Dorothy Dandridge was born on November 9, 1922 in Cleveland, Ohio, to Cyril Dandridge (October 25, 1895 – July 9, 1989), a cabinetmaker and minister, and to Ruby Dandridge (née Butler), an aspiring entertainer. Dandridge's parents separated shortly before her birth. Ruby Dandridge soon created an act for her two young daughters, Vivian and Dorothy, under the name of "The Wonder Children." The daughters toured the Southern United States for five years while Ruby worked and performed in Cleveland. During this time, they toured almost non-stop and rarely attended school.
At the onset of the Great Depression, work virtually dried up for the Dandridges, as it did for many of the Chitlin' circuit performers. Ruby Dandridge moved to Hollywood, California, where she found steady work on radio and film in small parts as a domestic servant. "The Wonder Children" were renamed "The Dandridge Sisters" in 1937 and booked into such venues as the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City.
Dandridge's first screen appearance was a bit part in an Our Gang comedy, Teacher's Beau (1935). In 1937, she appeared as one of the many singers in the Marx Brothers'feature film A Day at the Races. The following year Dandridge, her sister Vivian would make a brief appearance in Going Places. In 1940, Dandridge played a murderer in therace film Four Shall Die — her first credited film role. Though the part was a supporting role and the film was somewhat of a success, Dandridge struggled to find good film roles.
The following year, Dandridge was cast opposite John Wayne in Lady From Louisiana (1941), playing the small part of Felice. That same year she teamed with her future husbandHarold Nicholas to film a brief role in Sun Valley Serenade. Dandridge, Nicholas, and Nicholas's brother Fayard Nicholas, appeared in a part described as "speciality act". In 1942, Dandridge won another supporting role as Princess Malimi in Drums of the Congo. In her next few films she would play mainly in bit parts, but she managed to get a small and yet good role in Hit Parade of 1943 (1943). In 1944, Dandridge would play two uncredited roles in Since You Went Away and Atlantic City. In the following year of 1945, she would play again a small role in the musical Pillow to Post. Two years later she appeared in a tiny role in Ebony Parade (1947). By the later months 1947, Dandridge's luck for winning small roles in films had disappeared. She would only rarely appear in nightclubs and wouldn't make any films.
In 1951, Dandridge was cast as Melmendi, Queen of the Ashuba, in her comeback film, Tarzan's Peril, starring Lex Barker as Tarzan and Virginia Huston as Jane. Dandridge's role was somewhat minor, but she would be noticed by many. One night while at a party, she was introduced to music manager Earl Mills. Mills had agreed to get Dandridge a career started as a singer, but Dandridge preferred to focus on the motion picture industry. Despite this disagreement, Dandridge signed Mills as her agent. She would next appear as Ann Carpenter in The Harlem Globetrotters (1951). In this film Dandridge really only makes a co-starring appearance, but receives second billing.
After the release of The Harlem Globetrotters, Dandridge's film career stalled again. Mills then arranged for Dandridge to make her first appearance at the Mocambo. She continued to perform in nightclubs around the country through most of 1952.
Dandridge married dancer and entertainer Harold Nicholas on September 6, 1942, and gave birth to her only child, Harolyn Suzanne Nicholas, on September 2, 1943. Harolyn was born brain-damaged, and the couple divorced in October 1951.
While filming Carmen Jones (1954), the director Otto Preminger began an affair with his film's star, Dorothy, which lasted four years. During that period, Preminger advised her on career matters, including an offer made to Dandridge for the featured role of Tuptim in the 1956 film of The King and I. Preminger advised her to turn down the supporting role, as he believed it to be unworthy of her. Dandridge later regretted accepting Preminger's advice. She ended the affair with Preminger upon realization that he had no plans to leave his first wife to marry her. Their affair was depicted in the HBO Pictures biopic, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, in which Preminger was portrayed by Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer.
Dandridge married Jack Denison on June 22, 1959, although the pair divorced amid allegations of domestic violence and financial setbacks. At this time, Dandridge discovered that the people who were handling her finances had swindled her out of $150,000, and that she was $139,000 in debt for back taxes. Forced to sell her Hollywood home and to place her daughter in a state mental institution in Camarillo, California, Dandridge moved into a small apartment at 8495 Fountain Avenue in West Hollywood, California. Alone and without any acting roles or singing engagements on the horizon, Dandridge suffered a nervous breakdown. Shortly thereafter, Earl Mills started arranging her comeback. The comeback never came to fruition because she died in the early planning stages.
On September 8, 1965, Dandridge spoke by telephone with friend and former sister-in-law Geraldine "Geri" Branton. Dandridge was scheduled to fly to New York the next day to prepare for her nightclub engagement at Basin Street East. Several hours after her conversation with Branton ended, Dandridge was found dead by her manager, Earl Mills. Two months later, a Los Angeles pathology institute determined the cause to be an accidental overdose of Imipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant. It was also reported that the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office came to a different conclusion: “Miss Dandridge died of a rare embolism—blockage of the blood passages at the lungs and brain by tiny pieces of fat flaking off from bone marrow in a fractured right foot she sustained in a Hollywood film five days before she died.” She was 42 years old.
On September 12, 1965, a private funeral service was held for Dandridge at the Little Chapel of the Flowers; she was then cremated and her ashes interred in the Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery.