The Mystery And Real-Life Tragedy Was her death an accident or suicide?
Did powerful men in Hollywood drive her to the edge?
THE coroner's report, dated Nov. 19, 1965, was the last chapter in the tragic story of a genuine, strikingly beautiful entertainer. Within the 18-page report labeled "Case No. 20813" was the long-awaited conclusion: Dorothy Jean Dandrige, Hollywood's first authentic Black sex symbol, had died from acute drug intoxication due to an overdose of Tofranil, an antidepressant. She was only 42.
When the final curtain rang down, the star of such movies as Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess was found lying on the bathroom floor of her Sunset Strip apartment. It marked the end of the troubled life that was punctuated by pain, sorrow, disappointment and one heart-breaking tragedy after another. But there were triumphs, too, prompting those who knew her best to compare her life to a bright, shiny apple that has internal bruises. On the outside she was beautiful and surrounded by all the trappings that befit a star. But on the inside she suffered from the personal turmoil that wreaked havoc on her soul.
This year (September 8) marked the 28th anniversary of Dorothy Dandridge's death, and her name still evokes some special thoughts and feelings. For many who knew her personally or simply worshipped her from afar, the adulation, the memories and the mysteries still remain. And that continuing interest has led to the birth of several screenplays based on the sex goddess' life, with the mention of such stars as Janet Jackson, Jasmine Guy and former Miss America Vanessa Williams being cast in the lead role.
Dandrige, a 5-foot-5, honey-colored woman, was a ravishing beauty who had a sensual swagger. She became the silver screen's hottest Black sex symbol and was described at one time as one of the five most beautiful women in the world. Her beauty, grace, good singing voice and acting ability all came into play during the transformation of her life into a classic Hollywood tale -- one with a bittersweet mixture of joy and pain. First there was the fruit of her labor -- the fame, the $100,000 per movie, a collection of jewels, a mansion in Hollywood Hills and a white Thunderbird car that was accentuated by the matching white beaver coat in which she wrapped herself. She was a star among stars.
Sadly, though, whatever glory she grasped from that pedestal was often overshadowed by the seemingly inevitable and heavy doses of disaster and despair -- two failed marriages, an abortion after an affair with producer/director Otto Preminger, a child who suffered brain damage, a floundering career, loss of a fortune in bad investments, eight lawsuits from creditors, the foreclosure on her elegant home and, finally, the embarrassment of bankruptcy. "There's no doubt that the tragedies, some of them extreme in nature, directly contributed to Dorothy's death," says Earl Mills, who began serving as Dorothy's manager in 1951 and was still in that position when she died. "Each tragic event took a little bit more out of her and eventually there was nothing else to take."
The tragedy that took the most involved her daughter, Harolyn, who was mentally retarded as a result of brain damage suffered at birth. Dorothy, who at the time was married to Harold Nicholas of the dancing Nicholas Brothers, was constantly burdened with guilt and depression because she believed she was responsible for the child's condition. It was two years after the birth that she learned the horrible truth -- Harolyn's mentality, doctors said, wouldn't develop beyond that of a four-year-old.
It was speculated that somehow, before delivery, the infant's supply of oxygen had been interrupted. Dorothy believed she waited too long to go to the hospital. But it was later said, however, that the brain damage could have been caused during delivery. "Dottie never got over the overwhelming guilt she felt because she thought she was responsible for her child's condition. She lived with that thought every day of her life," says Geraldine Branton, who at one time was married to Harold's brother, Fayard Nicholas, and was Dorothy's best friend. "You could never convince her she wasn't at fault. And nothing she did made up for what she felt she had done."
Harolyn was taken from doctor to doctor in a desperate attempt to find a cure for her problem. There was none. Dorothy sank deeper into her depression, and at the same time, her marriage to Harold Nicholas was crumbling. They drifted apart, and after seven years their marriage ended in divorce in 1949.
Now the walls seemed to be closing in on Dorothy. She felt she had failed as a mother and a wife. And now without a husband, without money and with a child to care for, she had to get back to what she knew best -- performing. But before renewing the career she had put on hold after her marriage, she reacquainted herself with famed vocal coach and composer Phil Moore. Years earlier, he had worked with Dorothy and her sister, Vivian, when they were billed as "The Wonder Children" and, later, as "The Dandridge Sisters" (which included Etta Jones).
After Moore boosted her confidence and taught her to mask her shyness, Dorothy found private care for her daughter and hit the nightclub circuit. She was like a little girl trying to be brave in a very frightening world at the time she took her first big-time job at the Mocambo in Hollywood. "I had no material and no confidence," she said of that engagement, "and to top it off, I was shy. But the people just seemed to like to look at me."
They really liked what they saw -- the flawless figure, the dreamy eyes, the smooth cafe au lait complexion, the sensuous mouth and the smooth elegance. She went on to conquer international audiences and break attendance records at hotels, including New York's Waldorf-Astoria.
There, Dorothy became the first Black to sing in the hotel's world-famed Empire Room, and over the years she integrated many of the other previously "White only" night spots. Although some Blacks accused her of having "gone over to the other side" because of her romances with White men, she uses her career as a platform to speak out for civil rights. She refused to perform in any club that wouldn't set aside a special table near the stage for members of the NAACP in the city in which she was scheduled to perform. She was proud of that and frequently wore an "EQUALITY" button that the National Urban League was distributing in those days.
Dandridge's singing career continued to blossom, and all the time she exhibited a joyous and tranquil facade. But as was the case so many times in her life, what seemed to be reality really wasn't. She suffered inside and fought hard to hide the tears. The truth is, she hated everything about working in nightclubs -- the cigarette smoke, the liquor; the men who ogled her and those who threw themselves at her. But this was the only way to make the much-needed money, and she believed it was the best way to achieve her ultimate goal -- movie stardom.
In 1953, her perservance paid off. After bit parts in some forgettable, low-budget films, she starred opposite Harry Belafonte in MGM's all-Black production of Bright Road. A year later, Carmen Jones, the '50s' most lavish all-Black production, based on Bizet's opera Carmen, made her an international star. Again starring with Belafonte, she took the title role and twisted it around her finger, playing a sultry factory worker who corrupts Belafonte, dumps him and is killed by him for her unfaithfulness.
The performance won her worldwide acclaim and an Oscar nomination as Best Actress of the Year, another first for a Black. She was turning up on all the major magazine covers, and for men -- both Black and White -- she had become the No. 1 object of their desire. When she thought that she had finally achieved her dream, tragedy struck again. Racism stil had its place in Hollywood. Dorothy Dandridge had been elevated to leading-lady status, and on the screen leading ladies make love to leading men. But Hollywood wasn't prepared for what it created.
With the exception of Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, there were no romantic Black male leads. And with Dorothy's sex appeal, her character had to sizzle. Producers didn't know how to handle an intimate Black-White relationship on screen, and, with no solutions in sight, they ignored it.
So after her performance in Carmen Jones raised some great expectation for the future, her bubble suddenly burst. Roles didn't come her way. It was three years before she appeared in another film, Island in the Sun, where she was cast in her first interracial love role -- a role that had to be limited to little more than hand holding.
Surely the lack of roles greatly frustrated this Cleveland-born star, but the compromises made in the few roles she got infuriated her. She was a perfectionist, a strong woman who had the courage to face the controversies that her characters might have created. "Dorothy was probably as frustrated as any actress could be who was Black," says Brock Peters, who(starred with her in Carmen Jones. "She had the talent and the looks, but she couldn't find an open door so those talents could be displayed regularly and appreciated by the audiences she developed through Carmen Jones."
Ironically, it was the sexy role in Carmen Jones that brought Dorothy international fame, but, friends say, that was an image she didn't like and one she tried desperately but unsuccessfully to shake. Producers always wanted to cast her in the role of the girl with no sense of mortality, a passionate woman of easy virtue. There were no offers to play diversified, untyped characters. "Dottie absolutely hated the sexpot image and, subsequently, she felt that her good looks were a curse," says Branton. "She wanted people to take her seriously, so much so that the had hoped to make enough money to produce a script of her own -- a script that had some social significance."
Dorothy's search for significant roles continued and, in 1959, she was cast in her last important American film, Porgy and Bess. But by this time, her personal life was becoming totally unglued. She was frantically searching for love, only to be frequently greeted with disappointment and heartache. Men openly took advantage of her trust and generosity. One of her romances involving Otto Preminger was characteristic of her lack of luck with men. The producer-director and Dorothy had become romantically involved during the filming of Carmen Jones, and he relationship, close friends say, progressed to the point of talk about marriage--until she became pregnant. According to these insiders, Preminger walked out, an abortion followed and it was the end of another bitter, unfilling romance.
Before she rebounded, enter White restaurateur Jack Denison who, her friends say, was "the most disastrous and destructive element in Dorothy's life." He was a handsome, smooth-talking man who reportedly jumped at the chance to woo a vulnerable, heartsick woman. In her autobiography, Everything and Nothing: The Dorothy Dandridge Tragedy, she said: "Some people kill themselves with drink, others with overdoses, some with a gun; a few hurl themselves in front of trains or autos. I hurled myself in front of another White man."
Denison showed her warmth, admiration and love, then dropped the magic word--marriage. They were wed in 1959. "That marriage was the major catastrophe in her life -- a catastrophe that contributed to her death more than people will ever know," Mills says. "Denison was a con artist who wanted to life off her earnings and have her provide financially for his sinking restaurant business. He put up a good front, but on their wedding night he told her he was broke."
fter that litany of dispair, Dorothy somehow got herself together and by early 1965 had begun to turn her life around. The vitality for which she was known was back, and with it came new job offers. She was scheduled to receive $10,000 for appearing in New York's Basin Street East, another $50,000 would come from an acting role in an American Western, and she already had gotten a $10,000 advance to write her autobiography. Bigger still, though, was the deal she completed south of the border. In Oaxaca, Mexico, she signed a $100,000 contract to do two films there, and she immediately flew back home to prepare for her New York engagement. The next day she was dead, found sprawled on her bathroom floor naked, except for a blue head scarf. She was the victim of tranquilizers.
Authorities never determined whether the actress' death was an accident or suicide. But friends are quick to rule out suicide because she was experiencing such a dramatic, positive turnaround in her life. Perhaps it's fitting that the questions still surround the life and death of Dorothy Dandridge. She was an enigma. And we may never know exactly what occurred in those last few moments of her life. Whatever happened, it brought about a much-too-early end to the life of a brilliant but troubled star.