from their gut—say ‘I’m tired.’ It’s a different thing than ‘I’m tired’ or ‘I need some sleep.’ No. It’s ‘I’m tired of trying. I’m tired of going on. I give up.’ And that happened with Dottie…”
In my humble opinion, Geri Nicholas Branton was the best friend Dorothy Dandridge ever had. No one, with perhaps the exception of sister Vivian, knew Dottie better. I trust, however sadly, Geri’s analysis of Dorothy’s death.
Dorothy's Beautiful Legacy
The life of Dorothy Dandridge was full of the highest of highs, and lowest of lows. As a talented and beautiful African American woman during one of Hollywood’s most restrictive eras, Dorothy broke through the prejudice and racism of the time as best she could. She became the first female African American movie star, proving that black actresses could and should be in leading film roles. Black actresses today continue to benefit from—and expound up—Dorothy’s trailblazing path.
Towards the end of her life, Dorothy became involved in the Civil Rights Movement, even speaking at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Civil Rights rally at Wrigley Field in May of 1963. If Dorothy had stayed with us longer, I have no doubt she would have continued making great contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.
While it’s still an imperfect world we live in, Dorothy Dandridge, through her beautiful and nuanced screen performances, her drive to make it as a serious dramatic actress in a time of segregation, broke down stereotypes and prejudices, and promoted understanding and unity among all races. That Dorothy’s accomplishments on screen had great and lasting influence off screen, can’t be denied, and indeed, Dorothy deserves greater appreciation and acknowledgement for these achievements.
It’s been a complete joy and honor to write about this amazing woman this month.
Goodbye, Dorothy ♥️
And this closes our beautiful month with Dorothy Dandridge.
Be sure to join me next week as I introduce our October Star of the Month, the very English, very talented, “Gentleman of Horror,” Peter Cushing.