Dorothy Dandridge Is the First Black Leading Lady, Marries a Nicholas Brother, Loves to Cook, And Gives Marilyn Monroe a Leotard.
A Pure Heart: The Tragedy & Triumph of Dorothy Dandridge
September 4, 2020 Updated April 15, 2022
Dorothy Dandridge was a trailblazer.
Her stunning beauty, stylized nightclub singing performances, and dramatic abilities demanded attention. And in 1954, with her electric performance in Carmen Jones, Dorothy became the first black leading lady. Her portrayal of the film’s title character earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, making Dorothy the first black woman to achieve the honor.
"The Right Person in the Wrong Time"
Despite these accomplishments, Dorothy Dandridge still found her opportunities as a beautiful black actress in Hollywood limited. Fully aware of these unjust limitations, Dorothy once lamented to a friend that if only she looked like Betty Grable, she could capture the world.
With her great talent and beauty, Dorothy deserved infinitely more than the handful of starring film roles she was offered during her Hollywood career. As Harry Belafonte once said of Dottie:
“She was the right person in the right place at the wrong time.”
Dorothy Dandridge knew how terribly the times stifled her opportunities. But Dottie also recognized her important role in redefining how African Americans were portrayed on screen. As Dorothy said in 1956, part of her life’s purpose was:
“To endeavor in my own small way to widen horizons for others of my race, to try sincerely to be a credit to my people at all times.”
In these noble aims, Dorothy unquestionably succeeded. And her accomplishments, talent, pure heart, and too often tragic life deserve recognition.
Here are a few things about Dorothy Dandridge you didn’t know:
She Had a Rough Childhood
Dorothy Dandridge was born November 9, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio. Her mother Ruby was five months pregnant with Dorothy when she left her husband, Cyril Dandridge, taking Dorothy’s older sister, one-year-old Vivian, with her. Cyril Dandridge wasn’t a bad husband. He was just a little too dull for the adventuresome Ruby who, even at five months pregnant, found leaving her husband preferable to the stagnant life Cyril offered her, living in his mother’s home.
Dorothy Dandridge grew up without a father. As an adult, she readily admitted that the feelings of abandonment resulting from Cyril’s absence greatly shaped the rest of her life.
So too, did her mother’s choice of partner after Cyril.
An Abusive "Proxy Parent"
Ruby Dandridge was indeed a woman ahead of her time: after leaving Cyril in 1922—not something many women did in the 1920s—Ruby began a romance with Geneva Williams, a woman who, like Ruby, had left an unsatisfying marriage behind. Geneva moved into the Dandridge home, and effectively raised Dorothy and Vivian while Ruby became the family breadwinner.
Tragically, Geneva Williams abused the two young girls in her care. Mental and physical abuse at Geneva’s hands was a regular part of the Dandridge sisters’ childhood. And for Dorothy, Geneva’s abuse was at times sexual.
The abuse continued through Dorothy’s teen years. In her autobiography, [aff. link], Dorothy called Geneva Williams a “proxy parent” whom she learned to fear:
“This substitute father—that is what it turned out to be—was a woman for whom I developed a permanent fear and hate. Somehow much that I am and much that I am not I attribute to the near-sinister creature who walked into our house to help my mother, and stayed for the first half of my lifetime.”
Through it all, Dorothy and Vivian could only depend on each other. With Ruby either oblivious or turning a blind eye to Geneva’s abuse, the Dandridge sisters became extremely close. A childhood friend later reflected that Dorothy and Vivian literally “had no one else to love but one another.”
Dorothy Dandridge Was A Born Entertainer
Young Dorothy, or Dottie, as her family and friends called her, was a born entertainer. By about age three, Dottie could memorize and perform her mother’s Paul Laurence Dunbar poetry readings, which Ruby recited at local churches. Ruby Dandridge possessed her own acting aspirations, and excitedly noted her daughter’s natural abilities and charisma. For her two girls, Ruby dreamed of a future brighter than her own, and she fervently believed that show business was the answer. As Dorothy recalled in her autobiography [aff. link], Ruby often told her girls:
“I don’t want you to go into service. You [are] not going to be a scullery maid. We’re going to fix it so you become something else than that.”
In just a few short years, Dorothy’s career path would prove that there are few things more powerful than a mother’s will and wish for her children.
"The Wonder Children"
With Ruby’s dream for her daughters as the driving force, Dorothy and Vivian began their rigorous music and dance training. And it was Geneva Williams, the same woman who abused the girls year after year, who cultivated their natural singing and dancing talents. In an unspeakably tragic twist of irony, it was Dottie’s abuser who laid the foundation for her successful entertainment career.
