Dorothy Dandridge: Old Hollywood Actress

Falling for Dorothy

Introduction

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. 

1962 EBONY DOROTHY DANDRIDGE
1962 EBONY DOROTHY DANDRIDGE
1922 - Young Dorothy Dandridge

CONTENTS

References

This link opens to a new web page with a PDF copy of a list of resources used for this blog: 

Dorothy Dandridge – Resources & Photo Links

*Please note that all the books in this slide, and links included throughout the blog marked with an asterisks (*) , direct you to affiliate links where I make a small commission if you place an order. 

I can’t play a slave.

Dorothy Dandridge

In this video, I cover the story of Dorothy Dandridge.

I used a lot of resources for this video (to see a full list, scroll down to the top of this post & look under REFERENCES), but the ones I used the most are as follows:

An Overview Of Her Life

Mother & Father - Ruby Dandridge & Cyril Dandridge

Dorothy Dandridge with Ruby Dandridge, & daughter Harolyn
Dorothy Dandridge with Ruby Dandridge, & daughter Harolyn
Ruby Dandridge 1923
Ruby Dandridge 1923
Ruby Dandridge On Film

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.

Cyril Dandridge - Dorothy's Father
Ruby Dandridge Signed Photo
Ruby Dandridge Signed Photo
Young Dorothy Dandridge With Mom & Sister & Friend
Young Dorothy Dandridge With Mom & Sister & Friend

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.

Young Dorothy Dandridge With Mom & Sister
Ruby Dandridge, Dorothy Dandridge & Vivian Dandridge

The Dandridge Sisters - Dorothy Dandridge, Vivian Dandridge, & Etta Jones

Etta Jones, Dorothy Dandridge, & Vivian Dandridge
The Dandridge Sisters

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. 

The Dandridge Sisters On Stage
The Dandridge Sisters On Stage
The Dandridge Sisters Signed Photo
The Dandridge Sisters Signed Photo

Dorothy Dandridge & Harold Nicholas

Dorothy Dandridge – And Harold Nicholas
Dorothy Dandridge – And Harold Nicholas
Dorothy Dandridge – And Harold Nicholas Dancing
Dorothy Dandridge – And Harold Nicholas Dancing
Nicholas Brothers - Dancing On Stage With Dorothy Dandridge
Nicholas Brothers - Dancing On Stage With Dorothy Dandridge

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. 

Cotton Club Ad
Cotton Club Ad Featuring The Nicholas Brothers
Harold Nicholas. - Nicholas Brothers - Stormy Weather
Harold Nicholas. - Nicholas Brothers - Stormy Weather
Dorothy & Harold Nicholas On Horseback
Dorothy & Harold Nicholas On Horseback

Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas - Dorothy’s Daughter

Dorothy Dandridge, Daughter & Ruby
Dorothy Dandridge, Daughter & Ruby
Dorothy Dandridge & Her Daughter, Harolyn Nicholas
Dorothy Dandridge & Her Daughter, Harolyn 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.

Dorothy Dandridge, Harolyn Dandridge & Harold Nicholas
Dorothy Dandridge, Harolyn Dandridge & Harold Nicholas
Dorothy Dandridge & Harolyn Playing with Bubbles
Dorothy Dandridge & Harolyn Playing with Bubbles
Dorothy Dandridge - Group Photo with Harolyn

Back To Work & On Her Own

Dorothy Dandridge - Article
Dorothy Singing & Phil Moore Playing Piano
Dorothy singing & jazz musician, Phil Moore, playing piano in the background.

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.

Dorothy Dandridge - The High Price Of Stardom Article - Getting Fitted
Dorothy Dandridge - The High Price Of Stardom Article - Getting Fitted
The One And Only - Dorothy Dandridge
Dorothy Dandridge

Rise To Stardom - Carmen Jones, Academy Award Nomination, & Otto Preminger

Dorothy Dandridge – Carmen Jones Cast
Dorothy Dandridge – Carmen Jones Still
Dorothy Dandridge - CARMEN JONES - SCREEN TEST
Dorothy Dandridge -Article about her screen test for Carmen Jones

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
Dorothy Dandridge - CARMEN JONES
Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen Jones on the cover of LIFE MAGAZINE
Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen Jones on the cover of LIFE MAGAZINE
Dorothy Dandridge cheering for her man in Carmen Jones
Dorothy Dandridge cheering for her man in Carmen Jones
Dorothy Dandridge & Harry Belafonte - CARMEN JONES
Dorothy Dandridge & Harry Belafonte - Carmen Jones
Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen Jones
Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen Jones
Dorothy Dandridge & Harry Belafonte Jet Magazine
Dorothy Dandridge & Harry Belafonte Jet Magazine
Dorothy Celebrating with Otto & Vivian
Dorothy Celebrating with Otto Preminger & Vivian Dandridge

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.

Island In The Sun - Dorothy Dandridge - On Set
Island In The Sun - Dorothy Dandridge - On Set
Dorothy & Otto
Dorothy & Otto Preminger
Dorothy Dandridge & Otto Preminger Dancing
Dorothy Dandridge – Toning for Porgy & Bess
Dorothy Dandridge – Toning for Porgy & Bess
Dorothy Dandridge - PORGY AND BESS – GROUP PHOTO
Dorothy Dandridge - PORGY AND BESS – GROUP PHOTO
Dorothy Dandridge - Afraid of Marriage
Dorothy Dandridge - Afraid of Marriage

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.

Dorothy Dandridge with second husband, Jack Denison

An Attempt At A Fresh Start

Dorothy On A Gondola
Dorothy Dandridge - Taking It Easy

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.

1963 the-reverend-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-greets-actress-news-photo-1591905818
Dorothy Dandridge -Bankruptcy Court
Dorothy Dandridge outside bankruptcy court
Dorothy Dandridge Death
Actress-Singer Dorothy Dandridge Found Dead In Hollywood Home
Who Was The Real Dorothy Dandridge - Ebony
Who Was The Real Dorothy Dandridge - Ebony
The Death Of Dorothy Dandridge
The Death And Life Of Dorothy Dandridge

Watching Dorothy Come Alive On Screen & Drafting Jewelry Designs

I wanted any black girl in the audience to look at me performing in this film and be able to say to herself, 'Why, this schoolteacher could be me.'

Dorothy Dandridge
Dorothy Dandridge - Bright Road - Teacher
Dorothy Dandridge in Bright Road as a new teacher, Miss. Richards.

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

BRIGHT ROAD - POSTER
BRIGHT ROAD POSTER
Dorothy Dandridge behind the scenes with Harry Belafonte - BRIGHT ROAD
Dorothy Dandridge behind the scenes with Harry Belafonte - BRIGHT ROAD

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.

BRIGHT ROAD: Miss Richards complementing CJ
BRIGHT ROAD: Miss Richards teaching CJ
BRIGHT ROAD: Harry Belafonte & Dorothy Dandridge
BRIGHT ROAD: Harry Belafonte & Dorothy Dandridge
Bright Road - A New Star Is Born
Bright Road - A New Star Is Born
BRIGHT ROAD - Miss Richards & CJ
BRIGHT ROAD - Miss Richards & CJ
Bright Road - Miss Richards with the town doctor
Bright Road - Miss Richards with the town doctor
BRIGHT ROAD - Miss Richards & CJ
BRIGHT ROAD - Miss Richards & CJ
BRIGHT ROAD: CJ Walking Home
BRIGHT ROAD: CJ Walking Home

Bright Road was not commercially successful [3] and was criticized for having "dealt too timidly with racial and economic questions."[4] Dandridge, however, had been specifically attracted to the lack of racial conflict in Bright Road's story. She wrote that she was "profoundly fond of ... a theme which showed that beneath any color skin, people were simply people. I had a feeling that themes like this might do more real good than the more hard-hitting protest pictures. I wanted any black girl in the audience to look at me performing in this film and be able to say to herself, 'Why, this schoolteacher could be me.'"

"See How They Run" was Mary Elizabeth Vroman's first published short story, written while she was a schoolteacher in rural Alabama. First published in Ladies' Home Journal in 1951, it also appeared in Ebony magazine in 1952. When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer purchased the rights to adapt the story to film, Vroman helped write the screenplay, and as a result, became the first black member of the Screen Writers Guild.[2]

Mary Elizabeth Vroman
Mary Elizabeth Vroman on the cover of JET
Wedding Bells for Mary Elizabeth Vroman
Wedding Bells for Mary Elizabeth Vroman

Carmen Jones (1954): Best Actress Award Nominee & Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy

Carmen Jones - Iconic Outfit

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.

