In Hollywood, a long time ago, there was a beautiful woman whose skin excited men and made them strange. She was a woman of color and sometimes the color was tawny, and sometimes it was caramel, and sometimes it was the particular brown you might have made by stirring butter into molasses and warming them over a flame — it was famous, this color, the color of Dorothy Dandridge’s skin.
It was famous and she was famous, a star of the motion pictures, a woman who carried furs and rode in limousines and sat for photographers in canvas chairs with her name imprinted in large block letters across the back. In the magazines she was the Curvaceous Miss Dandridge, the Seductive Miss Dandridge, the Sepia Beauty of the American Screen. She wore a low-necked golden gown on the cover of Der Stern, and a low-necked silver gown on the cover of the London Sunday News magazine, and on the cover of Paris Match she was bare-shouldered and gazing straight into the camera with a single heart-shaped topaz resting in the boned bronze cleavage at the base of her throat.
When she stood before the television cameras for the 1954 Academy Awards simulcast from Los Angeles and New York, she was headlining that week at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. She was the first black entertainer to do that, front room at the Waldorf, and she was the first black woman ever nominated for a Best Actress award, and she had been asked also to present an Academy Award herself, the Oscar for best editing. She wore elbow-length gloves as she walked to the podium, and a gown the color of clotted cream. Men with big flash cameras leaned in for the picture. The Negro movie star bent her splendid long neck, opened the envelope, and smiled.
Dorothy Dandridge, nominated as the doomed young tart in “Carmen Jones,” lost the Best Actress Award in 1954 and here are the actresses who lost it with her: Judy Garland (“A Star is Born”), Audrey Hepburn (“Sabrina”) and Jane Wyman (“Magnificent Obsession”). Grace Kelly won, for “A Country Girl.” Dorothy Dandridge’s manager says that after the ceremony she went back to her hotel suite and ordered chitlins sent in from uptown. Since Dandridge ate chitlins as a child but was known as an adult to like small and extremely expensive shrimp — they smelled, her autobiography noted, of success — there is about the chitlins story the quality of myth, and resonant myth it is: The blond beauty with the Oscar will marry a prince and be remembered in profile by men and women not yet born when her last picture was made, and the colored beauty without the Oscar will eat chitlins at the Waldorf-Astoria and then be so artfully slipped from the public eye that in 1988 a person might happen upon these movie stills and suck in his breath, and say, Who was that?
Dorothy Dandridge, is who that was.
Hollywood made a black Marilyn Monroe.
And this is a salute, a Black History Month salute, to the woman whose memory is now largely and with elegant irony confined to periodic movie proposals about the story of her life. Such a story, the screen writers marvel, such a setting of American scene: The child from Cleveland grows up to be a screen star, an extraordinary-looking screen star, a screen star with thick black hair and luminous eyes and this skin that makes people goosey — but she is Negro. She can kiss the black actors, but not the white ones. She can kick and scratch and sing the blues, but she cannot coolly light a cigarette and make Humphrey Bogart fall in love with her.
Hollywood, circa 1955, cannot figure out what to do with Dorothy Dandridge.
In “Island in the Sun,” Hollywood lets her dance slowly with the white actor John Justin, but when they gaze at each other and move their faces together, Dandridge has to close her eyes and smack her lips in the air.
“A screen writer once grabbed hold of me by the waist, looked closely at my color, and this is what he said I looked like,” reads the Dandridge autobiography. ” ‘What is your color? It is a blend of the world’s skin tones. Your hair is black, soft, universal. Your eyes are black and white flames; your nose is pert; the color in your cheeks, crimson, is your own.’ ”
By the time that passage appeared in print, Dorothy Dandridge was dead.
Probable cause of death, as determined by a Los Angeles pathology institute: excessive ingestion of Tofranil, a pharmaceutical prescribed for depression.
She was found naked, her body perfumed, a single blue scarf tied up around her hair. “Dandridge,” the ambulance man is reported to have said as he telephoned the sheriff to advise him that the body was cold. “She’s that colored singer, isn’t she?”
If you are pursuing the ghost of a woman who used herself up trying to climb atop the white Hollywood of 30 years ago, you turn the leaves of photograph albums and you look up tap dancers who once electrified Europe and you take tea in small apartments with aging black men remembering the Hollywood where they once wanted to work: Here, says the gentleman with flawless orator’s diction, is how I invented an African chant to mumble while I waved my spear. He stands, still smiling, his Bible opened nearby to the 35th Psalm, and the sound he makes is Ja-junga-finjy-ja-ya-ya-ya-lo-o-o-o-o.
