One of the most strikingly beautiful and charismatic stars ever to grace Hollywood, Dorothy Dandridge blazed a number of significant trails during her short but noteworthy career as the first African American actress to achieve leading-role status. Yet hers was also a deeply troubled life, marked by the scars of a miserable childhood, a string of failed personal relationships, numerous career setbacks, and ongoing struggles with drug and alcohol abuse. Racism was also one of the demons with which she had to contend, for Dandridge came of age in an era when the entertainment world was rife with demeaning racial stereotypes.
A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Dorothy Jean Dandridge was born in 1922 to Ruby Dandridge and her estranged husband, Cyril. As children, Dorothy and her older sister, Vivian, traveled to schools and churches around the country performing in song-and-dance skits scripted by their mother, who longed for a career in show business. By 1930, Ruby Dandridge had left Cleveland with her daughters to seek her fortune in Hollywood. There the family survived on what Ruby could earn playing bit parts in the movies or on radio, usually as a domestic servant-the kind of character role typically offered to black actors and actresses at that time. Meanwhile, Dorothy was subjected to years of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother’s female lover.
Before long, however, Dandridge’s film career began to blossom. In addition to some bit parts, she played an African princess in the 1951 movie Tarzan’s Peril and a teacher in 1953’s Bright Road. In 1954, she won the lead role in the movie that would make her a star-Carmen Jones, a lavish musical based on the nineteenth-century French opera Carmen by Georges Bizet that tells the story of a beautiful but fickle gypsy girl whose seductive ways lead to tragedy. In director Otto Preminger’s updated version, set in Florida during World War II, Bizet’s gypsy girl is transformed into a sultry black factory worker who corrupts a young black.
Here are a few accomplishments you probably didn’t know. She was the:
•First black person to grace the cover of Life Magazine.
•First black actress to be Oscar-nominated for “Best Actress in a Leading Role.”(Halle Berry, who portrayed Dorothy in the HBO biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge would become the 1st black actress to win an Oscar for her role in Monster’s Ball.)
•Was considered for the role of Billie Holiday in a movie. However the project didn’t materialize in her lifetime. (Diana Ross later portrayed the legendary blues singer.)
•She was first choice for the role of Cleopatra but ultimately the role went to Elizabeth Taylor.
•Was good friends with Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner when they were all young, struggling actresses in Hollywood.
•Although Dorothy was a top-notch nightclub/caberet singer, she despised it & suffered awful stage fright whenever she had to perform.
•At the time of her death, there was $2.14 in her bank account.
•Although the pathology tests reported that she died of an accidental overdose, the New York Times reported that the Los Angeles coroners office determined that her death was caused by bone marrow particles from a fractured metatarsal bone in her right foot that entered her bloodstream and reached her brain and lungs.
Watch more of her story below…
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