A lovely narrative about Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald is currently circulating on social media, in which it is alleged that the singer and actress used her white privilege to help the jazz great secure a lucrative gig.
According to tweets and Instagram posts, one of Hollywood’s most popular music venues in the 1950s, Mocambo, refused to book Ella because she was black.
‘Did you know that when Ella Fitzgerald couldn’t get hired by clubs or on TV because she was black, Marilyn Monroe volunteered to come to a nightclub every night and sit in the front row provided they allowed Ella sing?’ says the viral tweet. That’s how you put your power to good use.’
According to folklore, Marilyn informed the club’s owners that if they agreed to put Ella on the stage, she would sit in the front row for each of her appearances.
While it’s true that Marilyn persuaded the owners of Mocambo to let Ella sing, the reason they were hesitant wasn’t because the club had never hosted a Black performer before.
While Ella’s colour was clearly a factor, Black singers such as Eartha Kitt and Herb Jeffries had performed at Mocambo before Ella.
The club’s owner was hesitant to book her because he was concerned that a ‘real jazz’ vocalist wouldn’t be attractive enough for the club in West Hollywood.
Marilyn saw Ella perform at a small club and decided to ‘advance her career’ by finding her a slot at Mocambo, according to Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, a chronicle of the actress’s life.
The book states: ‘She contacted the owners of the Mocambo, a top Sunset Strip nightclub, and persuaded them to hire Fitzgerald for a week.
‘Marilyn promised to be in the front row every night and to take friends with her. According to Dorothy Dandridge, however, the real problem with Fitzgerald at that time was not that she was African-American but that she was overweight, without much sex appeal.
‘Singing at the Mocambo was a turning point in Fitzgerald’s career. With a major nightclub on her resume, she was no longer relegated to small clubs. She was grateful to Marilyn, although she held back from close friendship because of Marilyn’s drug habit.’
Marilyn had intervened to persuade Mocambo’s owner Charlie Morrison to book Ella, and the singer has spoken up about the incident.
Ella said: ‘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.’