The gentleman’s name is Joel Fluellen and he is 79, which means he was young and handsome when he took the train to California to see about finding work in the pictures. In Chicago he had known the movie actress Louise Beavers, who was black and thus handed with nearly unfailing reliability the role of white person’s maid, and also Fluellen had seen photographs of Los Angeles on the wall behind the counter at Walgreen’s. There were of course palm trees in the photographs, and splendid houses of the kind Fluellen imagined Beavers must inhabit, and so he descended in 1936 from the Great Northern train and gave the taxi driver the hotel address and said uneasily after a while, gazing around him, “When are we going to get to Central Avenue?”
“You’re on it,” the driver said, and that was how Fluellen came to the black hopeful’s Los Angeles, the one long street marked down toward the southern end by the Dunbar Hotel. Duke Ellington stayed at the Dunbar, and Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday; even after the pictures accommodated a black entertainer, the hotels would not, and so part of the black performer’s 1930s initiation into motion pictures involved the lengthy passage between the studios and the square brick building at 42nd and Central. It was not a place of particular grandness then and there are boards nailed across the windows now, large squares of plywood made bright by the red and green spray paint of passing vandals. To the north rise the new skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles, Oz-like and dark; to the south, three buildings away, the back end of a vacant two-story office is shadowed by a single tilted palm.
“Dorothy was the prettiest … the most delicate …” Joel Fluellen thought she was a ballerina the first time he looked up in the lobby of a Central Avenue hotel and saw Dorothy Dandridge, the fine bones, the ballet shoes on her feet. She was with Geraldine Nicholas, who was married to Fayard Nicholas; Dorothy Dandridge was in love with Harold Nicholas, and there on Central Avenue it was show business all around. The Nicholas Brothers were the most celebrated black tap-dancing duo in motion pictures, and Dorothy Dandridge, not yet 20, was center voice in the Dandridge Sisters.
She had started, she would tell people later, when she was 3 years old. Her mother was Ruby Dandridge, a performer who later found a considerable amount of work in Hollywood herself, and her father had left before Dorothy ever came to know him. “By parental and grandparental relationships on both sides,” reads the autobiography, a collaborative and posthumously published effort whose credibility some of Dandridge’s friends wonder about, “I am one-fourth English, one-fourth Jamaican (which is often a mixture of Indian, English, and African), one-fourth American Negro, one-eighth Spanish, and one-eighth Indian.”
In the Cleveland of the late 1920s, of course, she was a small colored child. Her first public performance was a church recital of a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem.
‘Lias! ‘Lias! Bless de Lawd!
Don’ you know de day’s erbroad?
Ef you don’t git up, you scamp,
Dey’ll be trouble in this camp.
She and her sister Vivian were the Wonder Kids, and they toured the Southern black church circuit. They sang and did vaudeville, and they did it well, and Ruby Dandridge took them to Los Angeles and put them in public school. The actor Clarence Muse is said to have told Ruby Dandridge to forget putting the children in pictures — “If colored kids get into a scene here, they want them to look black and Negroid,” Dandridge wrote that he said — but they did find work, and by the mid-1930s there were three of them, the two sisters and a third girl they pulled into their act.
They got bit parts. “A Day at the Races” used Dandridge as an extra. The Cotton Club invited them East, the fancy Manhattan Cotton Club; here were Ellington and Calloway, the luminaries of the black musical stage, and here were thickly carpeted rooms and limousines dropping off the swells, and up on stage the Dandridge girls in cocked blue hats singing choruses for Calloway.
Nonsense lyrics. The Depression was on. Cab: Was it blue? Girls: No, no, no, no!
Harold Nicholas had romanced nearly every pretty girl at the Cotton Club, and by the time he and Dandridge decided to marry, they had both been shipped abroad to entertain admiring foreigners. The Nicholas Brothers played Rio de Janeiro; the Dandridge Sisters played England. “High brown talent,” the English papers had called them. “Dusky.” “Negresses.”
