Ella Fitzgerald is legendary. The Queen of Jazz, the First Lady of Song, the first African-American woman to nab a Grammy. Her voice singularly commanded a room, whether intimate stage or big-box auditorium — even today, if you only listen through your headphones, her vocal acrobatics and improvisations captivate and transport you like no other. Fitzgerald was an icon — correction, is an icon.
And did you know that she was close friends with Marilyn Monroe? And that not only did their lives intertwine but the latter gave the former a critical boost in her career?
Going on tour in the 1950s wasn’t easy for Fitzgerald, who often faced deep-rooted discrimination because of her race — never mind that her album sales were already in the millions. Once, at a layover to a performance in Australia, she was booted from the first-class seat she had paid for to accommodate a white passenger. She wasn’t even allowed to collect her personal items. Another time, while her band members were playing dice in her dressing room, the police arrived and arrested everyone. “And then when we got [to the station],” Fitzgerald recounted, “they had the nerve to ask for an autograph.”
So it seemed par for the course when the singer was barred from playing at the most popular nightclub of the era, Mocambo in West Hollywood, which hosted everyone from Frank Sinatra to Édith Piaf. Monroe, a jazz fan who frequently studied Fitzgerald’s early recordings of Gershwin songs to develop her own voice, wouldn’t stand for it.
“[Marilyn] personally called the owner of the Mocambo,” Fitzgerald told Ms. magazine in 1972, “and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night.” He did. And she did. And the press went wild. “After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again,” Fitzgerald continued. “I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt.”
History has since quibbled with the details — some say the incident happened at L.A.’s Tiffany Club, not Mocambo — but the heart of the story remains the same. Monroe — who fought for equal pay, who was the second woman ever to start her own production company — was a woman “ahead of her time,” as Fitzgerald described her. “And she didn’t know it.”