Actress, singer, and dancer Dorothy Dandridge, born on November 9, 1922, held the distinction of being the first African-American woman to earn a Best Actress nomination at the Academy Awards. With a remarkable career that spanned nearly four decades, she made a mark in the entertainment industry with her talent. She was also known for supporting anti-racism initiatives during her lifetime. Her life was tragically cut short when she was found dead in her apartment in 1965. Celebrate the special day of the legendary star with some insights and trivia from her life.
Dorothy Jean Dandridge was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on November 9, 1922. She was of African-American descent. She was the youngest daughter of Ruby Dandridge, an actress, and Cyril Dandridge, a Baptist minister, and cabinet maker. She was raised by her mother since her parents separated before she was born. She did not attend school in her early years and instead, was trained to sing and dance with her elder sister, Vivian.
Dandridge’s career can be traced to her childhood when, in 1934, she began to perform with her sister as part of an act her mother called The Wonder Children. Later, they were joined by their friend Etta Jones, and the trio, under the new name of Dandridge Sisters, began to tour the U.S., performing at nightclubs, theaters, and Baptist churches. She made her screen debut the following year, in 1935, appearing in an uncredited role in the short comedy film “Teacher’s Beau.” In 1939, she and the Dandridge Sisters traveled to Europe, performing in England and Ireland. After returning to the U.S. in 1940, the trio split and Dandridge embarked on her solo career as a cabaret dancer and actress. Her first official screen role came that same year in the movie “Four Shall Die.” Rejecting stereotypical roles for black actors, in 1941, she appeared in small parts in the movies “Lady from Louisiana” and “Sundown.” That same year, she made her first appearance with the Nicholas Brothers in the movie “Sun Valley Serenade.” The next year, in 1942, she married Harold Nicholas, one of the Nicholas Brothers, and in 1943, she gave birth to her only child, a daughter named Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas. For the next few years, she continued to appear in movies, on stage, and in “soundies” (film clips displayed on jukeboxes). She came into the public eye for her wardrobe in the 1951 movie “Tarzan’s Peril” in which she appeared as Melmendi, Queen of the Ashuba, alongside Lex Barker and Virginia Huston. The interest generated by her wardrobe saw her being featured on the cover of “Ebony” magazine.
In 1953, she was cast in her first starring role in “Bright Road,” the first of many productions with Harry Belafonte. Her breakout role came as Carmen Jones in the 1954 movie “Carmen,” which established her as a star with a box office hit to her credit and positive critical acclaim. Later that year, she also became the first African-American woman to be featured on the cover of “Life” magazine. In 1955, she was nominated for the Best Actress award at the Oscars for “Carmen,” making her the first African-American woman to achieve the honor. That same year, she signed a three-movie deal with 20th Century Fox and also became the first African-American to open at Waldorf-Astoria’s Empire Room in New York. In 1957, she appeared in the movie “Island in the Sun,” which portrayed interracial romance, a controversial subject at the time, that became a successful hit. The following year, she appeared in a French-Italian movie “Tamango,” accepting the role of a slave only after learning that the film portrayed a successful slave revolt. The movie was banned in the U.S. but managed to achieve moderate success. In 1959, she made her first appearance in a Hollywood movie in five years in Samuel Goldwyn’s “Porgy and Bess,” which was commercially unsuccessful. In 1959, she married Jack Denison, a hotel owner, and appeared in her last completed film appearance in the movie “Malaga,” which was only released in 1960. In 1962, she made two appearances in a Highland Park Music Theater production of the play “West Side Story” but had to back out after an illness.
1962 was a year of personal setbacks for her amid her divorce from Denison and the discovery of fraud by her financial managers, leading to her having to sell her house. 1963 marked the decline of Dandridge’s career and she struggled with unpaid dues, alcoholism, and troubled personal life. In 1964, she applied for bankruptcy and appeared in a lounge act in Las Vegas to make some money. The following year, attempting to revive her acting career, she signed to appear in a movie based on the outlaw Johnny Ringo. On September 12, 1965, she was found dead in her apartment from what was later declared to be a drug overdose. She was cremated the same day and her ashes were interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park at Freedom Mausoleum. She was posthumously awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1984. In 1999, a previously unreleased album recorded by Dandridge was released.
After the Dandridge Sisters disband, she begins to perform solo as an actress and makes her first official screen appearance in the movie “Four Shall Die.”
Appearing as Melmendi, Queen of the Ashuba, in the movie “Tarzan’s Peril,” Dandridge receives much limelight for her wardrobe.
Cast in “Bright Road,” Dandridge stars in her first lead role.
The critically acclaimed and successful movie “Carmen” establishes Dandridge as a star.
Dandridge is nominated for the Best Actress award at the Oscars for “Carmen,” making her the first African-American woman to achieve the honor.
Dandridge stars in her last completed film appearance in the movie “Malaga.”
Why We Love Dorothy Dandridge
She was a trailblazer
It may have taken several decades for Dandridge’s contributions to be honored, but her legacy is undeniable. With her acting career and her Academy Award nomination, she paved the way for African-American actors of the future to make successful careers.
She refused to be typecast
As one of the few African-American actresses, Dandridge was often offered roles of slaves and servants. She, however, turned down almost all of them as she refused to be typecast.
She struggled through tough times
Dandridge did not always have it easy. Growing up with a strict mother and with the struggles that she had to overcome as an African-American actress, she continued to find ways to make her mark in the American motion picture industry.
5 Surprising Facts
She attended school with Marilyn Monroe
Dandridge and Monroe both attended the Actor’s Laboratory, a drama school in Hollywood, at the same time.
She was to be Cleopatra
Dandridge was the first choice for the role, which eventually went to Elizabeth Taylor.
Halle Berry mentioned her in a speech
When Halle Berry became the first African-American woman to win Best Actress at the Academy Awards, she acknowledged Dandridge in her speech.
She briefly gave up acting
In 1942, after her marriage to Harold Nicholas, Dandridge gave up acting for a while to start a family.
She had stage fright
Dandridge suffered from acute stage fright, which overtook her before performances.
Dorothy Dandridge FAQs
How did Dorothy Dandridge die?
Dandridge was declared dead in 1965 from a drug overdose.
How did Dorothy Dandridge change the world?
Dandridge is credited for bringing a change in the entertainment industry by becoming the first African-American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Who was Dorothy Dandridge’s father?
Dandridge was the daughter of Cyril Dandridge, a Baptist minister, and cabinet maker.
Dorothy Dandridge’s birthday dates