The marriage was not a cheerful one. Dandridge was inexperienced and Nicholas liked other women, and when the pregnant Dandridge went into labor a year later, Harold Nicholas left the house. For the rest of her life Dorothy Dandridge would insist that she had waited too long for her husband to come back and help her, and that what happened afterward was her own fault.
“We finally had to take her, because she was going to have it right on the floor,” Gerry Branton, the former Gerry Nicholas, says. “It was a difficult birth. It was forceps, and the baby was deprived of oxygen.”
The diagnosis, which was not made final until Dandridge had with mounting anxiety taken her by-then 3-year-old daughter to many different doctors, was severe brain damage. “She wept all the time,” Branton says. “Nothing ever compensated. Nothing. There was absolutely nothing that could ever bring any happiness to her. After that, everything was self-destructive. If there were two choices to be made, she would make the most destructive.”
After the divorce, she went out alone to sing.
An arranger worked with her, and his manager: No conventional Negro material, they said. No blues. You wear long gowns, gorgeous ones; you sing Cole Porter and love songs; you find men in the audience and give them looks that will make their backs start to sweat.
So she did.
She was very good at it.
“She absolutely thought that it was absurd,” Gerry Branton says. “She would work in big rooms, and Ella Fitzgerald was working in a lounge. And she said, ‘This is so unfair, I can’t tell you, this woman is so talented, so marvelous, just opens her mouth and Heaven opens up — and here because they think I look a certain way, they put me in this big room, and I can’t sing doodly squat.’ ”
Her singing was better than that, but it was true that when reviewers wrote about her it was not the music that stayed with them. “Like a caterpillar on a hot rock,” wrote the critic from Time, in 1952. “By the time she had pleaded, ‘Talk Some Sweet Talk to Me,’ in a furry and insinuating tone, she had the fans goggle-eyed.”
Dorothy Dandridge was inventing herself, the clothes, the stance, the wide red mouth. She asked Branton to give her books and teach her the meanings of words; Branton had been to college, and when group conversations turned to subjects Dandridge did not know, she made Branton sit down afterward and explain. “She was like a sponge,” Branton says. “She longed to know things, and to delve into subjects … lynching. She wanted to know why people were so cruel. And the civil rights struggle. Whatever the topic of the day. She was a quick study.”
And she wanted, now, to act. Lena Horne had been making her famously sultry appearances in the movies, but she was a singer; there were pictures, in fact, edited specifically so that Horne’s appearances could be excised for Southern audiences. Dorothy Dandridge wanted to act; she enrolled at the Actor’s Lab, and one of her classmates was the young blond woman whose working name was Marilyn Monroe.
“She wanted to do ‘Bus Stop,’ ” Fluellen says, and he is not talking now about Marilyn Monroe. “Bus Stop” was not available to Dorothy Dandridge, but “Drums of the Congo” was, and so was “Ebony Parade,” and “Tarzan’s Peril,” in which she writhed, and wore very large earrings.
“She kept saying, ‘If I looked like Betty Grable, I could capture the world,’ ” Branton says. “She resented her blackness. Well, let’s face it. It was hard to be black. She wanted to be light-skinned. She wanted to have pretty hair, straight hair, blue eyes … She didn’t realize that part of her beauty was because she was brown. In Europe, they would turn over chairs trying to get a look at her.”
In the motion picture business, black men and women had spent much of the 1940s as servants and nightclub performers and inhabitants of stage-set jungles. By the early 1950s one compelling picture did present itself; it was an earnest, well-respected movie called “Bright Road,” in which Dandridge and Harry Belafonte played a schoolteacher and a principal coping with the problems of their troubled pupils. And then in 1953, the year that picture was released, word was passed in Los Angeles that Otto Preminger was looking for someone to take on what was probably the splashiest part Hollywood had ever offered a black actress — the lead role in Preminger’s all-black operatic production of “Carmen.”
Preminger had set the tragedy in and about an American parachute factory, and his Carmen was to be an incandescent young factory worker whose sheer heat undoes an otherwise exemplary military pilot. It was a delicious part, a smaller scale black actress’ equivalent of the famously sought-after Scarlett O’Hara role in “Gone With the Wind,” and Dandridge, despite the reservations of blacks made uneasy by yet another Negroes-felled-by-wanton-passion picture, wanted it.
