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.”
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.