Vintage fashion has inspired me for a long time, but it wasn’t until this year, 2020 when I realized I really wanted to learn more about why and how fashion evolved as it did.
Given that Hollywood starlets influence fashion, I turned to study Old Hollywood to get a better understanding.
In doing so, I discovered the vintage beauty who was Dorothy Dandridge.
Not only was she the epitome of Old Hollywood Glamour, but she was a trailblazer.
By her early 30s, she had established herself as a headlining actress.
She achieved the great accomplishment of being the first African American actress to be nominated for an Academy Award (1957) for a leading role for her work in Carmen Jones – which was a role which she nearly didn’t get due to her “looking like a model.”
Discovering her work was a wonderful and heartbreaking surprise.
It was wonderful because discovering a new artist with whom I connect – new or old – is always something I relish.
I was heartbroken because I felt both cheated & ignorant for not having learned of her work sooner.
If you find yourself in my place, of only learning about this amazing woman now, I hope you love this post.
If you are a long-time fan who understands the importance of her work already, I hope that you approve of and enjoy this post.
My intention here is to spotlight a woman who I believe is deserving of more notoriety.
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Dorothy's Early Years
Mother & Father - Ruby Dandridge & Cyril Dandridge
Dorothy Dandridge was born Dorothy Jean Dandridge on November 9th, 1922, in Cleveland, Ohio, to Ruby Dandridge – an ambitious woman who dreamed of the spotlight for herself and her daughters. Her father was Cyril Dandridge, a cabinetmaker, and Baptist minister.
Given her ambition for fame, Ruby left her husband before Dorothy was born in search of a better future.
Of her father, Dorothy heard that he’d abandoned his family.
This wasn’t true.
He searched for them.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t connect with them as he couldn’t keep up with Ruby, given that she often moved.
Ruby worked hard to make her dreams come true. She worked hard for her family and, when not working, would pursue engagements in showbusiness. She landed various roles in films but was most well known for her work in radio.
The Wonder Children - Dorothy Dandridge & Vivian Dandridge
Dorothy started performing in church at the age of 4 years old, and as a result, didn’t have a formal education.
She was one half of the performing duo, the Wonder Children. The other half was her sister Vivian Dandridge.
At the time, Ruby was intimately involved with Geneva Williams, also known as Neva. She became a caretaker to the girls while Ruby worked and acted as manager for the signing duo.
The Great Crash of 1929 forced the duo to retire.
The Dandridge Sisters - Dorothy Dandridge, Vivian Dandridge, & Etta Jones
Undeterred, in her quest for stardom, Ruby and Neva moved the family to Hollywood.
In 1934, the singing duo joined welcomed a third member – Etta Jones – and became the singing trio “The Dandridge Sisters.
The trio was a success.
They performed in a number of films and in the renowned Cotton Club of New York City in 1938.
It was here that she met Harold Nicholas, a lady’s man, showbusiness vet, and ½ of the performing duo the Nicholas Brothers.
Neva continued to act as their manager.
She was known for her harsh temperament and oppressive nature.
As Dorthey grew up, she became a great beauty and attracted a lot of attention. This caused Neva to become especially obsessives.
In 1939, The Dandridge Sisters were invited to perform at the Palladium in London.
Neva was their only escort.
It was during this trip where she abused her position as caretaker and abused Dorothy.
This led Dorothy to distance herself from this group and declare her independence to go solo as a singer and actress.
Dorothy was only 16 at the time.
Harold Nicholas - First Love & Marriage
By 1941, Dorothy was engaged to Harold Nicholas.
At the time, The Nicholas Brothers were cast as a performing number in the movie Sun Valley Serenade. Harold convinced the studio executives to cast Dorothy as well, citing that she would add talent and sex appeal to their number Chattanooga Chu-chu.
This was one of Dorothy’s big breaks.
Dorothy and Harold got married on September 6, 1942. She was a few weeks away from turning 20. He was 22.
Their marriage had a rocky start.
In an interview with Harold Nicholas, he explains that he was just a boy trying to act like a man.
This to say that his wandering eye didn’t stop after he married Dorothy. Neither did his love for golf.
His disinterest led Dorothy to self-medicate occasionally.
Dorothy & Harold Welcome A Baby Girl! Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas
On September 2nd of 1943, Dorothy gave birth to her only daughter, Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas.
On the day of her birth, Harold was playing golf.
Dorothy, determined to find him, asked her loved ones to look for him instead of to take her to the hospital. By the time she made it to the hospital, without Harold, her baby was on the way.
Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas was born with cerebral anoxia – which is when the brain is completely deprived of oxygen. The result was brain-damage.
She couldn’t recognize people, not even her parents.
This caused Dorothy great heartache. She blamed herself for waiting too long to give birth.
While initially the birth of Harolyn strengthen their marriage, once symptoms of Harolyn’s condition started showing up, Harold started traveling frequently in search of answers for his daughter’s condition.
In 1948, Dorothy asked for a divorce. It was finalized in 1951.
Dorothy went back to work, given that she needed help for Harolyn’s care.
