The Life of Dorothy Dandridge

During the 1920s it was common to pressure women to focus their goals on getting married, staying home, maintaining the household, and providing emotional support to their husbands. Even those who went to college were encouraged to get the wedding ring instead of pursuing a life for themselves independently—especially a career. In the media, such as films, women were portrayed as happy homemakers which caused unmarried women during their twenties to fear that if they did not marry, they would grow old alone.

Later, during the ‘40s and ‘50s, it was common for households to have large families with three or more children. There have always been advocates, trailblazers, and those who refused to settle for what society expected them to be. Women have fought against the expectations and broken barriers. This is not an attempt to advocate either way, but an effort to shed light on some of the challenges women faced during this period, including those pursuing careers as actresses with a desire to portray a positive image on film.

In 1945, The Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences nominated Dorothy Dandridge for her role as the leading actress in Carmen Jones.

Nominees included Dandridge, Grace Kelly (won), Audrey Hepburn, Judy Garland, and Jane Wyman. Dandridge made history when she became the first Black woman nominated in this category. Actresses during this time faced challenges balancing the image that movie studios pushed versus how they saw themselves. It was common practice for movie studios and the media to perpetuate negative images of Black women.

Some of Dandridge’s early roles included parts with the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races in 1937 and Sun Valley Serenade in 1941.

During this time, it was difficult for any woman to have a role that wasn’t based on stereotypes, and especially for Black women, as they were given roles that were primarily domestic or service-oriented. Dandridge was also a Golden Globe nominee for her role as Bess in Porgy and Bess—an example of a harmful stereotype enforced by the media.

Dandridge married Harold Nicholas (September 6, 1942-October, 1951) of the famous Nicholas Brothers, dancers who shared the stage with artists like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Nicholas was reportedly unfaithful and abusive while Dandridge was left to take care of their disabled daughter. Dandridge blamed herself for her daughter’s disability. The doctors believed that had Dorothy made it to the hospital sooner, her daughter would have been delivered in a timely manner, but, because of the delay, her daughter suffered a lack of oxygen to cause brain damage. (It should also be noted that the archaic forceps used during delivery could have contributed to the damage.)

Dandridge had a long-time affair with Otto Preminger, director of Carmen Jones, who was married. Her relationship with Preminger became physically and verbally abusive. Dandridge became pregnant by Preminger but was forced to terminate the pregnancy per demand by the executives of the movie studio. 

In 1954, Dandridge became the first Black woman to appear on the cover of Life Magazine.

Dandridge had to file for bankruptcy after her second marriage to Jack Dennison (June 22, 1959-December 20, 1962). Poor investments and mismanagement of funds by her husband depleted her financial wealth. This caused Dandridge to eventually place her daughter in a mental institution because she was unable to care for her. Dandridge died on September 8, 1965—at age 42—from an accidental drug overdose of antidepressants.

We appreciate all of the women who have paved the way and done everything in their power to navigate systems that have been unwelcoming and traumatic. It is crucial to find mental health support, a network or group that can provide support and guidance to make the journey manageable.

The autobiography Everything and Nothing by Dorothy Dandridge and Earl Conrad offers greater insight into the challenges and heartbreak she endured navigating her career and personal life.

Note: Stereotypical images were often communicated through the lens of the media, which portrays African American women as rude, dominant, rebellious, aggressive, and directly associated with the terms Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel. This labeling included being the mothering and caring type, the loud argumentative type, or the sexually seductive type (Johnson et al., 2016). Some self-defined images and terms have been used to dispel such stereotypes and negative labeling of African American women, including the Super-Woman or the Strong Black Woman (Johnson et al., 2016). (The Lived Experiences of African American Women in California K-12 Public Schools by Gethsemane S. Moss)