Dorothy Dandridge was born in Cleveland, Ohio on November 9, 1922. to parents who were both of mixed racial origin, actress Ruby Dandridge and her estranged husband, Cyril.
Dandridge was pushed into show business at a young age by her mother. Between the ages of five and eight, Dandridge toured with her sister Vivian as “The Wonder Children” throughout the southern states on behalf of the National Baptist Convention. The little girls sang, danced, and performed humorous skits written by their mother and accompanied on the piano by their adopted “aunt,” Eloise Mathews. After a brief stop in the Depression-era of Chicago, the Dandridge women moved out to Los Angeles to seek work in the film industry. A scout from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer noticed the youngsters, and they were hired for small acting roles.
By the late 1930s, the girls had changed their name to “The Dandridge Sisters” and added their friend Etta Jones as the third singer. After winning contests in the Los Angeles area they found steady work in New York at the famed Cotton Club, where Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington presided over the best jazz club in the country.
In 1942, Dandridge married Harold Nicholas and then basically stopped performing. She gave birth in 1943 during her turbulent marriage and, unfortunately, her daughter had severe brain damage for which she blamed her wondering eyed husband.
In 1951 she divorced her husband and returned to the nightclub scene as a successful solo singer. After a stint at the Mocambo club in Hollywood with Desi Arnaz’s band and a sell-out 14-week engagement at La Vie en Rose, she became an international star. She won her first starring film role in 1953’s Bright Road, playing an earnest and dedicated young schoolteacher opposite Harry Belafonte with her next role being opposite him as well as the eponymous lead in Carmen Jones (1954). With the latter role, she became the first African-American to earn an Academy Award nomination for best actress.
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 and desires of strong leading roles. She found her opportunities limited simply because of her race.
On the rebound from a few frowned upon affairs with white men, she married her second husband, Jack Denison, in 1959, which proved to be another troubled relationship. He was verbally abusive and mishandled her money. She lost much of her savings to bad investments, including Denison’s restaurant, which failed in 1962 and he left her soon after that.
With her film career and marriage failures in tow, Dandridge began drinking heavily and taking antidepressants. The threat of bankruptcy and IRS problems forced her to resume her nightclub career, but she found only a fraction of her former success. Relegated to second-rate lounges and stage productions, Dandridge’s financial situation grew worse. By 1963, she could no longer afford to pay for her daughter’s 24-hour medical care, and Harolyn was placed in a state institution. Dandridge suffered a nervous breakdown soon after.
On September 8, 1965, at the age of 42, Dorothy Dandridge was found dead in her Hollywood home. Two months later, a Los Angeles pathology institute determined the cause to be an accidental overdose of Imipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant. The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office came to a different conclusion: “Miss Dandridge died of a rare embolism—blockage of the blood passages at the lungs and brain by tiny pieces of fat flaking off from bone marrow in a fractured right foot she sustained in a Hollywood film five days before she died.” Dandridge had little more than $2 in her bank account at the time of her death.