How Marilyn Monroe changed Ella Fitzgerald’s life

If asked “Who  played an important role in the musical career of Ella Fitzgerald?” you might respond with names like Chick Webb, Louis Armstrong, Norman Granz, and Dizzy Gillespie.

The name Marilyn Monroe (who passed away 50 years ago this August), however, might not come to mind.

While touring in the ’50s under the management of Norman Granz, Ella, like many African-American musicians at the time, faced significant adversity because of her race, especially in the Jim Crow states. Granz was a huge proponent of civil rights, and insisted that all of his musicians be treated equally at hotels and venues, regardless of race.

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 Ella’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.”

Across the country, black musicians, regardless of popularity, were often limited to small nightclubs, having to enter through the back of the house. Similar treatment was common at restaurants and hotels.

Enter Marilyn Monroe

During the ’50s, one of the most popular venues was Mocambo in Hollywood. Frank Sinatra made his Los Angeles debut at Mocambo in 1943, and it was frequented by the likes of Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Lana Turner.

Ella Fitzgerald was not allowed to play at Mocambo because of her race. Then, one of Ella’s biggest fans made a telephone call that quite possibly changed the path of her career for good. Here, Ella tells the story of how Marilyn Monroe changed 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 Ella

Ella had an influence on Marilyn as well. Monroe’s singing had a tendency to be overshadowed by dress-lifting gusts of wind and the flirtatious “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” not to mentions her movies and marriage to Joe DiMaggio. But years prior to the Mocambo phone call, Monroe was studying the recordings of Ella.

In fact, it was rumored that a vocal coach of Monroe instructed her to purchase Fitzgerald’s recordings of Gershwin music, and listen to it 100 times in a row.

Continued study of Ella actually turned Marilyn into a relatively solid singer for about a decade, but again became overlooked as her famous birthday tribute song to JFK in 1962 ends up being the vocal performance that is widely remembered.

Other Posts You Might Enjoy:

The FBI Files of Billie Holiday

The Most Famous Murder in Jazz

Jaki Byard Calls BS – A jazz reminiscence by Dick Stein

44 comments on “How Marilyn Monroe changed Ella Fitzgerald’s life

  1. Marilyn

    Marilyn used to “go slummin'” (as they used to call it) in the black areas of town. Her managers/agents didn’t want her to because they thought it would be bad for her career for her to be seen in those parts but she didn’t care. She had no racial prejudices. She even spoke of an affair she had with a black man… in the 1940s! This is something not talked about a lot and I wish more people knew. she was his seat partner in UCLA night class. Apparently this man became the first black postmaster general of CA. (Anyone know who this is???)

    1. James Winslow

      This is a great story, but entirely accurate? I seem to recall four or five “black” singers at the Mocambo before the great and beautiful Ella.
      A similar story, which I got directly from the man, was about the NFL back in those old days, those good old days. This was the real founder of the NFL Players Asso. Mr. Kyle Rote was then captain and playing for the NY Giants. As they traveled to games the “black” players slept in seperate hotels, (for “blacks” only). Kyle Rote didn’t cotton to this and decided to stay in the “blacks” only hotels. This was the real basis for the formation of the NFL Players Association. I would like to think it also furthered that which is right. In his later years Mr. Rote supported many organizations. One whose work he greatly appreciated is Focus Adolescent Services, / He had his reasons and I have mine; they save American children and families. If your heart tells you, send them a gift at least to help support their free national help line.

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  4. Janet

    Sheila,Thank you so much for your transparency. I rebmmeer reading An Open Letter to my First Five Girlfriends at McSweeney’s. I wished for a letter from at least one of my first five boyfriends. You and Marilyn are certainly not alone.I had an experience reading about Marilyn and feeling better about myself. She and I have many of the same measurements. Bust, waist, hips, height, shoe size all the same. The biggest sex symbol of the last century has measurements considered fat by a huge swath of today’s society. When I’m tempted to feel fat(like when I read The Devil Wears Prada) I remind myself that I’m Marilyn’s size and feel instantly sexy. Take that Vogue!Jill

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  6. Oscarosvaldo

    This is a quote I had never read before. It’s suisriprng wisdom from Marilyn Monroe, a memorable comedienne and actress but not usually remembered for philosophical contributions. Thanks for sharing it! / January 6th, 2011, 9:43 pm

  7. Fran Morris-Rosman

    We always are so happy when we see that folks still love Ella. And yes, she and Marilyn Monroe were friends. And yes, Ella did break a lot of barriers during her 50+ year career, with much of the credit going to her manager (and friend) Norman Granz. Norman refused to let his artists play to segregated houses. For more information, please see the fantastic biography of Norman written by Tad Hershron: “Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice”.
    We also want to tell all of Ella’s fans that there is now an official Ella Fitzgerald Facebook Fan Page – lots of fun memories to share.

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  11. Tony

    Leslie N Shaw if it were true is the black gent who had the affair with Monroe. He was the first black post master in Ca as Oct 1st 1964.

  12. sc

    I give Marilyn her due for helping Ella, but I cant stand the thought that a bigot profited from this exchange.It would have been better if Marilyn made a deal to attend a club that did not discriminate and treated Ella with the respect she deserves.

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