Young Dottie and Vivi began performing locally in Cleveland. After Geneva worked out a deal with Roger Williams University in Nashville, TN, the girls began touring churches across the south, making a name for themselves as “The Wonder Children.” Vivian said the name of their new act stemmed from the acrobatic stunts the sisters did in their performances. The Wonder Children became quite popular.
These years on the road instilled in Dorothy the great drive and discipline she would soon be known for during her career as a nightclub singer, and later, as a movie actress. But as Dorothy honestly shared, this “abnormally early baptism in show business” also deprived her of a childhood. Traveling across the southern states made Dorothy acutely aware of Jim Crow laws and segregation: separate stores, drinking fountains, restaurants, and boarding houses were all sadly part of young Dottie’s and Vivi’s tours of the south.
"The Dandridge Sisters"
The Wonder Children act matured as Dottie and Vivi approached their teen years. Soon they teamed up with good friend Etta James to form a new trio, “The Dandridge Sisters.” The girls were a hit, beating out 25 white contestants on a Los Angeles radio program contest in 1934. From that time on, the Dandridge Sisters continued to gain attention and accolades for their beauty, dancing, and musical talents.
Until Dorothy decided to go solo at age eighteen, The Dandridge Sisters performed at such prestigious venues as the Cotton Club, appeared as musical numbers in a few films, and even toured Europe. Though not spared the prejudices of the era, the Dandridge Sisters, like other popular black performers of the time, found that their immense talent gave them entrée into worlds that were otherwise closed to African Americans.
Dorothy Dandridge Could Sing
This sounds redundant after addressing Dorothy’s musical upbringing and early career, but Dorothy Dandridge could sing.
Perhaps due to the fact that Dorothy’s singing was dubbed in Carmen Jones (1954) and Porgy and Bess (1959), many Classic Hollywood fans don’t realize just what a gorgeous voice Dorothy possessed. There are even completely false rumors that Dorothy Dandridge couldn’t sing at all.
Dorothy’s distractingly drop dead gorgeous appearance may have also contributed to the rumor–how could someone that gorgeous also be so talented? But the fact of the matter is that Dorothy Dandridge was a trained singer from childhood. Dottie was so good in fact, that she based a highly successful career as a nightclub performer around her beautiful voice. As the great jazz musician and arranger Phil Moore said of Dorothy’s talent:
“Everybody said she was beautiful. But she couldn’t sing. I wondered why [they said] she couldn’t sing because I’d known her as a child and maybe from thirteen…she could sing her butt off. She could just SING.”
The Complete Package
When Dorothy became an international sensation with her nightclub act in the early 1950s, it was Phil Moore who tailored Dorothy’s performances around her beautiful voice and unique talents: no one, not even the great Lena Horne, possessed Dorothy’s rare ability to completely capture her audience with her physical beauty—shown to perfection in stylish gowns, her warm singing voice, elegant movements—Dorothy became particularly well known for her graceful, expressive hand movements, and her great vulnerability.
To my knowledge, there are no video recordings of Dorothy’s actual nightclub act. But this (unfortunately unsynchronized) clip from Remains to Be Seen (1953), a film in which Dorothy was featured with a musical number, most certainly gives us a taste of what it must have been like to watch and hear Dottie perform live.
(Note the quick glimpse we get of June Allyson, one of the stars of the film, at the end of this clip.)
Dorothy never enjoyed singing in “the saloons,” as she called the nightclubs she performed in before, during, and after her film career. No matter how well a show went, Dorothy never could shake the nerves, anxieties, and insecurities that plagued her before and after every performance. But the confidence she radiated on stage hid these insecurites. If a Hollywood career as dramatic film actress hadn’t been her ultimate goal, there’s no doubt that Dorothy Dandridge would still be remembered today for her stunning act and unique singing on the nightclub circuit.
Dorothy Dandridge Married a Nicholas Brother
Have you heard of the Nicholas Brothers?
It’s time for a quick tangent about this dynamic dancing duo.
Brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas made a name for themselves during the Harlem Renaissance as the Nicholas Brothers, a dance team known for their handsome, classy appearance, machine gun tap dancing, and acrobatic darings. Watching this pair of talented brothers dance, it’s impossible to believe they never had any formal training. They’re that good.
Fred Astaire called the brothers’ performance in the finale of 1943’s Stormy Weather the greatest dance routine he ever saw on film. Signature Nicholas Brothers moves, such as high jumps that land in the splits, from which the brothers then seemingly defy gravity to jump back up from again and again, inspired modern tap dancing great Gregory Hines to comment that only with the help of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) could another dancer emulate the moves of Fayard and Harold Nicholas.
One of my favorite Nicholas Brothers dance numbers, from Down Argentine Way (1940). Take a minute to watch, and observe how modern break dancing takes inspiration from these two.
