Many of us know that Halle Berry became the first black actress to win an Academy Award for Best Actress for her lead role in Monster’s Ball. However, not many people of today’s generation know the name Dorothy Dandridge, who was the first black woman to be nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award for her role in Carmen Jones. Dandridge was a singer, actress, and dancer, a triple threat with a long career in the industry, especially for a black woman at that time. Dorothy Dandridge’s life began on November 9th, 1922, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her mother, Ruby, left her father before Dandridge was born, and the children were raised by Ruby and her girlfriend Geneva Williams, who was a strict and often cruel disciplinarian. At a young age, Dorothy and her sister Vivian were on stage and in show businesses, dubbing themselves “The Wonder Children” and performing all over black churches throughout the South.
The family moved to Los Angeles during the great depression in search of stardom. She, her sister, and Etta James formed a musical trio called “The Dandridge Sisters”, for which they found some success. Her success did not shield her from racism, and though she could perform in certain venues for white patrons she was often not allowed to eat with them. In the late 1930s Dandridge appeared in small movie roles such as A Day at the Races” and “Sun Valley Serenade” , where she met her first husband, Harold Nicholas. Dandridge married Nicholas in 1942, but the marriage was far from happy. Dandridge’s career came to a halt, and Nicholas had a reputation for chasing after other women. Dandridge’s marriage to him suffered further when she gave birth to their first child, Harolyn, in her home, stuck by herself. The child was born with severe brain damage, and Dandridge blamed Nicholas for his absence.
After Dandridge divorced Nicholas in 1954, she returned to her career, which became very successful when she went solo. She began performing all over the world, becoming an international star. Her first starring movie role was Bright Road, opposite to Harry Belafonte. Her next role, however, was the role that earned her an Academy Awards nomination for Best Actress, making Dandridge the very first African American woman to do so. She lost the award, however, to Grace Kelly. She starred in the 1954 film Carmen Jones, making her into a fully fledged star. The year after, Dandridge became the first African American woman to be featured on the cover of Life magazine.
Years after her famous roles, Dandridge began to have trouble finding movie roles. Because she was a black woman, there were limited leading roles outside of trite stereotypes, and her fame waned. Her last popular film was in 1959, where she played the role of Bess opposite Sidney Poitier in Porgy and Bess. The director of Porgy and Bess was Otto Preminger, a man who Dandridge had a secret affair. Their relationship lasted for some years, but ultimately the parted ways. She married Jack Denison, a white businessman in 1959. Denison was verbally abusive and stole most of her life savings, causing Dandridge to file for bankruptcy after he left her in 1962. Dandridge then fell into a deep depression, using alcohol to ease her pain. Due to her savings being wasted away by her ex-husband, Dandridge was forced to go back to performing in nightclubs. In 1963, she could no longer pay for her daughter’s private medical care, and she was forced to place her in a state institution.
On September 8th, 1965, Dorothy Dandridge was found dead by a concerned friend in her home. She had overdosed on barbiturates. At the time of her death, Dandridge had just over $2 in her bank account. Though her life ended tragically, in her short time on earth Dandridge was a talented actress and singer, destined for fame. In a time when black men and women found little opportunity for worldwide success, Dandridge was able to reach international fame. In a different time and a different world, Dandridge could have risen to even higher stardom.