But Preminger had not even asked her to test as his Carmen, and when Dandridge asked to see him, he told her it was nonsense to imagine herself in the part. ” ‘I’ve heard you sing at the Plaza in New York,’ ” the autobiography says Preminger said. ” ‘I’ve even seen you walking down Fifth Avenue, with a red coat flying. When I saw you I thought, How lovely, a model, a beautiful butterfly … but not Carmen, my dear.’ ”
Earl Mills, the man who by then had become Dandridge’s full-time manager, says Dandridge was incensed. “I said, ‘Hey, these people are so stupid, they only know what they see,’ ” Mills says. “So she said, well — she’s got to look like Carmen.”
Dandridge found a brilliant trashy blouse and tried pushing it down over one shoulder to see how that would look. She got a skirt with a slit in it, put a lot of lipstick on, messed up her hair, and “sidled around for a while,” as the autobiography puts it, “feeling like a whore.”
Then she went back to see Preminger — bursting into his office, according to the subsequent accounts, breathless and late and decked out in her whore clothes. Preminger is said to have cried, “Carmen!” and led her immediately to a screen test. By the following November Life magazine had taken the then-extraordinary step of devoting its entire cover to the black woman, her hair still mussed and a single red rose tucked in over one ear, who was playing Carmen Jones.
For black actresses in the American motion picture industry, Dorothy Dandridge was now on entirely new terrain. She had the Waldorf, the Academy Award nomination, an apparently devoted following in the white press. Otto Preminger was romancing her publicly. A Hollywood photographers association voted her one of the five most beautiful women in the world. Twentieth Century Fox signed her to a contract that was to guarantee her three more pictures; her salary during the shooting of the pictures, Mills says, was supposed to be $10,000 a week.
Dandridge waited, her friends say, for parts. She was offered a supporting role in “The King and I”; at Preminger’s urging, she turned it down to wait for top billing. She wanted “Cleopatra,” but the offer never came; Elizabeth Taylor took the part. She made “Island in the Sun,” the picture in which as a West Indian shopgirl she is permitted to fall in love with an English diplomat but not to kiss him on screen, and she made “Tamango,” a minimally promoted slave ship picture that was filmed in France. In “Tamango” Dandridge consorts with the white ship captain, and Mills says the picture was edited into two separate prints — one for the European audiences and one, its love scenes purged of physical intimacy between captain and slave, for the American.
“Apotheosis of the mulatto,” the writer Donald Bogle called Dorothy Dandridge in “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks,” his 1973 book about blacks in the motion pictures. Dandridge lived in a splendid house in the Hollywood Hills, where Ebony magazine could photograph her gazing past her chandelier with her fingers lightly clasped beneath the bodice of her pink negligee. She played Las Vegas to spectacular billing; she persuaded white club owners to set special tables aside for the NAACP; she was seen at dinner with Peter Lawford and JudyGarland and the men and women whose names were staples in the American movie magazines.
What the industry would not give her was parts — romantic parts, cheerful parts, parts in which the Dorothy Dandridge character was not dark and exotic and generally doomed by her own exoticism. “Whore roles were there, of course,” the autobiography reads. “America was not geared to make me into a Liz Taylor, a Monroe, a Gardner. My sex symbolism was as a wanton, a prostitute, not as a woman seeking love and a husband, the same as other women. I had realized everything except the limitations naturally placed upon me through being a Negro.”
“Porgy and Bess” came along, the Preminger-directed musical; Dandridge played the lead against Sidney Poitier, who publicly berated himself afterward for joining so patronizing a depiction of Southern black life.
And that, for Dorothy Dandridge, was the final role in an American motion picture. She sang, she gave an occasional uneasy interview, she flew to Europe to make yet another movie in which the director cried “Cut!” before the white actor could reach in to kiss her on the lips.
She also married again, or as the autobiography puts it, “I hurled myself in front of another white man.” Since Dandridge’s divorce nearly all her romances had been with white men; she took heat for it among blacks, but in the book she says she saw what the world around her looked like and decided early on to marry white. That white men wanted her had been central for some years to her unhappy personal life; smitten men with money had been making her lavish and imprudent offers for years, none of which included marriage, and when the relationship with Preminger ended Dandridge fled, on the rebound, to a Las Vegas restaurant owner who had sent flowers every night to her dressing room at the Riviera.
