Grave Sightings: Dorothy Dandridge
Every time I so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, they’re all fascinating. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles out there, I’m putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.
As the first African-American actress to nab an Academy Award nomination for a leading role, Dorothy Dandridge opened doors for those who came after her. Though she ultimately lost to Grace Kelly, the nomination itself was groundbreaking.
After her appearance at the Oscars, Dandridge was able to command $75,000 to $125,000 per picture. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. The roles she was offered after her Oscar-nominated turn in Carmen Jones weren’t exactly the roles she had in mind. She grew frustrated with the stereotypical roles and limitations that black actresses encountered.
In addition to the poor film roles, Dandridge suffered some other setbacks. She married for the second time, this time to failed restaurant owner Jack Dennison. He was abusive, and they divorced in 1962—which is when she discovered that he had also harmed her finances. According to manager Earl Mills, she was more than $127,000 in debt at the time of her divorce from Dennison, and had assets worth just $5,000.
By 1965, Dandridge was poised for a comeback. She had earned some publicity and some much-needed cash from a series of nightclub performances, and had just signed a contract for two films, worth a total of $100,000.
But before the comeback could happen, it all came to an end. On September 8, 1965, Mills came to pick Dandridge up for an appointment and couldn’t get her to answer the door. Alarmed, he pried it open with a tire iron—and found Dandridge on the floor, naked. She had already been dead for two hours.
The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office originally determined a rather bizarre cause of death. She died, they said, because she had fractured her right foot at the gym five days prior to her death. The fracture had caused tiny pieces of fat to flake off the bone marrow, which caused blockages to her lungs and brain. They called it a rare embolism.
A small funeral was held, with very few of the Hollywood elite in attendance. Afterward, Dandridge was cremated and interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
Though she had been laid to rest, the questions about her death hadn’t been. The results of an extensive toxicology report came out two months later, and it concluded something different: Dandridge had died from “acute drug intoxication” of Tofranil, an antidepressant.
Was it suicide? That question is still debated today. On one hand, her finances were in a dire state of affairs and her career was a shadow of what it once had been. On the other hand, friends said Dandridge had never been happier. She had new projects—and new paychecks—on the horizon, and was excited to restore her faded fame.
Nearly 35 years after her death, Dandridge did become a big name in Hollywood again. Halle Berry won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for portraying her in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge—accolades Dandridge herself never had the chance to win. Two years later, at the Academy Awards, Berry picked up where Dandridge left off in 1954, becoming the first black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress.
Peruse all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.