Introducing Dorothy Dandridge

The HBO biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge , though focused on the singer/actress’s professional triumphs and disappointments, nonetheless offers a brief glimpse into her private life with her brain-injured daughter Harolynn.

Harolynn’s birth was a difficult one, though the doctors and nurses seemed to give no indication that she had acquired any disabilities because of it. As she grew, Dandridge realized her verbal skills were not progressing, and began taking her to a string of doctors who prescribed such remedies as hot baths and head massages. Finally (as young Harolynn stares blankly ahead and kicks repetitively at the furniture), a woman doctor bluntly informs Dandridge that Harolynn has anoxic brain damage from birth, and advises Dandridge to place her in an institution and get on with her life. (Perhaps today she would have been diagnosed with autism.) Dandridge refuses, but her husband (who once had hopes of sending their daughter to finishing school in Switzerland) can’t handle the pressure and leaves them.

Dandridge hires caregivers and nurses at first, but mounting bills and career misfortunes necessitate moving to a small apartment. The final straw came when she got involved with an abusive man who stole over $120,000 of her money; Helen Calhoun, whom Dorothy had been paying handsomely through the years to look after Harolynn, returned her when Dorothy could not longer pay for her care. In a tearful scene, Dandridge relinquishes parental rights so Harolyn could be cared for in an institution at age 18. Harolynn is briefly seen next to her crying mother in the courtroom; her limbs appear contracted, her lower lip juts out, and she seems unfocused and unaware of the goings-on around her.

Harolyn does not appear again in the film, though at one point her mother expresses the wish to get her back as her motivation for trying to make a comeback. She died suddenly before returning to the stage though, and her death was ruled an accidental prescription drug overdose. Ironically, she had just completed an autobiography, and would have given the profits to charities for mentally retarded children.

Harolyn reportedly lived out her days in a state mental institution in Camarello, California. She (again, reportedly) died at the age of 60 on April 14, 2003. No one claimed her body. Other reports state that she is still alive and living in an institution; if those reports are true, she would be around 67. Due to medical privacy laws and the wishes–or neglect–of her remaining family, it is likely we will never know for sure.

The real Dorothy Dandridge reportedly carried a picture of Harolynn wherever she went, both before and after relinquishing her.

1 Comment
  1. This story broke my heart. RiP Dorothy and may Harolyn be all she was meant to be & whole and with the mother who loved her so dearly.

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