The Nicholas Brothers are the fathers of flash dancing, their moves precursors to modern break dancing. When watching Fayard and Harold on the dance floor, you can even see where Michael Jackson must have taken inspiration for his impossibly smooth “moon walk.”
As a young dancer, I found myself inspired by the amazing routines of the Nicholas Brothers. I still get the chills when I watch this talented duo dance.
By the time the Dandridge Sisters and the Nicholas Brothers met while appearing at the Cotton Club in 1938, the Nicholas Brothers were dancing gods, recognized and lauded for their unearthly talent.
So it’s a testament to Dorothy Dandridge’s great beauty and sweetness that Harold Nicholas, at the prime of his career and fame, with women literally falling at his feet, chose to pursue the relatively unknown Dottie.
The virginal Dorothy married Harold Nicholas at age nineteen on September 6, 1942. For the duration of the marriage, Dorothy put her burgeoning career on hold.
Dorothy's First Love
But it was a difficult union.
Dorothy suspected, probably accurately, that Harold began cheating on her just days after the wedding. As Dorothy shared in her autobiography [aff. link],
“I liked marriage, home life, cooking. My mother had taught me to be a good cook, and I tried holding his [Harold’s] interest with good meals. That didn’t keep him from philandering. To complicate it, he was in many ways very good to me. He was a good provider…I didn’t want for any comforts…What do you do with a man who is good to you materially, kind, charming—and kind and charming at the same time to other women? I liked him yet I hated him for what he was doing.”
Friends of Dottie’s believed she never again loved any man the way she loved Harold Nicholas.
And despite the heartaches, Dorothy herself called those early years with Harold and their young family the happiest of her life.
Dorothy Dandridge Was A Good Mom
At twenty years old, young Dorothy Dandridge become a mother. Daughter Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas was born on September 2, 1943.
Dottie was an amazing mom. But nothing about motherhood, from her earliest labor pains, would be easy.
A Difficult Delivery
When Dorothy began to feel the baby coming, Harold was so convinced she was wrong that, rather than drive his wife to the hospital, Harold dropped her off at older brother Fayard’s house. Then Harold went off to play golf.
For the whole day.
(Sounds a little bit like Esther Williams’ experience during her first pregnancy, doesn’t it?)
But Harold was wrong: the baby was, in fact, on her way.
Lucky for Dorothy, Fayard’s wife Geri was a remarkable woman, one of Dorothy’s few friends who remained a rock for her through the ups and downs of life before, during, and after stardom. Despite the fact that Harold took their only car to the golf course and remained unreachable all day, Geri managed to get Dorothy through her labor and to the hospital just in time.
Dorothy’s desire to have Harold there for the birth was great. Desperately hoping he’d show up at the hospital in time, Dottie tried holding back the delivery.
But Harold never came.
Eventually, forceps were used to pry baby Harolyn out.
Dorothy forever blamed herself and the difficult delivery for Harolyn’s ensuing brain damage. As Dorothy wrote in her autobiography [aff. link],
“Was it poor obstetrics, a basically difficult birth, or neglect from any source? No one can know. Nor can I be certain that there was a direct relationship between a delayed delivery and the kind of child that matured—but in my deepest heart I think there was some connection…Rightly or wrongly, I date much of what was to happen to me thereafter—in my personal life and in my career—for the incident of the delayed delivery. Whatever happened, I blame only myself.”
A Mother's Love
Initially, Harolyn, or Lynn as she’d be called, showed no signs of brain damage or delayed development. But when Lynn was still not talking by the age of two, Dorothy’s motherly intuition told her something was wrong. Dottie spent the next three years in and out of doctor’s offices, taking Lynn for various tests before coming home to implement new treatment regiments. Dorothy desperately hoped that through her own time, love, and care, Lynn’s disabilities could be overcome.
Decades later, absentee husband Harold shared that:
“It was a heavy load I left on her [Dorothy]. Cause for her to be there alone to do all this, that was a heavy toll.”
Eventually, doctors definitively informed Dorothy that Lynn required special 24-hour care; care that Dorothy alone could not provide. They told Dorothy to give Lynn up, to forget about this “imperfect” daughter, and to have another child.
For a young, dedicated mother like Dorothy, the news was indescribably devastating. Dottie did her research, and found a woman she trusted who specialized in the care Lynn required:
“So I moved all the little mother and daughter pinafores out and let my daughter go to this wonderful woman.”
Dorothy's Greatest Love and Hurt
For the next thirteen years, Dorothy made weekly payments to Lynn’s caregiver, Helen Calhoun.
Dorothy couldn’t completely follow the advice of Lynn’s doctors. Though she recognized Lynn needed the care of a professional, Dorothy couldn’t completely give her daughter up, or forget about her. As Dorothy writes in her autobiography,
“Inside I never gave her up. It was myself that I began giving up.”
