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That Time Marilyn Monroe Gave Ella Fitzgerald’s Career A Boost

Updated: Apr 25

Throughout the world, Jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald's voice is celebrated by millions. However, what's lesser known is her profound friendship with Marilyn Monroe, whom Fitzgerald acknowledged as someone to whom she "owe[s] a real debt."

In the 1950s, while touring under the guidance of Norman Granz, Ella Fitzgerald faced significant hurdles because of her race, echoing the experiences of numerous African-American musicians of that time. Especially in the Jim Crow states, racial prejudice was pervasive. Granz, a fervent supporter of civil rights, ensured that all his musicians, regardless of their race, received equal treatment at hotels and venues.

Despite his efforts, there were many roadblocks and hurdles put in to place, especially for some of the more popular African-American artists. Here is one story of Fitzgerald’s struggles (as written in

Once, while in Dallas touring for the Philharmonic, a police squad irritated by Norman’s principles barged backstage to hassle the performers. They came into Ella’s dressing room, where band members Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet were shooting dice, and arrested everyone. “They took us down,” Ella later recalled, “and then when we got there, they had the nerve to ask for an autograph.”

Throughout the nation, black musicians, regardless of their fame, frequently found themselves confined to small nightclubs, forced to enter through the rear entrances. This discriminatory treatment was also prevalent in restaurants and hotels.

Enter Marilyn Monroe

In the 1950s, one of Hollywood's most esteemed venues was Mocambo. It hosted Frank Sinatra's Los Angeles debut in 1943 and was a favored spot for celebrities like Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Lana Turner.

Ella Fitzgerald faced a setback when she was denied the opportunity to perform at Mocambo, not because of her race as previously thought, but because she was not considered glamorous enough. However, an unexpected turn of events occurred when one of her greatest admirers intervened with a phone call that potentially altered the course of her career forever. Here, she recounts the tale of how Marilyn Monroe transformed her life.

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt … 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. 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."

Learning from Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald also left her mark on Monroe. Despite Monroe's singing often being eclipsed by memorable moments like the iconic "Happy Birthday, Mr. President," flirtatious encounters, and her cinematic achievements alongside her marriage to Joe DiMaggio.

Before the pivotal Mocambo phone call, Monroe had been immersing herself in Fitzgerald's recordings for years. There were even rumors suggesting that Monroe's vocal coach had advised her to acquire Fitzgerald's Gershwin music recordings and listen to them repeatedly, reportedly up to a hundred times in succession.

Monroe's dedicated study of Fitzgerald's work notably improved her singing abilities for nearly a decade. However, this period of musical growth was often eclipsed by her legendary rendition of "Happy Birthday" to JFK in 1962.



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