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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.