Monday, August 17, 2015

The mystery of Marilyn Monroe, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Mocambo club

UPDATE: My play about Marilyn Monroe will be performed February 20 - 26, 2017 in NYC.

More information here.

A month ago I wrote about the connection between Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe, and I noted that oddly, Jet Magazine did not mention Marilyn at Ella Fitzgerald's first appearance at the Mocambo club, in spite of the fact that other celebrities are mentioned and also appear in photos. Considering how much credit Ella Fitzgerald herself gave to Monroe for her appearance there, it's a really surprising oversight.

Fitzgerald is quoted all over the Internet as saying this:
“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.”
I was curious about the elipses - what else did Fitzgerald say? - so I started to track down the source for the quote. It apparently first appeared in the August 1972 edition of Ms. Magazine, which unfortunately is not available because their archives only go back to 1987. I'm toying with the idea of buying a copy, but the lowest priced one I've found is on Amazon (ugh) for $35 and cost 70 bucks on ebay. I guess I'll try the library first.

Turns out Monroe herself is on the cover of that issue, along with an article by Gloria Steinem entitled "The Woman Who Died Too Soon" which may or may not be the same as "Ten Years Later: The Real Marilyn Monroe" also listed on the cover. And I confess I also want to read the articles "The Liberated Orgasm" and "What If Pat Nixon were a Feminist?"  

While I was Googling around for a cheaper copy of the second issue of Ms., I discovered this fascinating web site, Unraveling the Slander of Marilyn Monroe which includes a page about the Mocambo incident. Author April VeVea addresses the integration issue, which I'd already seen debunked - in spite of the persistent claim that Monroe helped Fitzgerald integrate the Mocambo, Fitzgerald was not in fact the first Black performer to appear there. According to this article:
Marilyn Monroe did indeed help Ella Fitzgerald land a gig at the swanky hot spot Mocambo in 1954. But in fact, race wasn’t the reason that Charlie Morrison, the club’s manager, didn’t want to book Fitzgerald. Black performers had played Mocambo plenty of times in the early 1950s. But unfortunately for Fitzgerald, Morrison didn’t think she was “glamorous enough.” Monroe was a huge fan of Fitzgerald and was able to (change) the manager’s mind. 

Well April VeVea makes a pretty convincing argument that in spite of Fitzgerald's claim, Monroe herself never appeared at the Mocambo. I might have immediately scoffed at this if I hadn't already been puzzled by the Jet article's failure to mention Monroe. VeVea presents evidence that the pictures of Monroe and Fitzgerald together at a Hollywood club were from Fitzgerald's appearance at the Tiffany Club:
The trouble starts with this picture. It has Marilyn and Ella at a "Hollywood Club" where Ella is performing on November 18, 1954. Except we know Ella wasn't performing at a Hollwood Club on the 18th. She was performing at the Tiffany Club.

Marilyn then went again on the 19th or 20th with Sid Skolsky and a couple of gal pals. How do we know it's a different event? Because her outfit above is clearly a black spaghetti strap dress and the other was pedal pushers with her mink.

How do we know it was the 19th or 20th? Because Ella's performance ended on the 20th. You'll notice that (Monroe's) appearance on the 18th was her first night out since her endometriosis surgery.
And VeVea further presents evidence that Monroe was not in Los Angeles when Fitzgerald performed at the Mocambo, although there is evidence that Monroe "agented the booking."

VeVea concludes:
(Fitzgerald's) version appears to have combined Marilyn's actual appearance at the Tiffany Club with her helping Ella get booked at the Mocambo. You will notice that Ella herself never says anything about race. She only says that they refused to book her. Marilyn repeatedly said in interviews that she liked Ella. Combined with her appearances at the Tiffany Club, Ella did have a significant boost in her career. While Marilyn deserves credit for helping a friend, Ella obviously had the singing chops being she was asked back to the Mocambo in November of 1955.

So the wonderful tale of how Marilyn Monroe integrated the Mocambo by promising to sit in the front row every night Ella Fitzgerald appeared is unfortunately wrong on many counts:
  • Monroe appeared two or three nights at Fitzgerald's run at the Tiffany Club in November 1954, and we have photographic evidence and newspaper testimonial.
  • Monroe was responsible for Fitzgerald getting the March 1955 booking at the Mocambo, but there is no evidence she appeared there - in spite of Fitzgerald's own testimonial - during Fitzgerald's run.
  • The Mocambo had used Black performers well before Fitzgerald.
The Internet giveth and the Internet taketh away. *sigh*

Well I'm still going to use the Monroe-Fitzgerald connection in my play, but I will avoid including unsupported stories. We do know that Monroe was a huge Fitzgerald fan and did at least advocate for her appearance at the Mocambo and did appear at a nightclub to watch Fitzgerald. So there's that.