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Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography

Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography

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by Donald Bogle

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Dorothy Dandridge — like Marilyn and Liz—was a dream goddess of the fifties. All audiences ever had to do was take one look at her — in a nightclub, on television, or in the movies — and they were hooked. She was unforgettable, Hollywood's first full-fledged African American movie star.

This definitive biography — exhaustively


Dorothy Dandridge — like Marilyn and Liz—was a dream goddess of the fifties. All audiences ever had to do was take one look at her — in a nightclub, on television, or in the movies — and they were hooked. She was unforgettable, Hollywood's first full-fledged African American movie star.

This definitive biography — exhaustively researched — presents the panoramic dimensions of this extraordinary and ultimately tragic life. Talented from the start, Dorothy Dandridge began her career as a little girt in Cleveland in an act that her mother Ruby, an actress and comedienne, created for her and her sister Vivian. By the time she reached her teens, she was working in such Hollywood movies as Going Places with Louis Armstrong and A Day at the Races with the Marx Brothers. She also appeared at New York's Cotton Club in a trio called The Dandridge Sisters, but soon went solo, determined to make a name for herself. She became one of the most dazzling and sensational nightclub performers around, all the white breaking down racial barriers by integrating some of America's hottest venues.

But she wanted more. Movie stardom was her dream. And she got it. Dandridge broke through the glass ceiling of Tinseltown to win an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for her lead role in Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones. Other films such as Porgy and Bess, Island in the Sun, and Tamango would follow and the media would take notice. In an industry that was content to use Black women as comic mammy figures, Dorothy Dandridge emerged as a leading lady, a cultural icon, and a sizzling sex symbol.

She seemed to have everything:glamour, wealth, romance and success. But the reality was fraught with contradiction and illusion. She became a dramatic actress unable to secure dramatic roles. While she had many gifts to offer, Hollywood would not be the taker.

As her professional frustrations grew, so did her personal demons. After two unhappy marriages — her first to the great dancer Harold Nicholas — a string of unfulfilling, love affairs, and the haunting tragedy of her daughter Lynn, she found herself emotionally and financially — bankrupt. She ultimately lost all hope and was found dead from an overdose of antidepressant pills at the age of 42.

Drawing on extensive research and unique interviews with Dorothy Dandridge's friends and associates, her directors and confidantes, film historian Donald Bogle captures the real-life drama of Dandridge's turbulent life; but he does so much more.This biography documents the story of a troubled but strong family of women and vividly recreates Dandridge's relationships with an array of personalities such as Otto Preminger, Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll, Peter Lawford, Ava Gardner, and many more. Always at the center though is Dorothy Dandridge, magnetic and compelling.

Donald Bogle — better than anyone else — goes beyond the surface of one woman's seemingly charmed life to reveal the many textured layers of her strength and vulnerability, her joy and her pain, her trials and her triumphs.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.86(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.46(d)

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Chapter One


Even before she was born, Dorothy Dandridge was at the center of a domestic storm. Her mother Ruby -- strong-willed and outspoken -- left her husband Cyril Dandridge when she was five months pregnant with Dorothy. It was the summer of 1922. The couple had been married for almost three years and was living in Cleveland. Their first-born child -- a daughter named Vivian -- was only a little over a year old. But while Cyril Dandridge considered himself a lucky man, Ruby was restless and fed up with him and her life, and she didn't care who knew it. Nor did she care that women in the early 1920s, especially African American women, weren't supposed to walk out on their husbands.

Ruby Dandridge, however, was no ordinary woman. She had already separated from Cyril once before, but she had come back. A few years before that, she moved to Cleveland from Wichita, perhaps hoping the new city would give her a chance to express the ambition and aspiration that burned within her. But Cleveland and Cyril both had failed her, and Ruby, despite being pregnant, was willing to risk everything to live as she wanted. Cyril, however, wasn't about to let Ruby just run off with his firstborn daughter and with the unborn child. He set out to find her. And she set out to flee him again.

And so Dorothy Dandridge -- the little girt who would grow up to be one of her era's most beautiful women and its most famous African American actress -- came into the world at the heart of a heated domestic discord that, in its own quiet, unstated way, would trouble and haunt her for the next forty years. Throughout her life, she would struggle tounderstand her parents, but mainly to piece together the puzzle of her own identity; to discover and define herself first as a daughter, then as a sister, a wife, a mother, a singer, an actress, and finally as the most unexpected and elusive of personages, a Black film star in a Hollywood that worshiped her, yet at the same time, clearly made no place for her.

