Dorothy Jean Dandridge born on November 9th 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio to aspiring entertainer Ruby Dandridge (née Butler)(March 3, 1900 – October 17, 1987) and Cyril Dandridge (October 25, 1895 – July 9, 1989), a cabinet maker and minister, who had separated just before her birth.Ruby created a song-and-dance act for her two young daughters, Vivian and Dorothy, under the name The Wonder Children, that was managed by Geneva Williams. The sisters toured the Southern United States almost nonstop for five years (rarely attending school), while Ruby worked and performed in Cleveland.
During the Great Depression, work virtually dried up for the Dandridges, as it did for many Chitlin’ circuit performers. Ruby moved to Hollywood, California, where she found steady work on radio and film in small domestic-servant parts. The Wonder Children were renamed The Dandridge Sisters in 1934, and Dandridge and her sister were teamed with dance schoolmate Etta Jones.
The Dandridge Sisters continued strong for several years, and were booked in several high-profile nightclubs, including the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater.Dandridge’s first screen appearance was a bit part in an Our Gang comedy short, Teacher’s Beau in 1935. As a part of The Dandridge Sisters, she appeared in The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1936) with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, A Day at the Races with the Marx Brothers, and It Can’t Last Forever (both 1937) with the Jackson Brothers.Although these appearances were relatively minor, Dandridge continued to earn recognition through continuing nightclub performances nationwide.
Dandridge’s first credited film role was in Four Shall Die (1940). The race film cast her as a murderer; it did little for her film career. She had small roles in Lady from Louisiana with John Wayne and Sundown (both 1941) with Gene Tierney. Dandridge appeared as part of a “Specialty Number” in the hit 1941 musical film, Sun Valley Serenade for 20th Century-Fox. The film marked the first time she performed with the Nicholas Brothers.Aside from her film appearances, Dandridge appeared in a succession of “soundies”–film clips designed to be displayed on juke boxes including “Paper Doll” by the Mills Brothers, “Cow, Cow Boogie”, “Jig in the Jungle”, and “Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter’s Rent Party” among others. These films were noted not only for showcasing Dandridge’s singing and acting abilities, but also for featuring strong emphasis on her physical attributes.
In 1957, after a three-year absence from film acting, she agreed to appear in the film version of Island in the Sun opposite an ensemble cast, including James Mason, Harry Belafonte, Joan Fontaine, Joan Collins, and Stephen Boyd. Dandridge portrayed a local Indian shop clerk who has an interracial love affair with white man, played by John Justin. The film was controversial for its time period, and the script was revised numerous times to accommodate the Production Code requirements about interracial relationships. There occurred, however, an extremely intimate loving embrace between Dandridge and Justin that succeeded in not breaching the code. Despite the behind-the-scenes controversy and unfavorable critical reviews, the film was one of the year’s biggest successes.
On September 8, 1965, Dandridge spoke by telephone with friend and former sister-in-law Geraldine “Geri” Branton. Dandridge was scheduled to fly to New York the next day to prepare for her nightclub engagement at Basin Street East. Several hours after her conversation with Branton ended, Dandridge was found dead and naked by her manager, Earl Mills.Two months later, a Los Angeles pathology institute determined the cause to be an accidental overdose of Imipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant. Yet the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office came to a different conclusion: “Miss Dandridge died of a rare embolism—blockage of the blood passages at the lungs and brain by tiny pieces of fat flaking off from bone marrow in a fractured right foot she sustained in a Hollywood gymnasium five days before she died.” She was 42 years old.
On September 12, 1965, a private funeral service was held for Dandridge at the Little Chapel of the Flowers;she was then cremated and her ashes interred in the Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery.