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The Tragedy of Dorothy Dandridge, a Life Destroyed by Hollywood

Dorothy Dandridge had it all. She had the talent, the looks, and the fans. She was one of the most popular actresses of her time and she paved the way for black talent in Hollywood.

For many aspiring entertainers today, Dorothy Dandridge is seen as an icon. It’s safe to say, that if she was still with us – she’d be a living legend.

Sadly, this not meant to be. The harsh truth is that Dorothy Dandridge’s life destroyed by Hollywood. She died at the young age of 42 and her life was filled with one tragedy after the next – because she dared to do what others didn’t want…

Let’s look back at Dorothy Dandridge’s life and career and how her life was sadly, destroyed by Hollywood…



Dorothy Jean Dandridge was born on November 9th, 1922, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her father, Cyril, was a Baptist Minister. Her mother, Ruby, was an actress – best known for her work in the radio production of Amos N Andy and the feature film A Hole in the Head.

While her parents split when Dorothy was young, Ruby Dandridge still heavily involved in her children’s life. Ruby created a dance act for Dorothy and her sister Vivian and the two performed under the name The Wonder Children.

The two sisters would tour the country under the supervision of Ruby’s female lover Geneva Williams – who was often harsh with the daughters. Dorothy and Vivian would seldom attend school and continued to perform until The Great Depression hit.

Work came to an end during this period and the sisters returned to a normal life. However, upon finishing school Dorothy Dandridge began seeking parts in film and radio programs. She and Vivian teamed up once again, this time as The Dandridge Sisters and began touring the country.

They became popular throughout the country and soon began performing at famous nightclubs – including The Cotton Club! Dorothy, in particular, was getting more attention. She began seeking work in films – sometimes with her sister and sometimes working on her own. It was clear that she destined for a career in Hollywood.

Much of her early work included bit parts in so-called “race films” which made primarily for black audiences. Her first major film role was in the 1940 film Four Shall Die – in which she played a murderer. However, she didn’t get roles that she liked. She bombarded with stereotypical roles – similar to what her mother would take.

Dorothy Dandridge dared to be different.  She wanted to take on more dignified roles. It may have been the 1940s, but her way of thinking was much ahead of its time. She knew she had what it took to become a leading lady…

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The 1940s was when Dorothy Dandridge got her foot through the door. The 1950s was the period when she began opening doors that weren’t previously open for black entertainers.

She began playing more major roles in popular feature films. These included playing Queen Melmedi in Tarzan’s Peril and Ann Carpenter in The Harlem Globetrotters. In 1953, she played the lead role in the film Bright Road. In this film, she played Jane Richards – a teacher in the South who tries to help a troubled student.

This film showed that Dorothy Dandridge had incredible acting skills. The same year she played herself in the film Remains to be Seen. But her big break came in 1954 when she played the eponymous role in the film Carmen Jones.

This was a screen adaptation of the popular opera – this time featuring an all-black cast. The film was a success and it catapulted Dorothy Dandridge to stardom. In 1957, she played Margot Seaton in the film Island in the Sun.

In this film, she played a West Indian shopkeeper on a Caribbean Island during the colonial era. The film showed an interracial relationship and was controversial as a result. While Dorothy wasn’t the lead actress, she showed immense bravery by acting in a film that wasn’t afraid to challenge social attitudes.

Two years later, she co-starred with Sidney Poitier in the hit musical film Porgy and Bess. With this film, she showed that she meant to be a leading lady. In 1960, her stardom traveled across the pond when she appeared as a leading lady in the British film Malaga – alongside Trevor Howard.

Her final film role in the film Marco Polo alongside Alain Delon – which still hasn’t been released. The film was made in 1962. She would also make occasional appearances as herself on TV shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show. She had become popular as an actress, singer, and a sex symbol. It seemed that she would become the biggest stars of her generation.

And then…3 years later, in 1965…. Dorothy Dandridge passed away. Her career short-lived and while it may have seen that her career was on an upward trajectory, her life full of tragedy – all thanks to the cruelty of Hollywood…



While Hollywood made Dorothy Dandridge a star, it’s also the industry that led to her downfall.

When Dorothy was still a nightclub performer, she met dancer Harold Nicholas – one of the two Nicholas Brothers, who later made film appearances himself. She married Harold on September 6, 1942, and later had a child with him – Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas.

Sadly, her daughter eventually got brain damage and suffered tremendously from her condition. Dorothy was private about her daughters’ condition for much of her life. She also had a troubled marriage with Harold – who was a womanizer and eventually left his family.

Dorothy also lamented the fact that she was often give work – both on screen and in nightclubs because of her good looks. She knew that she and other talented black entertainers would often dismissed because of their race. Dorothy also knew that many black women only got opportunities because of their looks – from film producers who wanted to exploit their beauty.

She would also reject one role after the next – as so many offers meant to be stereotypical and demeaning. There was one film Tamango in which she originally required to swim entirely nude and wear skimpy clothing for the rest of the movie!

Luckily, she managed to fight the producers and the role was less demeaning. In this film, she had to kiss German actor Curt Jürgens – which stirred up a controversy. This one of the rare occurrences in which an interracial kiss seen on screen and she received hate from both sides of the aisle.

The racism she had to endure is almost unspeakable. She would often perform gigs at prestigious hotels – but was never allowed to stay in any room. She once was prohibited from swimming in a hotel pool – in fact, the pool was eventually drained to prevent her from taking a dip!

None of her marriages were successful. In 1962, she divorced her husband Jack Denison whom she alleged to have been violent toward her. Around this time, she also found out that her financial managers had swindled money from her – and she ended up owing over $100,000 in back taxes!

To pay these taxes, she had to sell her home. She even had to put her daughter in a mental institution. On screen, one couldn’t keep their eyes off Dorothy Dandridge. Off-screen, away from the spotlight, Dorothy’s life was tragic and could repel anyone who couldn’t handle the intense drama that she faced.



Dorothy Dandridge died on September 8, 1965, in Los Angeles, California. She was only 42 years old. Her cause of death was listed as an accidental overdose of anti-depression medication.

Dorothy Dandridge’s life and career were short-lived, yet her impact was incredible. To this day, she’s remembered as an icon of American cinema and a trailblazer for black entertainers.

And yet, one can’t help but think that she’d have been an even bigger star had it not been for the circumstances of her life. She began her career at a time when opportunities for black entertainers were few and far between. Opportunities really began opening up in the 1970s, years after Dorothy passed away.

But many black entertainers owe their success to Dorothy Dandridge. Actresses such as Janet Jackson, Jada Pinkett Smith, Cicely Tyson, Pam Grier, and Angela Basset among many others would express their gratitude for Dorothy Dandridge.

Actress Halle Berry would eventually appear in a biopic called Introducing Dorothy Dandridge in 1999. It was clear that, decades after her death, her contributions to American entertainment hadn’t been forgotten.

But as we reach 6 decades since Dorothy Dandridge passed away, it’s easy to forget the struggles she went through. She went through many issues in her personal life which were enough to cause her depression. On top of these personal issues, the racism she endured certainly took its toll on her.

As we see a generation of great black actresses come of age, we must always remember the trailblazers who paved the way. We shouldn’t forget the tragedy of Dorothy Dandridge, a life destroyed by Hollywood…


Now, let’s hear from you:

Are you a fan of Dorothy Dandridge?

In fact, here’s what we’d like to know:

Do you think that people still remember Dorothy Dandridge and her incredible legacy?

Or is it up to newer generations to remind us all of her contributions and the hardships she endured?

Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.

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