Black History Month Tribute: Dorothy Dandridge

By Joan Amenn

The heartbreak of fame is that sometimes talent just isn’t enough. Dorothy Dandridge was beautiful and talented but unlike her contemporary Lena Horne, she did not have the strength and support to overcome the barriers placed in her way from the racism of her time. Added to this was the turmoil of failed relationships that left her vulnerable, indebted and alone.

Like Horne, Dandridge was born into a family of entertainers. Also like Horne, she performed at venues like the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater as a young singer. However, Dandridge was aiming her hopes for a career in Hollywood. She picked up tiny parts here and there but nothing very substantial came her way because she was African American. She also never seems to have landed any recording contracts even though she continued to sing while pursuing a film career. Finally, she was signed to a contract with MGM after receiving smashing reviews for her show at a West Hollywood night club.

Dorothy Dandridge1964 © 1978 Wallace Seawell
Photo by Wallace Seawell – © 1978 Wallace Seawell – Image courtesy mptvimages.com

Dandridge’s big break came with the adaptation to screen of the successful Broadway musical, “Carmen Jones.” This modernized version of the Bizet opera was perfect for her but she was initially turned down for the lead. Director Otto Preminger was eventually convinced she was right for the part and also became romantically involved with her. This was a scandal because of the bigotry of the time but to complicate things further, he was also married.

“Dorothy Dandridge was the face of the tragedy of what might have been if only she been given the opportunities to develop her amazing talent.”

The film was a huge hit, earning raves for Dandridge and her co-star, Harry Belafonte. She deserved the accolades, but it is a little disappointing to note that her own singing voice was dubbed over. Preminger opted for future opera diva Marilyn Horne to sing the demanding arias while she while she was still a teenager studying music. However, Dandridge was the first African American woman to be nominated for an Oscar for her seductive Carmen.

Dorothy Dandridgepicture 3
Dorothy Dandridge “Island In The Sun” 1957 20th Century Fox

This should have been the launch of more roles that could showcase her talents, but the prevailing racism in Hollywood and Preminger’s dominating influence had the opposite effect. He decided she should only accept lead roles which seems incredible since African Americans were very lucky to be cast for any part at all at the time. Dandridge did manage to appear in other films after “Carmen Jones”, but none did her justice. These were often criticized for portraying her in interracial relationships by the Hays Code, Hollywood’s self-monitoring bureau for upholding moral values in films.

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Louis Armstrong and Dorothy Dandridge in Pillow to Post (1945)

With her career drying up and her affair with Preminger ended, she returned to singing in clubs to support herself and her severely handicapped child she had with dancer, Harold Nicholas. That relationship had ended with him abandoning them both and divorce. Like Marilyn Monroe, Dandridge never found a stable relationship to sustain her in her life. She later married again only to divorce on discovering that her earnings had been mishandled and she was deeply in debt.

Dandridge died of an overdose when she was forty-two and preparing to open with a new singing gig. If Lena Horne was a symbol of the triumph of African Americans over the adversity of racism in the entertainment industry, Dorothy Dandridge was the face of the tragedy of what might have been if only she been given the opportunities to develop her amazing talent.

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