Dorothy Dandridge (Nov. 9, 1922–Sept. 8, 1965) had everything it took to succeed in 1950’s Hollywood—she could sing, dance, and act, and was beautiful.
When Dorothy Dandridge was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on Nov. 9, 1922, her parents had already separated. Dorothy’s mother, Ruby Dandridge, was five months pregnant when she left her husband Cyril, taking their older daughter Vivian with her. Ruby believed her husband was a spoiled mama’s boy who would never leave his mother’s house, so she left.
Ruby supported her daughters with domestic work. Dorothy and Vivian displayed an early talent for singing and dancing and began performing at local theaters and churches when Dorothy was 5.
Ruby’s friend Geneva Williams, moved in, and although she taught the girls to play the piano, she pushed them hard and cruelly punished them. Ruby never noticed. Years later, Vivian and Dorothy figured out that Williams was their mother’s lover.
She and Williams labeled Dorothy and Vivian “The Wonder Children.” They moved to Nashville, and Dorothy and Vivian signed with the National Baptist Convention to tour churches throughout the South. The Wonder Children toured for three years, attracting regular bookings and earning a solid income, but Dorothy and Vivian wearied of the act and long hours practicing. They had no time for activities normal for youngsters their age.
Dandridge loathed nightclub performing but knew an immediate, substantial movie role was unlikely. She contacted an arranger she had worked with at the Cotton Club, who helped her become a sultry, dazzling performer. She was mostly well received but learned that racism in many places, including Las Vegas, was as bad as in the Deep South. Being black, she couldn’t share a bathroom, lobby, elevator, or swimming pool with whites. Even when she was headlining, her dressing room was usually a janitor’s closet or dingy storage room.
But critics raved about her performances. She opened at the famed Mocambo Club in Hollywood and was booked in New York, becoming the first African-American to stay in and perform at the Waldorf Astoria. Club dates gave Dandridge publicity to land film work. Bit parts flowed in, but Dandridge had to compromise her standards, agreeing in 1950 to play a jungle queen in “Tarzan’s Peril.”
Finally, in August 1952, Dandridge got the lead in MGM’s “Bright Road,” an all-black production about a Southern schoolteacher. She was ecstatic about her role, the first of three film appearances she made with Harry Belafonte—who eventually became a close friend.
On the morning of Sept. 8, 1965, back in Hollywood, Dandridge asked Mills to reschedule the appointment for her cast so she could get more sleep. When he went to pick her up that afternoon, he found her on the bathroom floor, dead at age 42.
Her death was initially attributed to a blood clot from her fractured foot, but an autopsy revealed a lethal dose of the anti-depressant Tofranil. Whether the overdose was accidental or intentional remains unknown.
Dandridge’s last wishes, left in a note given to Mills months before her death, were for all her belongings to go to her mother. Despite her Life magazine cover, her Oscar nomination, her Golden Globe, and her extensive body of work, only $2.14 remained in her bank account after her death.