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IT WAS THE BIGGEST BREAK OF HER Hollywood career, and Dorothy Dandridge was on the verge of losing it. Acclaimed director Otto Preminger was casting his all-black production of Carmen Jones in 1954, and Dandridge, a nightclub singer with a sultry act, considered herself perfect for the title role—a seductress whose fiery passions bring tragedy to a Florida factory town. Preminger, however, thought otherwise: “Every time I look at you I see Saks Fifth Avenue,” he said after Dandridge arrived for an interview in a prim blue dress. Dandridge begged for a second meeting; this time she sauntered into Preminger’s office wearing a slit skirt, a tousled wig and a revealing blouse. “My God,” roared the director, electrified. “It’s Carmen!”

Grace Kelly may have won the Oscar for 1954, but Dandridge made history that year. Her Best Actress nomination for Carmen Jones was a first for an African-American. Her face appeared on the cover of LIFE, and she caused a sensation when she arrived at 1955’s Cannes Film Festival. For a moment in the mid-50s—before family tragedy, bad relationships, pills and, above all, Hollywood racism sapped her career—Dandridge seemed poised to become the first nonwhite actress with truly universal appeal—a black Marilyn Monroe.

Instead by 1965, when she died at 42, possibly a suicide, with only $2.14 in the bank, the public had largely ignored her. That may change, thanks to a new, richly detailed book, Dorothy Dandridge: A Biography, by Donald Bogle, and to two separate film projects being developed by actresses Halle Berry and Whitney Houston, both devoted Dandridge admirers. “She’s such an important figure,” says Berry. “I’m proof of that. Every black actress who is working in Hollywood is proof of that.”

Indeed, when the 8-year-old Dandridge arrived in Los Angeles from Chicago in 1930, most of the film roles open to African-Americans were as menial extras. But her mother, actress Ruby Dandridge, saw California as a land of opportunity. With the help of her lover, a harsh-tempered woman named Geneva “Neva” Williams (Ruby had separated from her husband, draftsman Cyril Dandridge, in 1922), Ruby had already molded Dorothy and her older sister Vivian into a singing-and-acrobatics act called the Wonder Children. “I remember sleeping four in a single bed” touring black churches in the South in the ’20s, Dorothy would later recall. In L.A. in the early ’30s, Ruby added a third singer to the act and enlisted then-unknown Nat Cole (he had yet to acquire the nickname “King”) to polish it. The girls found steady work in nightclubs and bit parts in movies, including the Marx Brothers’ 1937 A Day at the Races.

But Ruby wanted her day in the sun. The following year she landed big-time billing for the act—now renamed the Dandridge Sisters—at Manhattan’s celebrated Cotton Club. There they shared the bill with a famous tap-dancing duo, the Nicholas Brothers. Dorothy, just 15, fell in love with the younger brother, Harold, now 77. They were married at a 1942 Hollywood ceremony attended by Gone With the Wind actress Hattie McDaniel. “It was the wedding in black Hollywood,” says author Bogle.

The marriage was not a happy one. In 1943 a daughter named Harolyn, the couple’s only child, was born with severe brain damage. To the day she died, Dandridge blamed herself for not getting to the hospital sooner during labor. (Nicholas had left to play golf, taking the car keys with him.) According to Dandridge’s friend Geri Branton, 75, who married the older Nicholas brother, Fayard, the actress remained devoted to her husband until she learned—on tour with him in Europe—that he was having affairs. “Tall women, English women, Swedish women would just constantly threaten us,” recalls Branton. “Dorothy just couldn’t tolerate it.”

Divorced in 1950, Dandridge resumed her career as a chanteuse in such nightclubs as L.A.’s Mocambo and London’s Café de Paris. “She was luscious,” says cabaret singer Bobby Short, 72. “Dorothy never had a great voice, but she had lots and lots of personality. [Audiences] were wild about her.” She became the first black headliner at several chic hotels, including one in Las Vegas where the pool was drained to prevent her from taking a swim. Despite her success onstage, she soon found the work—and her handlers, including her new lover, musical arranger Phil Moore—limiting. “They keep saying I’m sexy, sexy, sexy,” she once told Branton. “I just wish they’d stop.”

For years Dandridge, who had played small roles in some 20 films, dreamed of securing a feature role in a major Hollywood release. And when Preminger cast her in Carmen Jones, his modern-day screen adaptation of the classic opera Carmen (which also starred Diahann Carroll, Harry Belafonte and Pearl Bailey), critics praised her fiery performance—”Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones…WOW!” wrote a reviewer for The Hollywood Reporter. But there were few roles considered suitable for a black actress. Dandridge and Preminger fell in love, but their affair had ended bitterly by the time she worked for him again in 1959’s Porgy and Bess. “Otto was cruel to everyone, [but] he was particularly cruel to her on that film,” says Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura), who had a bit part in Bess. Preminger berated Dandridge mercilessly on the first day of shooting before the cast and crew. Dandridge began buckling under the strain. “She was alone and frightened most of the time,” says Carroll, “because of such an uncertain stardom in such an unkind industry.”

It would have taken a tough lady indeed to survive the downward spiral of Dandridge’s last years. In 1959 she married Las Vegas maitre d’ Jack Denison, who physically abused her and squandered her earnings before they divorced three years later. By then a bank had foreclosed on Dandridge’s Hollywood Hills home, and she could no longer afford to pay for Harolyn’s 24-hour nursing care. In 1963 she made the wrenching decision to send her daughter to a state institution. Shortly afterward she suffered a breakdown. Doctors prescribed “all kinds of pills,” according to her manager, Earl Mills, 83, “to speed her up, or to slow her down.” On Sept. 8, 1965, Mills arrived at Dandridge’s L.A. apartment to help her pack for a comeback engagement in New York City. When she failed to answer the door, he forced it with a crowbar and found Dorothy lying on the bathroom floor. “She had been getting dressed,” says Mills. “Her makeup was on.”

Asked once about her artistic achievements, Dandridge told a reporter, “I think it was really the heartache over my child and failure of my marriage [to Nicholas] that forced me to make a success of my career.”

Now that career is getting the attention it deserves.