Dame in the Game: Introducing Dorothy Dandridge

dorothy dandridge

We are delighted to introduce The Retro Set’s newest contributor, Maureen Lee Lenker! Maureen’s new column, Dame in the Game, is an exciting new addition to The Retro Set and we are honored to have her on board to take a much-needed, in-depth look at groundbreaking women in film. 

Before jumping in to this month’s Dame in the Game, Dorothy Dandridge, I just wanted to take a moment to say how happy I am to be here at The Retro Set. My column came to life at “Ms. In the Biz,” which was a wonderful home and launching ground. But I’m thrilled to find myself in the company of other writers who are just as passionate about classic film as I am. And now on to the good stuff….

Dorothy Dandridge, like her contemporary Lena Horne, helped break the mold for African-American actresses, playing leading ladies and sexually desirable women, as opposed to servants, slaves, and “Mammy” figures.” Dandridge is perhaps best remembered for playing the title role in Carmen Jones, a part which also earned her the first ever Best Actress Oscar nomination for an African-American woman.

Like Horne, Dandridge was able to break through with her lighter skin tone, which made her more palatable to white audiences resistant to integration. Throughout her career, Dandridge broke barriers and fought against the raw deal offered her because of her race and gender, a battle which ultimately cost her her life.

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Dorothy Dandridge was born on November 9, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio. From a young age, her mother perceived her talents as an entertainer, encouraging Dorothy and her sister to perform skits and sing songs at church. Dandridge and her sister toured for the National Baptist Convention billed as “The Wonder Sisters,” an opportunity Dandridge said was “like having a deal with MGM for white folks.” With the worsening impact of the Great Depression, Dandridge’s mother decided the only place to find steady work was Hollywood where the Dandridge sisters formed a trio with Etta Jones. The trio, known as the Dandridge Sisters, won an amateur contest, which gained them an agent and bit parts in several films. With the trio, Dandridge appeared in The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1936) with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and A Day at the Races (1937) with the Marx Brothers among many other films.

Though she continued to book bit parts in films, Dandridge primarily made her living in the 1930s and 40s as a nightclub singer, first as a member of the trio and then as a solo performer. In 1953, she broke the then all-time attendance record at the Hotel Last Frontier in Las Vegas. Shy and obsessed with appearing a lady, Dandridge actually hated performing as a nightclub singer and being presented as an object for white audiences to ogle, but it paid the bills.

Dandridge sang at many of the most notable clubs of the area including New York’s Cotton Club and Los Angeles’ Mocambo. She understood her role as a performer as one of integration, writing in her biography, “I represented a midway identification. My looks, acceptable in the way Lena Horne’s appearance was also acceptable to whites . . . had something to do with this response. The audience could at least go this far—could “integrate” with a colored woman who had Caucasian features.”

Throughout her time as a nightclub singer, Dandridge endured horrible racism, often not being permitted to stay at the same hotel she was performing at or swim in their pool. Black performers were not permitted to stay at the Sans Souci in Miami Beach, and black cab drivers could not drive to the hotel, which made getting to work each night difficult. Dandridge eventually worked out an arrangement to stay at the hotel owner’s house on the property, a quiet act of insubordination that meant both Dandridge and her maid were able to book a room at the hotel when she returned a few months later. At the Chase Hotel in St. Louis, she arranged with the hotel manager to allow members of the NAACP to attend her performance and enter through the front door – the hotel became integrated from then on. Dandridge would often not stand for segregated hotels, insisting she live where she work, writing, “I walked in, head high, as if I belonged, which I did.”

In the HBO film, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), Dandridge (played by Halle Berry) dips her toe into a Las Vegas swimming pool in defiance of instructions not to swim in it, and later watches as attendants drain and clean it. This moment, apocryphal or not, has taken on mythological proportions in light of Simone Manuel’s recent history-making Olympic gold medal win in an individual women’s swimming event. Dandridge may have only been dipping her toe in the waters of integration, but her defiance ripples down the decades.

In 1951, Dandridge experienced a major breakthrough in her career when actress Marie Wilson convinced Life magazine to do a spread on the singer. This earned her numerous magazine covers and stories, including Esquire, People, and Paris Match, and entrée into marquee nightclubs as a performer. Dandridge became the first black entertainer to ever perform at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Dandridge’s wide-spread success brought her back to the attention of Hollywood, leading to a role as an African princess in Tarzan’s Peril (1951).

Shortly after this, following an engagement at the Mocambo in Los Angeles that attracted many Hollywood elites, Dandridge earned a nearly unheard of role for a black actress – unlike Lena Horne, who primarily made inroads in musical roles, Dandridge earned herself a reputation as a serious actress in leading dramatic roles. In 1953’s Bright Road, she portrayed a schoolteacher who tries to reach out to a troubled student. Dandridge always felt that the universality of the story and the role was a major breakthrough, writing, “I was profoundly fond of the theme – a picture in which there was no violence, no rape, no lynching, no burning cross – rather, a theme which showed that beneath any color skin, people were simply people . . . I wanted any white girl in the audience to look at me performing in this film and be able to say to herself, ‘Why, this schoolteacher could be me.’”

