Dorothy Dandridge (1922-1965), a figure of beauty and tragedy, was an American actress, famous for starring in “Carmen Jones” (1954). Lena Horne called her “our Marilyn Monroe”. Whites at the time mainly knew her as “some kind of coloured singer”. She is a hero to Halle Berry, Janet Jackson, Angela Bassett and others.
She showed that black women can play more than just prostitutes, maids and slaves, that they have dignity, that they are women first, black second. Hollywood is still slow in learning that, but it began with her.
As a girl in the late 1920s she and her sister Vivian sang and danced on the chitlin circuit, going from town to town in the American South. Even then she was a wonder.
In 1929 times got bad and they headed for California where her mother Ruby played a maid in Hollywood films. Dorothy, Vivian and another girl became the Dandridge Sisters, appearing in Harlem in the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater.
Dandridge began to get bit parts in films. She sang “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” in the Marx Brothers film “A Day at the Races” (1937).
Dandridge became a nightclub singer. In time she would sing in Rio, London, San Francisco and New York. She also appeared in soundies: the music videos of the day.
In 1942 she married a dancer, one of the Nicholas Brothers. A year later they had a baby girl. She was born with brain damage. Her husband began to have affairs with other women, as beautiful as she was. They divorced in 1951.
In 1954 Otto Preminger wanted to make the opera “Carmen” into a film with an all-black cast. Dandridge tried out for the lead but Preminger thought she was too sweet and nice. Dandridge came back later wearing a red rose in her black hair, a cut-off black blouse and a red skirt. Preminger said, “My God! It’s Carmen!”
She got the part. It made her name.
She fell in love with Preminger. He did not want her to appear in films that were beneath her. She turned down a part in “The King and I” where she would have played a slave. But good parts for black women were rare. It was three years before she appeared in another film.
She left Preminger when it became clear he would never leave his wife for her. He was white.
In 1959 she married a nightclub owner. It lasted for three bad years. She lost most of her money in his failing business and in the divorce that followed. Then she had to sell her house to pay back taxes.
She was broke. She could no longer pay to take care of her daughter. She had to give her daughter up to become a ward of the state.
Dandridge drank heavily. She was hooked on barbiturates, little pills that made the pain go away. On September 8th 1965 she took too many and died. She was 42.
She was writing the story of her life at the time: she died feeling she had lived in vain.