Dorothy Jean Dandridge was born Nov. 9, 1922, in Cleveland. She was raised by her mother Ruby Dandridge and a family friend, Geneva Williams. As a child, Dorothy and her sister Vivian Dandridge loved to sing, dance and recite poetry. As they grew older, their desire for fame became a priority.
The girls called themselves The Wonder Children. They later moved to Nashville, Tenn., and were signed with the National Baptist Convention and toured Southern states.
The Dandridge sisters’ act was more of a family affair. Ruby became their manager, handling all of the financial and business affairs, while Geneva played the piano. The girls would perform a variety of skits, singing, dancing, doing impressions, acting and reciting poetry.
Aside from show business, Dorothy had little time to herself. Instead of going to public school like most kids, Dorothy was tutored at home. But she was enrolled in Hooper Street Dance School, where she met Etta Jones, who completed the The Dandridge Sisters trio.
They landed their first big break in The Big Broadcast of 1936. After this film, the girls scored bigger gigs and eventually booked a spot at the famous Cotton Club in New York. With good critical reviews, the girls went to perform in Europe.
At this time Dorothy was dating Harold Nicholas, from the famous Nicholas Brothers dancing team. The trio was going great, but Dorothy had her own dreams of becoming an actress.
Her difficulty began when directors would only offer her stereotypical Black roles. Dorothy desperately wanted to become a Hollywood star, but she kept her pride and refused to portray the stereotypical Black woman role.
On Sept. 2, 1943, Dorothy gave birth to Lynn and gave acting a rest to cater to her daughter. By age 2, Lynn was diagnosed by doctors as retarded. The stress of her daughter’s condition resulted in her divorce from Harold in 1949.
Dorothy returned to show business while her mother watched after Lynn. Dorothy participated in Tarzan’s Peril in 1951, The Harlem Globetrotters, Bright Road, The Moon is Blue, and, her most anticipated role, Carmen Jones.
She had become a star, respected by not only Blacks, but white audiences as well. She was even nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Carmen Jones.
Dorothy was honored to have her name mentioned along with Hollywood superstars like Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. Dorothy’s name was huge, and everyone wanted to act alongside her. She was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for her performance in Porgy and Bess.
After winning her Golden Globe, Dorothy’s life began to go downhill. She had always been a giving and sweet person, yet people like new husband Jack Dension took advantage of her. He took over her career, shut out her friends, and began to physically abuse her.
Secondly, she lost money in an oil scam. To alleviate her troubles, she began to drink heavily and take antidepressants. Dorothy filed for bankruptcy and lost a lot of her fans.
Even though she was still performing in nightclubs, her fans felt the agony in her performance. On the morning of Sept. 8, 1965, Dorothy Dandridge was found dead on her bathroom floor. An autopsy revealed that she had overdosed on antidepressants.
A few months prior to her death Dorothy wrote a letter saying: “In case of my death – to whomever discovers it – don’t remove anything I have on – scarf, gown or underwear. Cremate me right away. If I have anything, money, furniture, give it to my mother Ruby Dandridge. She will know what to do. Dorothy Dandridge.”
The versatile performer paved the way for Black women in Hollywood today. Her charisma, professionalism and dignity stood before her skin color, and her beautiful features. Without the legacy of Dorothy Dandridge, people like Halle Berry wouldn’t be successful.