She would’ve turned 100 years old yesterday!
Dorothy Jean Dandridge is one of the most prolific and well-known actresses of the 20th century. She was born in Cleveland, Ohio on November 9, 1922 and got started early in the entertainment industry at the urging of her mother, Ruby Dandridge, Biography.com reports. Ruby was also an actress and pushed her daughters to follow in her footsteps, helping Dandrige find success early on. By the time she was in her teens, she was landing a number of film roles and was catapulted into the spotlight. For her portrayal in the 1954 musical Carmen Jones, Dandridge made history, becoming the first African-American to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award. While she struggled to maintain that level of success, Dandridge still left an indelible mark that lived long beyond her short 42 years here on earth. To learn more about Dandridge’s amazing yet challenging life, here are 5 things you never knew about the first Black film star nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress:
She started her career as a performing duo with her sister Vivian.
“Dorothy Dandridge had what she called a ‘crying childhood.’ Her father was absent; her mother, Ruby (who would later have a successful acting career on shows like The Amos ’n Andy Show), worked as a cook and performed the poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar in churches on weekends. As a toddler, the adorable Dandridge made a splash performing the poem “In the Morning” for her weary mother one night, and Ruby saw a way out. ‘You ain’t going to work in Mr. Charley’s kitchen like me,’ she told her daughter. ‘We’re going to fix it so you be something else than that.’
She was aided in her quest to make her daughter a star by her partner, Eloise Matthews, a.k.a. Auntie Ma-Ma—a severe piano teacher who physically and mentally abused Dandridge throughout her childhood. While Ruby wrote skits at the kitchen table, Auntie Ma-Ma taught Dandridge and her sister, Vivian, to sing and act like prim, proper ladies.
Soon Ruby decided to take her daughters’ act, dubbed ‘The Wonder Kids,’ on the road. ‘Mother arranged with the National Baptist Convention for Vivian and me to perform at churches in a different state each month,’ Dandridge writes. This contract was the family’s ticket out of poverty—’a little like having a deal with MGM for white folks.’
The whole family, including the hated Auntie Ma-Ma, went on the road. Onstage Ruby did acrobatics; the girls dressed as boy urchins and told wholesome jokes that mysteriously made the adults laugh,” Vanity Fair reports.
One of her first movies as a teen was alongside jazz icon Louis Armstrong.
“Around 1930, Dandridge moved to Los Angeles, California with her family. A few years later she found success with her new musical group, the Dandridge Sisters, which included sister Vivian and their friend Etta Jones. The group landed gigs at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem and performed with top acts such as the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra and Cab Calloway. As an African-American singer, Dandridge confronted early on the segregation and racism of the entertainment industry. She 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.
As a teenager, Dandridge began earning small roles in a number of films. She and her sister appeared in the Marx Brothers’ classic A Day at the Races (1937), as well as Going Places (1938), with Louis Armstrong,” Biography.com reports.
Dandridge was the mother of a special needs child.
One of Dandridge’s gigs landed her a role dancing alongside tap dancer Harold Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers in the 1941 musical Sun Valley Serenade. Dandridge and Nicholas started a romance and the two married in 1942, but the relationship proved rocky mainly due to infidelity. In 1943, they gave birth to a daughter named Harolyn. Their daughter was diagnosed with brain damage as a child and for years she received very expensive private care. The couple divorced in 1951 and years later, when Dandridge hit hard times, she was unfortunately unable to care for her daughter’s 24-hour medical care. In 1963, Harolyn was placed in a state institution which left Dandridge completely heartbroken.
Dandridge once dated civil rights activist Harry Belafonte and the two bonded over their love for therapy.
“Like Marilyn Monroe, her fellow student at the Method-based Actors’ Laboratory, Dandridge was a devotee of psychoanalysis, crediting her doctors with frequently saving her life. In 1952, while singing in a show with Desi Arnaz at La Vie en Rose, she met a man just as interested in Freudian theories as she. According to Dandridge:
Harry Belafonte and I had the same press agent, a woman. Harry was at the Village Vanguard, and the agent said to me, ‘There is only one person I know who is more beautiful than you. It’s a man, and he’s in New York now.’ The agent told Harry the same thing; there was only one person more beautiful than he, and it was a woman and she was now in New York.
Dandridge went to the Village Vanguard to see Belafonte. ‘I went backstage, and when I saw him, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, he is just beautiful.’ He simply said, ‘Dorothy.’
The two beauties began a passionate affair and found they had much in common, including their interest in psychotherapy. Therapy helped alleviate the pain and mental turmoil caused by their status as famous Black entertainers. According to Dandridge:
If you find yourself suddenly projected into a Caucasian orbit…you have an inner experience that is hard on the nerves. You must be at your best with each instant, for…you are ‘carrying the negro race.’ Negroes everywhere will recognize what I am talking about, but unless they have been thrown into the experience of having daily to deal with large numbers of Caucasians, they won’t be able to grasp what this experience can do to your neurological and psychological system.”
She was the first Black actress to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award & the first Black woman to be featured on the cover of Life magazine.
“After her divorce in 1951, Dandridge returned to the nightclub circuit, this time as a successful solo singer. After a stint at the Mocambo club in Hollywood with Desi Arnaz’s band and a sellout 14-week engagement at La Vie en Rose, she became an international star, performing at glamorous venues in London, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco and New York. She won her first starring film role in 1953’s Bright Road, playing an earnest and dedicated young schoolteacher opposite Harry Belafonte.
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Her next role, as the eponymous lead in Carmen Jones (1954), a film adaptation of Bizet’s opera Carmen that also co-starred Belafonte, catapulted her to the heights of stardom. With her sultry looks and flirtatious style, Dandridge became the first African American to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Although she lost out to Grace Kelly (The Country Girl), Dandridge seemed well on her way to achieving the level of fame and superstardom enjoyed by white contemporaries like Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner. In 1955, she was featured on the cover of Life magazine and was treated like visiting royalty at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.”
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In honor of what would have been Dandridge’s 100th birthday, Turner Classic Movies is airing a marathon of all of her films. God bless the spirit and legacy of Ms. Dorothy Dandridge. Because of her, we can!
5 things you never knew about the first Black film star nominated for Academy Award for Best Actress. Photo Courtesy of @DandridgeLove/Instagram