Dorothy Dandridge was a shining star during her short life. A popular nightclub singer in the fifties and sixties, her acting turns earned her the distinction of being called the first Black movie star. Her success in the movie Carmen Jones earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, the first for an African-American. Her breathtaking beauty, poise and personality made her a role model for African-Americans, and seen as “a credit to her race” by White Americans.
But with Dandridge’s triumphs came tragedies. Childhood encounters with racism and abuse produced anxieties and insecurities that haunted her well into her adult life; racism in Hollywood limited her to supporting instead of starring roles; her personal life was beset with failed marriages, failed relationships and financial problems, all which lead to substance abuse; and her beauty and sex appeal were often hindrances in her professional and personal lives. She died in 1965 from an apparent drug overdose.
Fortunately, Dandridge is remembered more for her accomplishments than her hardships. Her determination to succeed despite color barriers have inspired many African-American entertainers of her time and today, most notably Halle Berry who portrayed her in the biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.
I’m currently reading Dorothy Dandridge: An Intimate Biography by Earl Mills, Dandridge’s manager for most of her career. His memoir is based on stories and discussions that Dandridge told to him about her life and personal encounters on her career path. I suspect that Mills takes some license in recounting Dandridge’s stories, as there is much detail in the dialogues, emotions and actions between Dandridge and other persons. Nonetheless, he gives a portrait of Dandridge as a sensitive, complex soul, struggling to deal with the many hurts in her life.
By contrast, Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography by film historian Donald Bogle is a structured, thoroughly researched and detailed account of Dandridge’s life. Bogle interviews her survivors, friends and associates as well as explores documents, photographs, films and sound recordings. He also gives commentary to her art and the society that both revered her and held her back. While not as personal as Mills, Bogle is not impassionate towards his subject; in fact, it is his fascination with Dandridge that drove his research, and flavors his 613 page book.
Both books are revealing looks into the life of a timeless and enduring entertainment legend.
Dandridge’s own autobiography, Everything and Nothing: The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy is also available through PINES. Ask a librarian if you need assistance.