As a woman always searching for answers, Dorothy would often wonder how differently it all might have turned out had she grownup with the father whom she had never really known. And she may well have wondered too what direction her life might have taken had her mother Ruby never ventured to Cleveland and stayed instead on the wide plains of Kansas.

Wichita, Kansas was a quiet, sleepy city in the early years of the century. For most of Wichita's citizens, life moved along at a leisurely pace with everything done one day at a time. Boys were to be strong and in charge. Girls were to be domesticated and sweet. No matter whether the girls were Colored or White, the same rules usually applied, except that the Colored girls were supposed to be even more mindful of their place, of abiding by the laws of both race and gender. For Ruby Jean Butler, born in Wichita, Kansas on March 1, 1899, the rules were carefully proscribed and locked in place. All she had to do was learn to live by them, which was something that always proved hard for Ruby.

She was the daughter of George Butler and his wife, nee Nellie Simmons. Both George, born in 1860, and Nellie, born in 1870, had migrated to Kansas from North Carolina. The Butlers had four children, three of whom were sons. Ruby, their only daughter, was the youngest. For a time the family resided at 625 North Main Street.

Ruby Dandridge, who liked to concoct her own version of the events of her life, passed on to her daughter Dorothy a genealogy that was dubious but held some elements of truth. Ruby's scenario made no mention of George Butler or Nellie ever having lived in North Carolina. Instead her version of the story was that her father, sometimes called George Frank, was a Jamaican who immigrated as a child to the United States in the late 19th century and later married a young Mexican woman. Ruby also liked to boast that George was an entertainer who travelled about and performed for Colored and White audiences, then settled in Wichita, where he ran a local grocery and a Negro school.

Ruby's embellishments aside, it seems unlikely that her mother Nellie Simmons was Mexican. Her father George Butler, however, may have done all the things Ruby spoke of, but he also held other jobs in Wichita. He worked as a janitor at the Union National Bank for a spell. He was also a minister with a church that stood prominently on a street corner, recalled photographer Vera Jackson, who as a little girl lived near the Butlers in Wichita. Well -- known and well-liked, Reverend Butler was outgoing and friendly, both traits that were passed on to daughter Ruby.

Butler apparently also passed on to his young daughter the tricks of the trade of show business: he taught her to sing, dance, and perform acrobatics. An apt pupil, little Ruby learned to do all those things well. From her father, Ruby probably also inherited a love for a life of illusion -- and a sense for the dramatic.

In Wichita, Ruby grew to be a big-boned, plump, brown-skinned girl with an attractive face, smooth skin, a large bright smile, and lively eyes. As a young woman, she would weigh almost two hundred pounds and even more as the years moved on. Everyone who met her agreed that Ruby was lively, funny, and blessed with the gift of gab. People kidded that she could talk a mile a minute. And sometimes she did. Making friends came easily to her. Few who met her ever forgot her.

"I was only five or six," said Vera Jackson, recalling her first impressions of Ruby. "But I remember Ruby, who was older.

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Dorothy Dandridge 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had never heard of Dorothy Dandridge in full, prior to reading this book. After reading this magnificent book I can only blame Hollywood for her death. Dorothy didn't make it in Hollywood based on her looks. Dorothy had a deep passion to make it big. This is an example of having a dream and following through with it reguardless of the odds against you. Dorothy was a pioneer of equality,in addition to her love of acting and singing. Hollywood was really intimidated not only by a woman with such passion, but a black woman with those elements. Hollywood would rather see a black woman being a maid than a sucessful actress, but Dorothy did not let racism keep her down. Dorothy's life has always been a struggle and I am glad to have been able to read about a woman that had heart as well as talent and courage to face her demons. This is an excellent read for anyone!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just completed this book after reading 'Everything and Nothing' I finished this book today and it was excellent. It depicts all the ups and downs of Dorothy's life. Plus it includes beautiful pictures of her during all the years of her life. Good job, Mr. Bogle. Once again Ms. Dandridge is in the well deserved spotlight!