Marilyn Monroe is only rarely credited for her considerable intellect, or her compassion and courage. But during Black History Month, we would be remiss not to take a look underneath her exterior at the beauty that was also within her, and how she helped play a role in opening up musical venues to black performers. One incident involved a singer whose recordings Marilyn studied over and over for inspiration and emulation.
This singer was none other than the fantastic Ella Fitzgerald, who, like other black performers of her time in the 1950’s, was denied admission to a number of hotels, restaurants, and clubs. Her white manager, Norman Granz, insisted that all his musicians be treated equally, but there were many owners that refused to accede to his demands.
The Mocombo was a popular Hollywood club frequented by many movie stars, and it was Marilyn’s favorite. And Marilyn had been listening to Ella for years. But Ella was not welcome at the Mocambo. In Ella’s own words in a later recollection:
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.”
[The Mocambo closed in 1958 a year after the death of the club operator and co-owner, Charlie Morrison, with whom Marilyn bargained a couple of years before.]
If you have any question why everyone was so entranced with the talent of Ella Fitzgerald, check out this video of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. You won’t wonder anymore! (And the way she holds that last note, OMG!)