Providing for her little girl was Dorothy’s main motivator for re-staring her career. She received no help from Harold for Lynn’s weekly care payments, and the two divorced in November of 1951.
Throughout the highs and lows of her stardom, romances, and friendships, Dorothy’s love for her daughter remained constant. Lynn was simultaneously the greatest hurt and the greatest love of Dottie’s life.
Dorothy Dandridge Loved to Cook
Dorothy Dandridge was one of the most glamorous women of her era, yet this bombshell was also known for the spotless homes she owned and the delicious meals she cooked.
As a girl, Dorothy learned how to cook soul food from her mother Ruby. Dorothy’s love for these flavors of her youth never left her.
During her years in the nightclubs, after a long night of performing, Dorothy loved nothing better than:
“…to stop being the elegant lady up on the platform singing…When I get into my own kitchen, I can find corn bread and hush puppies and rice, and it helps me to get my footing again.”
Dottie’s other soul food favorites included collard greens and chitlins, though she was known to experiment with French recipes as well. In fact, as a Hollywood star, Dorothy’s parties were known for her elegant and unique way of serving both her soul food and European cuisine favorites.
Be sure to make my Dorothy Dandridge inspired hush puppies recipe, which you can find here.
Dorothy Dandridge and Marilyn Monroe
After turning over the care of her beloved Lynn to Helen Calhoun, and separating from Harold Nicholas, Dorothy rebooted her singing career. She also began devoting more time to her first love, acting, taking classes at the renown Actor’s Lab in Hollywood, where the techniques of Lee Strasberg and New York’s Group Theatre were taught.
Dorothy chose to train at the Actor’s Lab in part for its respected technique, but mostly because at the time, the Lab was one of the few studios that accepted students of all races. At the Actor’s Lab, Dorothy enjoyed participating in completely integrated classes. And one of the friends she made during her years at the Lab was none other than the young Marilyn Monroe.
Dottie and Marilyn weren’t just classroom buddies either: often, Marilyn went over to Dorothy’s place to hang out. These two future stars shared their acting dreams and aspirations, and provided each other a sympathetic shoulder to cry on when romances turned heartbreaking.
As Dorothy’s good friend and former sister-in-law, Geri Nicholas Branton, shared about the Dottie and Marilyn friendship:
“Oh, they were friends alright. They spent all day at the Lab. They had exercise class there. And sometimes Marilyn forgot to bring her leotards. And Dottie would lend her hers. Marilyn wasn’t as neat as Dottie. Dottie was a perfectionist, and if somebody used something like that, she was through with it.”
I wonder how much one of those long-lost leotards, worn by two of the world’s most beautiful and glamorous women, would go for today.
She Died Young, Tragically, and Mysteriously
Read my article on Tamango (1958) for all about the last years and untimely death of Dorothy Dandridge, but in a nutshell, Dottie’s passing at the age of forty-two in September 1965 remains somehwat mysterious.
Was Dorothy’s death a suicide, as her friend Geri Nicholas Branton believed, brought on by a purposeful overdose of the prescription pills Dorothy became so dependent on in her last years as she grappled with bankruptcy, and the end of her abusive second marriage?
Or, as a Los Angeles pathology institute concluded, was Dorothy’s death an accidental overdose?
Or was the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office correct in their assessment that Dorothy’s death was the result of an embolism in her right foot, brought on by a sprain she suffered just days before her body was found?
Opinions on the circumstances and motivations surrounding her death remain mixed, but there’s no question that Dorothy Dandridge left this earth much too soon.
Dorothy Dandridge: the First Black Leading Lady
Though there were many trailblazing black actresses and singers before her—such as Fredi Washington and Lena Horne—Dorothy Dandridge was the first black leading lady.
With 1954’s Carmen Jones, Dorothy became a bonafide, indisputable star. Audiences of all races couldn’t ignore Dorothy’s beauty and appeal in her electrifying portrayal of the film’s title character. And her talent demanded respect—it was Dorothy’s skill as an actress that brought Carmen Jones to life. Deservedly, Dottie earned a Best Actress nomination for her work in the film, making Dorothy Dandridge the first black actress so honored.
Despite her talent, beauty, and great popularity with audiences, countless film opportunities remained closed to Dorothy Dandridge on the basis of race: she was still offered slave roles, she was still asked to portray various “exotic” ethnicities, and she still found her black screen characters forbidden from any interracial kissing on film (with one exception).
But there’s no denying that Dorothy Dandridge was a star; a star who greatly changed audience perceptions, and broadened the opportunities available to future black actresses. Halle Berry’s 2002 Best Actress Oscar win, which Berry dedicated to Dorothy, among others, was indeed a well-deserved homage to the actress who so challenged the status quo of black women in film.