“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt … she personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night.” ~ Ella Fitzgerald
Marilyn Monroe and Dorothy Dandridge have several striking similarities. Both women were world-famous actresses and sex symbols of the 1950s, known widely for their looks and described as some of the most beautiful women of their time. Both had similar styles– an iconic short wavy hair and red lipstick. Both often had acting roles as bombshells, although some roles may have been stereotypical in nature (Ex. The “Jezebel” in Dandridge’s case or the “dumb blonde” in Monroe’s). One of the more eerie similarities is that both had tragic love lives, never able to have the loving family and husband they wanted, and died of drug overdose in their mid-30s to early 40s in their Californian homes. With similar popularity and status and almost equal duration of their careers, one would think their legacies and influence should be comparable to each other.
Similar Fame, Vastly Diferent Influence
The stark contrast in Dandridge’s legacy and influence and Monroe’s legacy and influence illustrates just how limiting racism is on one’s career and influence. When it came to fighting for civil rights, Monroe hands down had the most power. McDaniel was able to request the removal of the n-word from the Gone with the Wind script after several years of experience in the acting industry. Dandridge was able to start integrating significant places like the Waldorf-Astoria and various clubs by getting a table up front for NAACP members and breaking attendance records. Monroe managed to get famous Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald a spot at the Macambo, the same club that helped launch Dandridge’s fame, just by promising to sit in the front seat every night. Club managers overlooked Fitzgerald because of her race and appearance, but Monroe, who had already recognized Fitzgerald’s talent and studyed her singing to learn from it, offering to appear at the club immediately got her into the door.
Despite both women being born around the same time and living around the same length of time (Monroe 1926-1962, lived to be 36; Dandridge 1922-1965, lived to be 42), Monroe made nearly 30 movies compared to Dandridge’s 15, and starred in advertisements and other media, garnering a net worth of over $2 million. Over 50 years after their deaths, Dandridge is not very well remembered– I had never heard of her before reading Negroland, not even from my baby boomer parents. Upon closer research, a few black actresses have paid homage to her, imitating her style. Monroe, on the other hand, is not only remembered, but she still makes several millions of dollars annually via the spa named in her honor, merchandise with her photo on it ranging from movies, books, puzzles, and pillows to a variety of other merchandise. Even in very recent years, both white and black celebrities and civilians alike have imitated her style, and she has been referenced in music, such as Nicki Minaj’s Marilyn Monroe (2012) and Rihanna’s Sex with Me (2016).
The Bottom Line
Dandridge’s quote about the late decline of her career illustrates why despite her popularity and being described as one of the most beautiful women of her time, she likely never had a chance at garnering the widespread popularity that Monroe maintained for over half a century.
“I wasn’t fully accepted in either world, black or white. I was too light to satisfy Negroes, not light enough to secure the screen work, the roles, the marriage status available to a white woman.” ~ Dorothy Dandridge
In the 1950s, the American superstar mold simply just did not have room for African Americans, much like the rest of society. However, women like McDaniel and Dandridge chipped away at it, getting the n-word removed from scripts, integrating famous nightspots and fighting for equality and respect despite racism, colorism, sexism, and disadvantageous circumstances.
Looking to the future, we can continue the work of McDaniel, Dandridge, Monroe, and several others by chipping away at the mold together in unity, and rebuilding it into something that we can be proud to pass on to our children, something that will include everyone. No one knows if it may take decades, centuries, or even be an endless cycle of growth, but sometimes things must fall apart before they can come together and become stronger.