Strong Rooted Volume 1: August 17, 2017
Dorothy Dandridge November 9, 1922-September 8, 1965
“Have you ever caught sight of yourself by accident and you see yourself from the outside? That’s who you really are.-Dorothy Dandridge
Some legends are legends because of how they died instead of how they lived. This is certainly the case of Ms. Dorothy Dandridge. As beautiful and talented as she was that was lost in how she died. Some say she died of an accidental overdose; other say it was suicide and still others believe that she died from an embolism caused by bone particles from her foot that she had recently broken. Either way, the mystery of her death has outweighed most of the work she has done and certainly her enormous talent.
Like so many other Black entertainers of the times, Dandridge went unbilled for several of her earlier appearances and performance. It wasn’t until her 1940’s film Four Shall Die. Dandridge and her sister Vivian were child performers that worked on the Chitlin Circuit singing and dancing to make a living for their family.
Dandridge had a somewhat complicated childhood. Because she and her sister were on the road so much she was rarely in school and therefore relied on the knowledge of the adults in her surroundings to help teach her.
Vulnerable, Dandridge was allegedly abused at the hands of her mother’s live in lesbian lover. Dandridge would have issues with intimate relationships because of the abuse. During her marriage to Harold Nicholas she would experience further abuse both mental and physical and as a result, their marriage would fail. One great thing that was produced from their union was their daughter Harolyn whom Dandridge adored. Harolyn suffered from brain damage that was believed to be caused by Dandridge refusing to allow the baby to be born until her then husband showed up to the hospital. It is rumored that the lack of oxygen affected the babies brain and as a result, she suffered from a delayed mental capacity.
After her marriage to Nicholas had failed, Dandridge went on with her career and landed her most famous role in Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones. Dandridge would also go on to have a long-time affair with the director. During their affair, Preminger would advise her not to take certain roles, and she would accept his advice not realizing that he was using it as a control mechanism. His advice and her acceptance of it would destroy her career. Dandridge realized after five years that Preminger had no intention of leaving his wife to marry her and she broke off their longtime affair and married her second husband, Jack Denison that also ended in peril and divorce.
Dorothy Dandridge rose to fame with her role as Carmen Jones and became the first Black woman to be nominated for Best Actress for an Academy Award. Although she did not win the award, her talent was not lost on Hollywood and Dandridge would go on to sign a three-film deal with 20th Century Fox but, listening to the advice of Otto Preminger, Dandridge rejected two of the roles offered to her because they were not starring roles, and she lost out on over $150,000.
Dandridge fell victim to both management and accountants who stole over $150,000 from her and left her owing the IRS over $100,000 in back taxes. Having to sell her home and put her daughter in a mental institution, Dandridge was broke and broken. It was at this stage that depression and drinking set in and Dandridge might have written a suicide note that would later lead to the speculation surrounding whether her death was intentional or accidental.
Just when Dandridge was on her way up and ready to get back into show business, she broke her foot at a rehearsal. Determined not to let that stop her, Dandridge continued with her plans to fly to New York to shoot a movie, but she would never make it. After spending hours on the phone with her sister-in law, Dandridge would be found naked and dead in her apartment.
Introducing Dorothy Dandridge starring Haley Berry was produced for HBO and depicted the life of the singer and some of the struggles that she faced in life. Dorothy Dandridge was an iconic figure for many Black actresses who otherwise wouldn’t have made it as far as they have if it were not for her many contributions to the industry.
We thank you Dorothy Dandridge, and we honor you.