Unlike her friend Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Dandridge — the first black woman ever nominated for a Best Actress Oscar — did not become a household name after she died.
Although Dandridge’s death was never ruled a suicide, the similarity to Monroe’s tragic end is clear. Dandridge’s longtime friend and manager, Earl Mills, found the 42-year-old actress dead in her Hollywood apartment on Sept. 8, 1965, the victim of an overdose of an antidepressant. Yet there’ve been no emotion-choked songs likening Dandridge to a candle in the wind; no mass-produced posters bearing her likeness; no glossy photo books to feed a public fascination with the ill-starred screen goddess. Even the title of HBO’s recent biopic, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (with Halle Berry in the title role), emphasizes the degree to which her memory has faded into obscurity.
But for a brief moment in the ’50s, Dandridge stood on the brink of superstardom. Sadly, she stayed there, teetering, thanks to Hollywood’s shortsighted attitudes toward actresses of color. ”There was just no market for black leading ladies then,” says Martha Coolidge, who directed HBO’s Dandridge. ”Dorothy was in the unfortunate position of being first.”
In many ways, Dandridge’s life was more tragic than any character she ever played. Born into a showbiz family (her actress mother, Ruby, played numerous film roles of the maids-and-mammies variety), young Dorothy cut her teeth singing and dancing in nightclubs. Her first husband, Harold Nicholas, was a famed tap dancer. Their union yielded a severely retarded daughter and ended in divorce.
In 1954, Dandridge landed the part that would net her that Oscar nod — the title character in director Otto Preminger’s all-black musical Carmen Jones. The role spilled over into a stormy affair between Dandridge and the married Preminger that lasted several years. When the relationship ended, she was devastated. Coolidge believes Preminger ”really loved her. But she was unwilling to go on being his mistress. There was no place for it to go.”
Though Dandridge would go on to star in other films, notably Island in the Sun (1957) and Porgy and Bess (1959), her career petered out. Once Hollywood stopped calling, personal problems — an abusive second husband, an increasing reliance on alcohol and pills, and depression — took their debilitating toll. Ironically, at the time of her death, Dandridge was on an upswing, preparing for a singing gig at a New York club. ”She was never happier,” Mills said at the time of her death. She must have been more optimistic than anyone knew — her bank balance was $2.14.