Weird History

How Marilyn Monroe And Ella Fitzgerald's Friendship Gave Them Both Their Careers  

Erin McCann
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Of all the friendships between famous women, that of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and actor Marilyn Monroe may be one of the least known. The story of their camaraderie was apparently so obscure that audiences of the 2008 play based on the story believed it to be fictional. As unlikely as the pairing between one of the best female singers of all time and one of history's most beautiful celebrities seems, their friendship was, in fact, real. Not only was it real, but it helped propel Fitzgerald to even greater success and gave Monroe a new skill set for her portfolio. What exactly brought the iconic blonde actress and the first female African American Grammy-winner together? Despite what many would assume, the two women shared much in common.

Article ImageBorn Norma Jeane Mortenson and baptized as Baker in 1926, Marilyn Monroe grew up without knowing her father. Unfortunately, her mother and maternal grandparents suffered from mental issues, partially due to her father walking out on Monroe's mother while she was pregnant. Monroe once claimed that her mother - clearly suffering from mental instability - nearly suffocated her with a pillow, eventually leading to her mother's internment in a psychiatric institution. Due to her mother's state, Monroe never truly knew her, recalling as an adult, "To me, she was just the woman with the red hair."

Her mother's absence resulted in Monroe living with a series of foster families, including a strictly religious one that wouldn't allow her to watch movies, another that made her bathe in water already used by her seven foster siblings, and another that forced her to scrub the floors. She also endured several instances of sexual assault while in the foster care system, and after dropping out of high school at age 15, she married a young man only one year later as a means to escape her dismal life. Monroe blamed herself rather than others for her unfortunate past, resulting in significant guilt and low self-esteem. These personal struggles may have driven her to succeed, but they ultimately ended in tragedy.
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Like Monroe, Ella Fitzgerald also grew up without really knowing her biological father. Born in 1917, a very young Fitzgerald moved to New York with her mother after she parted ways with Fitzgerald's father. Both her mother and her mother's boyfriend worked several jobs to make ends meet, and Fitzgerald also did her part by completing odd jobs of dubious legality: gathering and delivering money for gamblers and protecting a brothel by watching for police.

Like Monroe, Fitzgerald lost her mother at a young age when she perished following a traffic accident. This tragedy brought out abusive behavior from her mother's boyfriend, and Fitzgerald was taken in by an aunt. The young Fitzgerald was unhappy, however, and began acting out. After skipping school on numerous occasions, her aunt sent her to a reform school, which resulted in even further mistreatment. Former school superintendent Thomas Tunney recalled, "[Fitzgerald] had been held in the basement of one of the cottages once and all but tortured." She eventually escaped and lived as a homeless person until she found a band that allowed her to sing with them.

In 1934, Fitzgerald entered a singing contest at Harlem's Apollo Theater and earned first prize, as well as her first break. She joined Chick Webb's band soon after, and the group produced multiple hits. By the mid-1940s, Fitzgerald had become a certified singing sensation. Around the same time, Monroe's career also began gathering steam. After signing her first movie contract in 1946, Monroe earned attention with two roles in 1950: All About Eve and The Asphalt Jungle. When Monroe and Fitzgerald first met in 1954 at a Los Angeles show, both had built solid careers in the entertainment industry. They respected one another for their roles as women seeking success in male-dominated fields.

At the time, Monroe had already been listening to Fitzgerald's music for several years and considered herself a fan. According to stories, a singing coach encouraged Monroe to study Fitzgerald's work to improve her voice, giving her intimate knowledge of Fitzgerald's skills. "...I love her as a person as well as a singer, I think she's the greatest," Monroe recalled. As the two became more acquainted, Monroe willingly shared details about her past, though Fitzgerald refused to discuss what she endured as a child. The two women soon realized, however, that they shared similar experiences in marriage and pregnancy, such as multiple divorces and fertility issues. Along with the mutual trials they faced as women in show business, Fitzgerald's frustration with racial prejudice and Monroe's resentment of her limiting media image further reinforced their bond.

Remarkably, this friendship aided both their careers. Due to segregation laws and her weight, Fitzgerald was only offered gigs from small clubs. Although she took what was offered, Fitzgerald rightfully believed she deserved more, noting, "I know I make a lot of money at the jazz clubs I play, but I sure wish I could play at one of those fancy places." The Mocambo, one of Old Hollywood's most popular jazz clubs, was one such place, hosting stars like Lana Turner, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, and even Marilyn Monroe herself.

Article ImageWhen Monroe discovered that the Mocambo had barred Fitzgerald from performing, as the owner believed her appearance would distance audiences, Monroe called him to arrange a deal: she vowed she would personally attend all of Fitzgerald's performances and sit in the front row to create more publicity for both the club and the singer. Thanks to Monroe's promise, the owner agreed to give Fitzgerald a chance, allowing her to perform for several weeks in 1955. Stars like Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra attended, in addition to Monroe, and Fitzgerald quickly became a club favorite. After all of her shows sold out, the owner gave her another week of stage time. Fitzgerald recalled, "After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again," adding of Monroe, "She was an unusual woman - a little ahead of her time, and she didn't know it."

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Although Fitzgerald earned the respect of larger clubs and more venues began welcoming her to their stages, segregation laws prevented her from entering establishments through the front door. African Americans were instead required to enter through the back or side entrances. Monroe witnessed Fitzgerald's treatment at a Colorado venue and took offense. Although she traveled to Colorado specifically to see her friend sing, Monroe refused to attend if the venue did not allow Fitzgerald to enter through the front like the white attendees. Following Monroe's stand, the venue retracted their front-door policy and improved their treatment of African American performers. Thankfully, many other establishments followed suit.

Fitzgerald and Monroe's friendship was hardly one-sided, however; Fitzgerald's singing talent inspired Monroe to become a better vocalist herself. After allegedly listening to hours of Fitzgerald's music, including 100 repetitions of her Gershwin recordings, Monroe managed to improve her own voice. Although she is likely most remembered for her breathy rendition of "Happy Birthday," sung for JFK, she also performed most of her own singing in movies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot. Monroe may not have had Fitzgerald's vocal power, but she managed to develop her own distinct sound and style after adopting a few tricks from her friend.

Unfortunately, the solid friendship forged by the two women didn't last. While Fitzgerald avoided alcohol, tobacco, and illicit substances during her life, Monroe embraced - and depended upon - all three. Perhaps due to their differing coping methods, Fitzgerald began to pull away from their friendship as Monroe became more drawn to substances. Sadly, these differences created a permanent rift in their relationship, and Monroe perished from an overdose in 1962 before the two could reconcile.

Since Monroe's former husband Joe DiMaggio arranged her funeral and, in an effort to control the size, refrained from inviting celebrities, Fitzgerald was never able to publicly wish her friend farewell. She did, however, note Monroe's impact on her life and career, remembering, "I owe Marilyn a debt." Fitzgerald passed in 1996, leaving behind a musical legacy, as well as the amazing story of a friendship between two women who both changed history.