“He was abusive, horrible — verbally,” Gerry Branton says. His name was Jack Denison. By the time Dandridge divorced him four years later, her finances were in utter disarray; bad oil investments had left her bankrupt, the elegant Hollywood house was repossessed, and her brain-damaged daughter was deposited without warning on her doorstep when Dandridge fell behind in payments to the home that had been providing private care.
The child was sent to a state institution, a decision Dandridge’s friends say appalled her even as she made it, and Dandridge began moving in and out of a series of apartments and small rental homes. She was taking antidepressants. She drank a lot of champagne. She called her old companion Joel Fluellen and held him on the telephone for hours at a time; once she asked him to come over right away because someone, she insisted, had taken the broiler from her apartment.
“I said, ‘Dorothy, how could they have taken the broiler away?’ ” Fluellen says. And he showed her, when he arrived, that the broiler was still in the stove. “I don’t know if it was the drugs that did it, but it was like she had Alzheimer’s,” Branton says. “She’d forget things. She’d tell me, ‘Oh, I’m going to pay you everything I owe you, and I’m sending you a check, because I’m doing a Chevrolet show in San Diego on Friday.’ Forty-five minutes later, she’d say, ‘It’s Friday, and I finished that show, and I’m sending you the check.’ ”
Dandridge would sometimes mail the check, Branton says. “It was no good,” she says. “But it was a check.”
Earl Mills, who had been excluded from Dandridge’s life during her marriage to Denison, says he tried now to help her recuperate. They traveled together to Mexico to begin weaning Dandridge from the drugs and liquor, and Mills set up some singing engagements for her in cities and towns around the Southwest. It was not precisely Sunset Boulevard, Mills says, but it was work, and then an Englishman living in Mexico asked if Dandridge would come down to sign for some motion pictures he wanted to make. He was not an experienced producer, but he was enthusiastic and had money, Mills says, and so Dandridge went to Mexico to see him.
There is a picture of Dorothy Dandridge taken just before that Mexico trip, a soft-focus photograph of a 42-year-old woman wearing something white and loose as she gazes out a window. She is sweetly pretty, rounded at the cheeks. It is possible to read the look on her face as extremely uncertain hope. She signed the motion picture contracts at the Oaxaca airport, Mills says, and then flew home to Los Angeles.
“Feeling great,” he says. A Manhattan club wanted her, too, one where she had sung some years before; Mills says Dandridge was buoyed. She went to the gym, part of her effort to recover her health. She turned an ankle on the gym stairs, but after the doctor bandaged it she said she would go to New York anyway, and Mills says they had a cheerful dinner together the night before Dandridge was supposed to leave.
She called Gerry Branton that night, too. She said she was tired, Branton says. She said she needed someone to live with her. ” ‘If I could just hear the toilet flush,’ ” Branton says Dandridge said. Branton says Dandridge sang “People” into the telephone, all the verses, and that it was a good strong performance; the voice, Branton says, sounded lovely.
Branton says Dandridge said this, too, before she hung up: ” ‘Whatever happens, now, I know you’ll understand.’ ”
The following afternoon, Earl Mills found Dorothy Dandridge’s body. He says he had to force his way into her apartment with a crowbar, and that when he found her she had showered already, and put her makeup on. “Her head was on her folded arms,” he says. “It looked like she was asleep.”
Mills had a note about what to do, he says, one that Dandridge had given him some time earlier for safekeeping. The note reads “Important” on the cover and is written in a spidery, old-woman sort of cursive. “In case of my death,” reads the note. “To whomever discovers it — Don’t remove anything I have on — scarf, gown or underwear — cremate me right away — If I have anything, money, furniture, give it to my mother, Ruby Dandridge. She will know what to do.”
Branton says there were other notes as well, notes that talked about protocol to be followed after Dandridge’s death. She did not wish to be viewed. Gerry Branton was to tie her hair up, away from her face. When her body was removed to the mortuary, it was to be dressed in one of the floor-length gowns Otto Preminger had liked her to wear. “I think I chose a white one, with lots and lots of lace,” Branton says. “Deep lace.”
In the Los Angeles newspapers, both white and black, the death of Dorothy Dandridge was front-page news. The initial reports suggested that Dandridge’s foot injury had in some highly unusual way spurred a fatal blood vessel blockage, but a later toxicological analysis described the cause of death as acute drug intoxication.
“She drank champagne with it,” Branton says. “That’s what did it. That’s what killed her.”