When once asked about her favorite singers, Marilyn Monroe answered, "Well, my very favorite person, and I love her as a person as well as a singer, I think she's the greatest, and that's Ella Fitzgerald." Not only was Monroe a Fitzgerald fan, but she was also a friend who used her status as a Hollywood star to boost Fitzgerald's career. Their friendship would last until Monroe's untimely death. And even after Monroe had died, Fitzgerald remained grateful for the support the star had provided during her lifetime.
Monroe and Fitzgerald had many things in common, including traumatic childhoods
One reason for the connection between Monroe and Fitzgerald may have been the number of life experiences they had in common, beginning with their traumatic childhoods. Monroe grew up during the Great Depression unaware of who her father was and coping with a birth mother who was mentally unstable. She was moved among many different homes and was subjected to sexual abuse. Reflecting on her upbringing for a 1956 interview with Time magazine, she wondered, "How did I get through it?"
Fitzgerald was 15 when her mother's death in 1932 upended her world. Her stepfather became abusive, so she went to live with an aunt in Harlem. She left school to earn money, taking jobs, like brothel lookout, that skirted the law. Her truancy led to Fitzgerald being placed in a segregated reform school in upstate New York, where staff didn't hesitate to brutalize residents. The reformatory's last superintendent told The New York Times that during Fitzgerald's time there "she had been held in the basement of one of the cottages once and all but tortured."
Monroe was more open about her early life than Fitzgerald, who never wanted to discuss that period. Yet they each might have appreciated knowing someone who could understand some of that pain. Plus the similarities between Fitzgerald and Monroe didn't end with childhood: They'd both made early, unsuccessful marriages. And each had ultimately found success as a performer, while also encountering some of the pitfalls of stardom.
Monroe helped bring Fitzgerald's career to the next level
By the 1950s, Fitzgerald's enthralling singing voice had won her fans across the country. But the venues that hired her were often smaller clubs; some places weren't interested in having an overweight black woman perform for them, no matter her talent. Fitzgerald reportedly once told her press agent, "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."
Movie star Monroe had spent hours listening to Fitzgerald's recordings (a music coach had recommended this to improve the star's own singing). In November 1954, she got to see Fitzgerald perform in Los Angeles. The two were soon friends, so when Monroe learned of Fitzgerald's inability to get a gig at the Mocambo, a famous L.A. nightclub, she decided to help.
Dorothy Dandridge and Eartha Kitt had already performed at the Mocambo, so Fitzgerald wouldn't have been the first African-American to sing there. But the club's owner felt the heavyset Fitzgerald lacked the glamour to draw crowds. So Monroe approached him with a proposition — if he booked Fitzgerald, she promised to sit at the front of the house every night and to bring along other celebrities. Monroe made clear the amount of publicity this would garner, so the club owner agreed to hire Fitzgerald for a couple of weeks in March 1955.
During Fitzgerald's run, Monroe kept her word to sit up front, and Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland showed up on opening night. However, such celebrity firepower wasn't that necessary — Fitzgerald's shows sold out, and the owner even added a week to her contract. This successful engagement changed Fitzgerald's career trajectory. She later told Ms. magazine, "After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again."
Monroe supported Fitzgerald in battling prejudice
Following her success at the Mocambo, Fitzgerald got other jobs at big venues and also returned to the Mocambo. Yet not every location treated her equally due to the color of her skin — some expected Fitzgerald to enter through a side door or back entrance rather than the front.
When Monroe became aware of this, she again supported her friend. According to Fitzgerald biographer Geoffrey Mark, Monroe had traveled to Colorado to see Fitzgerald perform. Once there, she saw her friend ushered away from the front entrance, so Monroe refused to go inside unless both she and Fitzgerald were allowed through the front doors. The movie star got her way and soon all of Fitzgerald's performance spots were treating the singer with the respect she deserved.
Substance abuse became a barrier in Monroe and Fitzgerald's friendship
Monroe and Fitzgerald were friends for years. However, as Fitzgerald's longtime business manager revealed to Monroe biographer Lois Banner, Monroe's drug use kept the two from forging a deeper friendship.
Fitzgerald didn't drink or like cigarettes; she even shied away from songs that made reference to drugs. For her, an escape was watching soap operas when not on tour. But for Monroe, pills and alcohol were a way to cope with the stresses of her life and career. Her reliance on these substances deepened as the years went on until she died of a drug overdose at the age of 36 on August 5, 1962.
Fitzgerald never forgot how Monroe helped her career
Fitzgerald wasn't at Monroe's funeral. Joe DiMaggio, Monroe's second husband, had handled the arrangements, and he didn't want Monroe's celebrity friends and acquaintances to attend the small service.
However, Fitzgerald never forgot how Monroe had first helped her. In 1972, when she told Ms. magazine the story of Monroe's role in getting her that gig at the Mocambo, she noted, "I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt."