How Marilyn Monroe Helped Break Ella Fitzgerald Into the Big Time (1955)

Think of movie stars, and you’ll almost cer­tain­ly think of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe; think of jazz singers, and you’ll almost cer­tain­ly think of Ella Fitzger­ald. Their skills as per­form­ers, their inher­ent icon­ic qual­i­ties, the time of the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry in which they rose to fame, and oth­er fac­tors besides, have ensured that these two women still define the images of their respec­tive crafts. But before their ascen­sion to cul­tur­al immor­tal­i­ty, the Ange­leno Mon­roe and the New York­er Fitzger­ald’s paths crossed down here on Earth in 1955, and, when they did, the movie star played an inte­gral role in break­ing the jazz singer into the big time.

If you want­ed to play to an influ­en­tial crowd in Hol­ly­wood back in the 1950s, you had to play the Mocam­bo, the Sun­set Strip night­club fre­quent­ed by the likes of Clark Gable, Humphrey Bog­a­rt, Lana Turn­er, Bob Hope, Sophia Loren, and Howard Hugh­es. But at the time, a singer of the reput­ed­ly scan­dalous new music known as jazz did­n’t just waltz onto the stage of such a respectable venue, espe­cial­ly giv­en the racial atti­tudes of the time. But as luck would have it, Fitzger­ald found an advo­cate in Mon­roe, who, “tired of being cast as a help­less sex sym­bol, took a break from Los Ange­les and head­ed to New York to find her­self,” writes the Inde­pen­dent’s Ciar Byrne.

There Mon­roe “immersed her­self in jazz,” rec­og­niz­ing in Fitzger­ald “the cre­ative genius she her­self longed to pos­sess.” Togeth­er with Fitzger­ald’s man­ag­er, jazz impre­sario and Verve Records founder Nor­man Granz, Mon­roe pres­sured the glam­orous Hol­ly­wood club to book Ella. “I owe Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe a real debt,” Fitzger­ald said lat­er, 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.” He agreed, and true to her word, “Mar­i­lyn was there, front table, every night. The press went over­board. After that, I nev­er had to play a small jazz club again.”

Though Mon­roe’s efforts did­n’t make Fitzger­ald the first black per­former to take the Mocam­bo’s stage — Herb Jef­fries, Eartha Kitt, and Joyce Bryant had played there in 1952 and 1953 — she did use it as a plat­form to ascend to unusu­al­ly great career heights, com­pa­ra­ble to the way Frank Sina­tra launched his solo career there. The sto­ry has remained com­pelling enough for sev­er­al retellings, includ­ing Bon­nie Greer’s musi­cal Mar­i­lyn and Ella and, more recent­ly, through the hilar­i­ous unre­li­a­bil­i­ty of an episode of Drunk His­to­ry. As real his­to­ry would have it, Fitzger­ald would go on to enjoy a much longer and more var­ied career than the trag­ic Mon­roe, but she did her own part to repay the favor by adding nuance to Mon­roe’s super­fi­cial pub­lic image: “She was an unusu­al woman — a lit­tle ahead of her times. And she did­n’t know it.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ella Fitzger­ald Sings ‘Sum­mer­time’ by George Gersh­win, Berlin 1968

Mar­i­lyn Monroe’s Go-Get­ter List of New Year’s Res­o­lu­tions (1955)

The 430 Books in Mar­i­lyn Monroe’s Library: How Many Have You Read?

Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe Recounts Her Har­row­ing Expe­ri­ence in a Psy­chi­atric Ward in a 1961 Let­ter

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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