Having been typecast as a sexy “blonde bombshell” for much of her acting career, Marilyn Monroe moved to Manhattan in 1955 seeking new creative avenues. She studied method acting, underwent psychoanalysis and listened to jazz records – lots of jazz records. And she soon realized that the artistic genius she yearned for was alive and present in the soulful vocals of Ella Fitzgerald…
Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in Los Angeles in 1926, Monroe had established a Hollywood acting career in her early 20s after securing minor contracts with Columbia Pictures and Twentieth Century-Fox. Thereafter, her rise to international stardom was swift and dazzling. By 1955, thanks to her roles in films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Seven Year Itch, she was an iconic sex symbol and well on her way to becoming Hollywood’s biggest star.
By contrast, Ella Fitzgerald was an established musician by 1955, but relatively unknown outside her niche. Born in Newport News in Virginia in 1917, she began her singing career in the 1930s, performing and recording songs with leading band musicians such as Chick Webb. In 1942 she embarked on a solo career. And by the time she met Marilyn Monroe, she was an accomplished jazz vocalist with several hits to her name. Still, her big breakthrough was yet to come.
Ostensibly, Monroe and Fitzgerald had little in common – except perhaps a love of jazz. But when Monroe started attending Fitzgerald’s gigs in New York, they met and forged a close bond, and it was not as improbable as it seems. After all, both women were fighting for their place in male-dominated industries. Both women had endured abusive childhoods. Both women were survivors.
Indeed, Fitzgerald had suffered an exceptionally traumatic youth. After her mother died, she ran away from home and was subsequently picked up by the authorities. They placed her in segregated foster care where she was raped, tortured and abused in a basement. Her religious faith got her through those dark days. And then, against all odds, she flourished.
According to Geoffrey Mark, author of a Fitzgerald biography called Ella, the singer was “discovered by God” in Harlem. “She had an awful, awful childhood,” he told Fox News in 2018. “She was beaten, battered, abused and left on her own. However, Ella went to an amateur contest… She was put on stage and the spotlight hit her… She went on to win every amateur contest in Harlem… [and] an unwashed, unschooled, unloved, abused girl became a star by 16–17.”
However, one of the big challenges facing Fitzgerald and other African-Americans in the mid-1950s was institutional racism. In fact, the civil rights movement was only just beginning, and thirteen years of struggle and civil disobedience lay ahead. For the moment, deep-rooted racial discrimination affected African-Americans across the country, especially in Jim Crow states.
In fact, for most African-American musicians, the pernicious social climate placed various restrictions on their professional success. For example, large night clubs generally refused to book them. And those small nightclubs that did book them usually asked them to enter the building by the back door (as was then customary in the hotel and restaurant industries).
Naturally, Fitzgerald could not avoid such discrimination (especially when visiting the Deep South), but she had an ally in her outspoken manager, Norman Granz. Granz was a vocal supporter of the civil rights movement, and he demanded that all venues treat his African-American musicians as they would any white musician. Inevitably, he made some enemies along the way.
On one occasion, for example, a group of Dallas police officers took issue with Granz’s politics and decided to harass Fitzgerald and her fellow musicians, who were in the city on tour. After crashing into her dressing room, they arrested her and several other band members and hauled them into custody. They then asked Fitzgerald for an autograph.
With such a wretched state of race relations, the Mocambo nightclub in Hollywood was decidedly off limits to an African-American jazz musician such as Fitzgerald. In fact, as one of Los Angeles’ premier venues, it tended to be the exclusive haunt of high-flying celebrities such as Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Charlie Chaplin and Sophia Loren. However, there was at least one player with enough kudos to influence the management: Marilyn Monroe.
Monroe is not usually remembered for her politics, but according to African-American writer Bonnie Greer – who wrote the musical Marilyn and Ella in 2008 – behind the actor’s “dumb blonde” screen persona was a progressive left-winger. Greed said, “She knew who her audience were: people who parked cars and flipped hamburgers, housewives and guys who worked in the factories… helping Ella to break the color bar was all of a piece.”
So Monroe called the Mocambo and pulled some strings. “I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Fitzgerald reportedly said in 1972. “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. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild…”
“The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night,” said Fitzgerald. “The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”
In fact, Fitzgerald was not the first African-American to perform at the Mocambo. In 1952 and 1953 Joyce Bryant, Eartha Kitt and Herb Jeffries had taken to its stage. However, like Frank Sinatra, who had played his debut gig at the Mocambo and gone on to great things, her appearances at the prestigious venue marked an important breakthrough.
Meanwhile, Monroe herself is said to have benefited from the close study of Fitzgerald’s singing style. According to one rumor, she listened to her records a hundred times in a row, apparently at the behest of one her vocal coaches. Indeed, Monroe was an effective singer, but she never did manage to shake off her sex symbol image. And she was also evidently troubled.
On August 6, 1962, Monroe was found dead in her bed at her home in Los Angeles. She had died the previous night, according to a toxicological analysis, after consuming an overdose of barbiturates. Her doctors described her state of mind before her death as “depressed” and “unpredictable.” She was 36 years old and her death was officially declared “probable suicide.”
Fitzgerald, who had been Monroe’s close friend up until her death, lived to the age of 79. And in the course of her remarkable career she earned a trove of prestigious awards, including no less than 13 Grammys. She also performed with some of the greats, including Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra.
According to Greer, beauty is one of the defining themes of Monroe and Fitzgerald’s friendship. “One of the things that’s important to me is to have a black woman who is not conventionally beautiful worshipped by one of the most beautiful women in the world who can see her inner quality,” she told The Independent, describing how she wrote her play.
“For me, at the most profound level, it’s about beauty,” Greer continued. “Beauty as a curse, beauty as a desire. It’s about inner beauty. It’s about the beauty of real work, of a gift, they both were gifted…”