Before Dorothy Dandridge, this black woman was the triple threat of the entertainment industry

Farida Dawkins October 23, 2018
Black Orpheus, (aka Orfeu Negro), Marpessa Dawn, Breno Mello, 1959...All posters

Before the popularity of Josephine Baker, Dorothy Dandridge and Diahann Carroll, there was Marpessa Dawn.

Marpessa Dawn in the 1958 film, The Woman Eater…Graveyard Shift Sisters

Dawn, also known as Gypsy Marpessa Dawn Menor was an African-American and Filipino actress, singer and dancer who migrated to France and is best known for her role in the movie, Black Orpheus.

Marpessa Dawn was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on January 3, 1934. Her parents were of Black and Filipino heritage.

Dawn had a short stint in New York where she worked as a laboratory technician.

Dawn then migrated to England.  In 1953 she went to France.

It was in France where Dawn began her entertainment career. She was initially a governess then she began to sing and dance in nightclubs. At the age of 24, Dawn earned the role of Eurydice in the film, Black Orpheus or Orfeu Negro – a romantic tragedy based on a play called Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius de Moraes set in the slum of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil during Carnaval time. Moraes based his play on the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. It was shot in Brazil, France and Italy.

Marpessa Dawn…

She was married to the director of Black Orpheus Marcel Camus for a brief period but divorced him and married fellow actor Eric Vander.

During her stay in Europe, Dawn toured Algeria, Belgium, France, Morocco, Switzerland and Tunisia for seven years as the star character of a play dubbed Chérie Noire.  Dawn also continued to work in French television and film. She also acted in the play Le Jardin des délices (The Garden of Delights).

Known as strikingly beautiful, Dawn appeared in the pages of Ebony Magazine in the November 1959 issue.

In 1969 the stardom of her heyday began to dim. Nevertheless, she appeared in the following movies: Le Bal du Comte d’Orgel, Sweet Movie, Vinicius and Sept En Attente in 1996.

Dawn died on August 25, 2008, in Paris, France of a heart attack.

Dawn is survived by her daughter Dhyana Kluth, four additional children and four grandchildren, according to the New York Times.


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