Back To Work & On Her Own
In 1948 she attended the Actors Laboratory in Hollywood, one of the top acting schools in America – and became one of the first black students.
She soon after paired with Phil Moore, a jazz musician she worked with while working in the Cotton Club while working with The Dandridge Sisters.
He helped her establish her glamorous onstage presence. He also helped coached her with her singing and dancing.
With his help, she became a great on-stage presence.
In 1953 she starred alongside Harry Belafonte in Bright Road, which featured an all-black cast and Dorothy as a first-year elementary school teacher trying to reach out to a problematic student.
This acting role was far removed from her onstage persona and received great accolades.
It was around this time where, again, she began self-medicating.
Yes, she’d experienced great career success, but more than anything, she wanted to fill the role of wife and mother. That was one of her life’s great ambitions, but most of her relationships were short-lived and mired given that interracial relationships, which she had a few, were unacceptable and condemned at the time.
This heartache, paired with her guilt over Harolyn’s condition, was often too much for her, but she always seemed to overcome it.
Rise To Stardom - Carmen Jones, Academy Award Nomination, & Otto Preminger
In 1954, after great determination, Dorothy was cast as Carmen Jones in the movie adaptation of Carmen Jones – originally a Broadway musical.
While the films’ musical numbers were dubbed for Dorothy – the director sought an opera singer instead of Dorothy’s melodic voice – Dorothy’s performance was riveting.
This performance catapulted her to A-List stardom and won her an Oscar nomination.
This nomination marked a historical moment. This was the first time an African American had been nominated for an academy for a leading role.
Her rivals were:
- WINNER – Grace Kelly – The Country Girl
- Judy Garland – A Star Is Born
- Audrey Hepburn – Sabrina
- Jane Wyman – Magnificent Obsession
Following this film’s success, Dorothy and Otto Preminger, the director of Carmen Jones, dated for a few years.
At the time, he was separated from his wife but still married.
Controlling in nature, he insisted that Dorothy only take leading roles, which weren’t readily available. Eventually, offers dwindled to just a few.
While her star had dimmed, she shone brightly when given the opportunity.
For example, her performance in Island in the Sun (1957) received great reviews, as did her work in the movie Porgy and Bess (1959). This role provided her with a nomination for a Golden Globe.
Second Marriage - Jack Denison, Business Man
Dorothy Dandridge married Jack Denison, a hotel owner who’d pursued her extensively in 1959.
Through this marriage, she hoped to finally leave the limelight and settle down with her husband and family.
That wasn’t meant to be.
Soon after the wedding, she learned that he had massive debt and that he would need her to perform in his hotel, which she did.
Not only did he provide her with financial strain, but he also proved to be incredibly possessive and violent.
An Attempt At A Fresh Start
In 1962, they divorced & soon after filed for bankruptcy.
She sold her Hollywood home, placed her daughter in a mental institution, and moved into a small apartment.
Again, she began self-medicating and also speak cryptically about her life.
Dorothy passed away on September 8, 1965, due to an overdose of antidepressants.
A few days earlier, she’d signed up to play in two films by producer Raul Fernandez.
This is just one reason why some believe that her death was foul play. This is a theory I haven’t yet examined.
In an attempt to derive greater inspiration for a unique piece of jewelry inspired by Dorothy Dandridge, I watched a few of her movies.
Bright Road (1953): Movie adaptation of “See How They Run” by Mary Elizabeth Vroman
First, I watched Bright Road. It’s a black and white film with an all-black cast.
I loved this film. I found it to be inspirational, beautifully shot, and sweet.
Little did I know, but this was a book to movie adaptation. The source material was written by an African American teacher who wrote a series of short stories relating to her personal experience.
Carmen Jones (1954): Best Actress Award Nominee & Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
Following Bright Road, I watched Carmen Jones.
This film was made up of an almost entirely all-black cast.
I loved watching a sassier version of Dorothy bring Carmen Jones to life.
The costumes were amazing—everything from the military uniforms to glamourous gowns – 5/5 stars.
Overall, I didn’t enjoy it as much as Bright Road, though.
I found the dubbing of Dorothy’s musical parts distracting, and given that there was quite a bit of singing, I found myself coming out of the story frequently.
I think Otto Preminger, the director of Carmen Jones, would have been better off using Dorothy’s musical talents instead of hiring a trained opera singer.
The dubbing is something that many critics seem to struggle with as well.
Casting Dorothy as Carmen Jones (1954)
After watching Carmen Jones, I wanted to know more and was quite surprised to find that Dorothy wasn’t Otto Preminger’s first pick given that she was “a beautiful butterfly” – but not Carmen.
Here are more details:
Designing A Glamourous Bracelet Inspired by Dorothy's Onstage Presence
Since first learning of Dorothy’s work, she’s inspired me.
Dorothy’s onstage presence is unrivaled in elegance and beauty.
This piece is dedicated to the one and only Dorothy Dandridge.
When I created it, I had visions of her wearing it as her only accessory to one of her stunning snake-like dresses.
What do you think?
I know I’ve only scratched the surface on all that her life entailed, but I am so excited to dive deeper into her story in the future.