Dorothy Dandridge's story begins with humble beginnings in Cleveland, Ohio. While pregnant with her, her Mother Ruby Dandridge (and entertainer) left her father Cyril Dandridge (a minister and cabinet maker). Dorothy was born on November 9, 1922. She began a career in show business at a young age with the strong persuasion of her mother. Dorothy and her sister Vivian performed throughout the South in various African American Baptist Churches as "The Wonder Children". In search of fame and to escape the depression, her family moved to Los Angeles, California. With Etta Jones, “The Wonder Children” became the Dandridge Sisters. The trio performed with the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra and Cab Calloway and gained popularity performing at the Cotton Club in Harlem. In 1937, Dorothy appeared in A Day at the Races a film by the Marx Brothers and later with Louis Armstrong in Going Places (1939). Because she was African-American born into a heavily prejudiced society, Dandridge was not offered roles readily available to white actresses. Dorothy would not gain another big-time film project until 1940 in Four Shall Die.
In 1941, Dorothy married Harold Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers. The couple performed a tap-dancing scene in the musical Sun Valley Serenade (1941). In order for the film to be shown in the south, a suitable version was made omitting the dancing scene. Dorothy was determined and continued to land roles that showcased her talents. She played in Bahama Passage (1941), Drums of the Congo (1942) and the Hit Parade of 1943 (1943). In 1943, while home alone, Dorothy went into labor with her first child Harolyn Nicholas. The daughter suffered severe brain damaged and required round-the-clock care. She continued to build her career as an actress and singer appearing in Altantic City (1944) and Pillow to Post (1945) and headlined at high-end venues in Chicago, New York and Las Vegas. Despite her popularity, Dandridge continued to face strong racism and segregation. Many venues she performed at would not allow her to eat in the inside or use the facilities because she was African-American. Hotels where she performed would not allow her stay as a guest. In one venue, the pool was drained and scrubbed after Dandridge put her foot in and at another she was given a bathroom cup to urinate in.
During her marriage to Nicholas, Dandridge faced constant humiliation by Nicholas's flamboyant woman chasing. Dandridge stopped performing to avoid the shame and scrutiny. Dandridge and Nicholas divorced in 1951 leaving Dandridge to solely provide the funding for her daughter's private care.
After her divorce, Dandridge returned to the entertainment industry as a solo singer and her career took off. She was loved and found great success with a sell-out 14 week engagement at the La Vie en Rose. She quickly became an international star, performing at high-end venues in London, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, and New York. Dorothy excelled as a singer, entertainer, and actress and won her first starring film role in Bright Road (1953) playing opposite Harry Belafonte as a young, dedicated school teacher. Later in 1954, Dorothy played the leading role in Carmen Jones in an all-Black production. She was the first African-American to earn an Academy Award nomination. Despite this achievement, the award was given to Grace Kelly for her role in The Country Girl (1954). In 1955, Dandridge graced the cover of Life magazine. While visiting the Cannes Festival (1955) she was received and treated as royalty. Things were looking bright for Dandridge, it appeared that she would be recognized just the same as Ava Gardner and Marylin Monroe as iconic, glamorous sex symbols of the 1950s. Unfortunately, interracial relationships or friendships were not accepted and the actresses did not hide their friendship. Despite the racism, Dorothy would go on to land and stand out in seven more motion pictures including Island in the Sun (1957) and Porgy and Bess (1959) playing opposite to Sidney Poitier.
In 1959, Dororthy married Jack Denison. Turning down offers to play “slave roles”, Dandridge struggled to find suitable roles. Her last movie would be The Murder Men (1961). Her talents and fair-skin were not enough to surpass the subtle and not-so subtle prejudices of Hollywood.
Her second marriage proved to be more detrimental than the first. Jack invested her money into poor deals, verbally and physically abused Dorothy. By 1963, she could no longer afford to pay for her Harolyn's 24-hour medical care. Harolyn was placed in a state institution and Dandridge soon after suffered a nervous breakdown.
On September 8, 1965, Dorothy Dandridge was found dead in her West Hollywood home from barbiturate poisoning. It is unknown whether her death was a suicide or an accident. She was 42.
In the late 90s, Dorothy Dandridge's unique and tragic story peaked the interests of Donald Bogle who released her biography in 1997. In 1999, actress Halle Berry won the Golden Globe and the Emmy award for her portrayal of Dandridge the movie, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.