Died with $2 in her account, Dorothy Dandridge was first black actress to earn Oscar nomination

Michael Eli Dokosi March 31, 2020
Portrait of singer/actress Dorothy Dandridge. (Photo by Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

A pioneer in many regards, Dorothy Jean Dandridge earned nomination for an Academy Award as best actress in the 1954 film Carmen Jones, becoming the first black woman to achieve the feat. Aside acting, Dandridge was also a notable singer and dancer.

Dandridge was one of the earliest black actresses to have had a successful Hollywood career although she is said to have died with only $2 in her account. She didn’t know her father as her mother left while pregnant. She started out early in the entertainment space in the 1930s at the prompting of her mother who paired her with her sister Vivian and another girl Etta Jones. The girls performed throughout the South, playing at black churches and other places.

She performed as a part of The Wonder Children, later The Dandridge Sisters before finding fame and performing as a vocalist at the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater.

Dandridge was unlucky in love, getting married and divorced twice; first to dancer Harold Nicholas the father of her daughter, Harolyn Suzanne and then to hotel owner Jack Denison.

Another challenge Dandridge faced as a black woman in a racially tense era was that film offers did not come readily and when they did required her to be raunchy or subservient.

She nonetheless appeared in films such as Island in the Sun (1957), which dealt with miscegenation and costarred Harry Belafonte, as well as in The Decks Ran Red (1958), Tamango (1959), and Moment of Danger (1960). One of her most important roles was Bess in Preminger’s handsomely produced Porgy and Bess (1959), starring opposite Sidney Poitier.

As an African-American singer, Dandridge may have been allowed on stage but in some venues, she couldn’t eat in the restaurant or use certain facilities because of the color of her skin.

She married Harold Nicholas in 1942, but Nicholas proved to be a philanderer leading Dandridge to virtually retire from performing during this time. More woes came her way when she birthed daughter Harolyn in 1943. It was soon discovered the girl had brain damage. Seeking to find a cure, Dandridge had Harolyn receive expensive private care for many years.

After her divorce in 1951, Dandridge returned to the nightclub circuit, this time as a successful solo singer. She enjoyed an international stint, performing at glamorous venues in London, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco and New York.

In 1955, she was featured on the cover of Life magazine and was treated like visiting royalty at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.

However, in the years that followed her success with Carmen Jones, Dandridge had trouble finding film roles that suited her talents.

While making Carmen Jones, Dandridge became involved in an affair with the film’s director, Otto Preminger, who also directed Porgy and Bess. Dandridge’s relationships with other white lovers was frowned upon, particularly by other African-American members of the Hollywood filmmaking community.

She married her second husband, Jack Denison, in 1959, though that proved to be another troubled relationship. Denison was abusive and mishandled her money, with Dandridge losing much of her savings to an investment in her husband’s failed restaurant. They split in 1962.

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Dorothy Dandridge c. 1950s  via Pinterest

As her film career and marriage floundered, Dandridge began drinking heavily and taking antidepressants. With the threat of bankruptcy hanging over her, she couldn’t pay for the 24-hour medical care of her daughter by 1963. Harolyn was placed in a state institution and with that Dandridge suffered a nervous breakdown.

On September 8, 1965, Dandridge was found dead mysteriously in her Hollywood home aged 42. Some reports say an overdose of an antidepressant was to blame. Dandridge had little more than $2 in her bank account at the time of her death.

In 2000, film star Halle Berry won Golden Globe and Emmy awards for her portrayal of the groundbreaking actress in the acclaimed TV movie, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.

She has been recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Dandridge was born on November 9, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: March 31, 2020


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