Dandridge’s career found its zenith in her next part, the titular role in Carmen Jones (1954), a reworking of Bizet’s “Carmen” into a contemporary American setting with an all-black cast. Dandridge actively pursued the role of Carmen, fighting against director Otto Preminger’s assumption that the glamorous, lady-like actress was more suitable for the secondary wronged wife character, Cindy Lou. In response to his scoffing, Dandridge went to Max Factor studios and found herself a wig, a worn blouse, and a provocative skirt. She mussed her hair, put on heavy lipstick and practiced a sexy walk – in her own words, she said, “I made myself look like a hussy.” It worked, and Dandridge found herself in the role of her career, earning her the first Best Actress Oscar nomination for a black woman, a feted trip to Cannes, the cover of Life magazine, and numerous other accolades.

Following this glowing success, Dandridge signed a three-year contract with Twentieth-Century Fox for $75,000 a year. The deal appealed to her with Darryl Zanuck’s promise that she wouldn’t be used as a “Negro” actress, but instead to play any variety of ethnicities. But Dandridge’s career faltered – she was typecast as the bombshell hussy she’d played in Carmen and unwisely turned down some plum roles, including Tuptim in The King and I (1956), at the advice of her then-lover director Otto Preminger.

She made several films where she was involved in an interracial relationship with a white man, including Malaga (1960) and Island in the Sun (1957), which in themselves were groundbreaking. However, Dandridge became increasingly frustrated when onscreen kisses or suggestions of intimate relations were rewritten or cut altogether. Playing Bess in the screen adaptation of Porgy and Bess (1959), she felt white America could only handle her sexuality within the context of poverty and prostitution. “America was not geared to make me into a Liz Taylor, a Monroe, a Gardner,” she wrote. “My sex symbolism was as a wanton, a prostitute, not as a woman seeking love and a husband, the same as other women.”

Despite her frustrations onscreen, Dandridge continued to make inroads with her own defiance off-screen. She regularly decried publications for printing falsehoods about her, and in 1957, she sued Confidential Magazine for suggesting she’d conducted an illicit affair in the woods of Lake Tahoe in 1950. She was the first celebrity to sue the magazines for damages and received a $10,000 out-of-court settlement. Later that year, she testified with Maureen O’Hara at a criminal libel trail against the magazine, effectively shutting them down and curtailing tabloid journalism for the next two decades. Reporters called it a “distinct service to the colored performer at large” and named Confidential Magazine as the colored performer’s “worst enemy.”

Dandridge also had a daughter who suffered from brain damage and eventually was sent to live in an institution. In an effort to promote research and funding for facilities, Dandridge went on a television show for the Kennedy Foundation for Mental Retardation to make a six-minute speech about mental disabilities and her experiences with her daughter. She later said if she could have she would have devoted her entire life to working with the Kennedy Foundation and the world of the mentally disabled.

Though she broke many barriers and fought for the rights of the disabled, Dandridge ultimately sunk under the pressures of her position and the inequity she faced throughout her life. After her unsuccessful marriage to Harold Nicholas (one of the dancing Nicholas Brothers), Dandridge became consumed with dating white men and marrying one as a means of asserting her legitimacy. Most of the relationships ended badly for Dandridge, including her eventual marriage to Jack Denison, a “gold digger” whose spending habits left her bankrupt. She wrote, “I wasn’t fully accepted in either world, black or white. I was too light to satisfy Negroes, not light enough to secure the screen work, the roles, the marriage status available to a white woman.”

Her “not-yetness,” as she described it, haunted her and drove her to desperation and a rapid decline in health and finances. In September 1965, at the age of 42, Dandridge was found dead in her apartment – the coroner ruled the death a result of an overdose of Tofranil (an anti-depressant), but mysterious circumstances surround the death to this day with many speculating whether it was an accident, suicide, or even murder.

In her autobiography, “Everything or Nothing” posthumously published in 1970, Dandridge wrote eloquently and tragically of the in-between space she inhabited that limited her career and led to her early demise: “If you have a part of white America in your soul, and a part of black America in your spirit, and they are pulling against each other, your values, if any clear ones exist to begin with, can get lost or unsettled. Add to that, if you take a girl like me, intended by our environment to be a housemaid, then make a star out of her, don’t look for simplicity of personality – look for complexity.”

Its this very complexity that makes Dandridge so compelling and resonant a figure today – she broke barriers, while simultaneously suffering under the immense weight of them, and it is this that makes her The Retro Set’s first “Dame in the Game.”

Follow Maureen’s classic movie musings on Twitter at @TheMaureenLee.

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