Carmen Jones in pink dress
Carmen Jones in pink dress

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.

Incredible.

Otto Preminger & Carmen Jones Cast - ON SET
Otto Preminger & Carmen Jones Cast - ON SET
Otto Preminger & Carmen Jones Cast
Otto Preminger & Carmen Jones Cast
Carmen Jones - flirty feet
Carmen Jones - flirty feet

Here are more details: 

Preminger was familiar with Dorothy Dandridge but felt she was incapable of exuding the sultry sex appeal the role of Carmen demanded, particularly after having seen Dandridge's performance as a demure schoolteacher opposite Belafonte in Bright Road (1953).[16] Her agent's office was in the same building where Preminger's brother Ingo worked, and he asked Ingo to intercede on his client's behalf. At his first meeting with Dandridge, Preminger told her she was "lovely" and looked like a "model" or "a beautiful butterfly," but not Carmen,[17] and suggested she audition for the role of Cindy Lou. Dandridge took the script and left, and when she returned she was dressed and behaved exactly as Preminger envisioned Carmen. The director was impressed enough to schedule a screen test for mid-May, after Dandridge completed a singing engagement in St. Louis. In the interim he cast Juilliard School graduate Olga James as Cindy Lou.[18]

Drawings of Vintage-Inspired Jewelry For Dorothy Dandridge

Drawing is not my forte – clearly.

However, I do thing it’s fun to look back to compare my drawings against the final product.

Here are a few photos of the vintage-inspired designs I created. Two of them are inspired by each of the movies I watched and one – the one I actually worked on is inspired by Dorothy’s on-stage presence.

Designing A Glamourous Bracelet Inspired by Dorothy's Onstage Presence

Designing A Handmade Vintage-Inspired Bracelet for Dorothy Dandridge

“It is easily overlooked that what is now called vintage was once brand new.”

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?

Handmade Vintage-Inspired Beaded Bracelet Dedicated To Dorothy Dandridge
Handmade Vintage-Inspired Beaded Bracelet Dedicated To Dorothy Dandridge
Handmade Vintage-Inspired Beaded Bracelet Dedicated To Dorothy Dandridge
Handmade Vintage-Inspired Beaded Bracelet Dedicated To Dorothy Dandridge
Handmade Vintage-Inspired Beaded Bracelet Dedicated To Dorothy Dandridge
Handmade Vintage-Inspired Beaded Bracelet Dedicated To Dorothy Dandridge
The Perfect Bracelet for Dorothy Dandridge

Designing A Brooch for Dorothy as Miss. Richards in Bright Road (1953)

Designing A Brooch For Dorothy Dandridge as Miss Richards in Bright Road

“Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.”

Twyla Tharp, American Dancer Tweet

Oh my goodness – am I excited to have worked and finished this project finally. 

While watching Bright Road, I was drawn to Dorothy’s sweet demeanor as Miss. Richards and her elegant wardrobe. 

I noticed that she wore minimal jewelry, and while I think it wasn’t necessary, I think a piece like this would have complimented her character quite well. 

Paper beads are a fairly new medium for me to work with; hence I was really excited to work with them. 

HANDMADE VINTAGE INSPIRED JEWELRY BY KALEIDOSCOPES AND POLKA DOTS
KALEIDOSCOPES & POLKA DOTS - HANDMADE VINTAGE INSPIRED JEWELRY BY JESSICA GIBSON
Designing a Brooch for Dorothy Dandridge as Miss Richards in Bright Road 1_png
Paper Brooch by Kaleidoscopes And Polka Dots

Conclusion

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.

* If you know that any part of these excerpts is false, please let me know. You can reach me via email: lovealways@kaleidoscopesandpolkadots.com or via a direct message on Facebook or Instagram.

Author

Jessica Gibson
Jessica Gibson

Leading Lady of Kaleidoscopes & Polka Dots.

If you have any questions about this article, or anything at all, please reach out to me at lovealways@kaleidoscopesandpolkadots.com

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