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View from the Abyss
Exotically beautiful saloon singer of the Western World," the critics called me. They never went in for understatement. ". . . One of the great beauties of our time, a sex symbol to magazine editors the world over, and Hollywood's first authentic love goddess of color."
My gross earnings had exceeded a million dollars when I was in my mid-thirties, and I was the only Negro actress to achieve both film stardom and a nomination for a best actress Academy Award.
By that time too I had been pursued and courted by leading Caucasian film people, North Americans, South Americans, and Europeans. That was me only three or four years ago.
Then, suddenly, within a three-week period, a portion of my world cascaded around my head like a gushing river.
First I learned that I was broke from poor investments in Arizona oil wells, so I filed a hundred-thousand-dollar bankruptcy. A day or two later I was in court to divorce my second husband, a handsome white man, Jack Denison, with whom several years of living had become a nightmare. A few days after that I was legally evicted from my sixty-five-thousand-dollar showplace home in the hills overlooking Hollywood. As if this were not enough, just as I was losing my fortune, my husband, and my home, my retarded nineteen-year-old daughter Lynn was returned to me.
All of these events converged with paralyzing swiftness, with crisis upon crisis. At the end, all I wanted was to take a long walk off Malibu Beach. My career seemed crushed and over with.
That collapse of fortune left me as bewildered a human being as you could find. Not knowing which wayto turn or how to recoup, desiring death more than anything else, I took pills. Pills to pep myself up, pills to slow myself down; I took Benzedrine, a dangerous item if you overuse it. I took Dexamil and Dexedrine, appetite deterrents. I took thyroid pills and digitalis.
Three trucks of the Bekins Van and Storage Company were moving me out. The truckmen were entering and exiting, carrying all my belongings, while the paper servers arrived with what I called "certificates." They tossed papers at me prepared by collection agencies, a supermarket, a pharmacy, anybody you can owe. My assets were down to five thousand dollars, and my debts totaled nearly one hundred and thirty thousand dollars.
You are supposed to smile and be helpful when you are sinking, and I tried. I ran to get hamburgers and French fries for the crew, while wondering how I was going to get money together to pay for the moving job.
"Oh, my God," I thought, "how will I pay off three trucks?" I don't know how many men there were, but the scene looked like a movie lot.
How do you convey your emotions about the sudden loss of a showplace house in the hills, from which you look out across Los Angeles at night at a million lights, and you feel like you own the town?
I am nothing but emotion; I am nothing but a wind of emotion; and everything was blowing as I took a last look at the interior of the house: the long living room in beige carpeting that was deep enough to twist an ankle in, the beige walls, the cream-colored frames on the pictures, the long brown sofa, the low round marble-topped table on the brown oak legs, the decanters of brandy and wine on the table, the transparent ash trays, the ornamental lamps, the vases choking with flowers I grew in the side yard, the four tan and white square cushions piled in the center of the room, where I sat mostly on the top cushion, the roofed patio where Jack and I used to sit and have breakfast or squabble. I looked next door at the house where Sammy Davis Jr. and May Britt lived, and beyond it at the home of Herb Jeffries and Tempest Storm.
While the truckmen dragged out my belongings, I flitted from room to room, grasping final visions: the walnut-paneled downstairs den where I read scripts or played records, the shelves loaded with good books (now going in storage), the knickknacks on special shelves, the ornamental candelabra. And the bedroom for Jack and myself, where we didn't do very much except argue, but it was a beautiful room, beautiful enough to have been printed in color in Ebony.
Under my feet my two dogs traipsed, not understanding foreclosure and court appearances for divorce and bankruptcy proceedings, I didn't quite grasp that myself. Cissy, my little mongrel, and my husky, Duke, were getting their last romps through the rooms. I would have to put them out of my life too, and in my new small apartment near the Hollywood Strip I must content myself with a half-dozen pink and white cloth dogs.
Outside, picking up another "certificate" from a server, I glanced again at the cerulean blue exterior of the house. A lonely palm tree at the side rose well above the rooftop. The green grass looked fresh and permanent, I took a long last look across the thickly settled city plateau of Los Angeles. From here you could see most of it, and on a clear day make out the bay at distant Santa Monica. Right now the usual haze hung over Los Angeles.
By coincidence, when the world was falling in on me and when I had to be in court daily for one thing or another, either the bankruptcy or the divorce, the woman who had been looking after Lynn from the age of nine to nineteen returned her to me. I was in arrears two months in support of Lynn, after ten years without missing a week.
While the moving men were at work, Lynn, impervious to the meaning of anything, sat at the Mason & Hamlin. Ever since early childhood she had liked to sit at the piano and play do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do over and over for hours. Over and over, merely the scale, never even varying it, until you could go mad with it. Once in a while she turned around coyly on the stool and wanted me to applaud. The truckmen noted the single-themed concert and got the idea. They applauded too...Everything and Nothing. Copyright © by Dorothy Dandridge. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.