“All photographs are accurate,” wrote the celebrated photographer Richard Avedon. “None of them is the truth.” Case in point, a photograph of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe in a nightclub in the 1950s that has gone viral recently.
Marilyn was at the height of her popularity then. Wherever she went, reporters and photographers followed. She had apparently let the press know she’d be at the club in order to publicize Ella’s appearance at the club. The camera’s flash caught Ella and Marilyn sitting side by side, dressed to the nines and elegantly coiffed – Ella in an embroidered, light-colored silk cocktail dress; Marilyn in a low-cut, little black dress with a fur coat draped casually across her shoulder.
They are chatting. Ella is animated. Marilyn looks happy. As Avedon might put it, the image is accurate. Ella and Marilyn were friends. But in the photo’s spin around the Interwebs, a back story has been invented about it that is untrue. This story falsely claims that the photo was taken at Mocambo, an A-list nightclub on the Sunset Strip, that the club had a policy against booking black performers, and that Marilyn made a personal appeal to the club owner to rescind the racist policy and book her friend. None of that is the truth.
The photo ran in newspapers nationwide the next day with the caption, “MARILYN IN GOOD SHAPE AGAIN. Fully recovered from minor surgery performed recently at a Hollywood hospital, actress Marilyn Monroe is pictured with singer Ella Fitzgerald, Nov. 18 , at a Hollywood nightclub where Miss Fitzgerald is appearing. It was Marilyn’s first night out since the operation and one of her rare public appearances since she and Joe DiMaggio separated.”
But was the “Hollywood nightclub” Mocambo? A quote from Ella Fitzgerald herself in an interview with Ms. Magazine in 1972 has contributed to the confusion today.
“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Ella said. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo [Charlie Morrison], 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.”
Based on this quote, you can see how someone might assume that the photo was taken at Mocambo. But it wasn’t. Ella had forgotten that Marilyn was not there when she played Mocambo. She wasn’t even in Los Angeles in March 1955. Marilyn made sure the club was packed with Hollywood A-listers for Ella’s debut, but she was not among them. She was living in New York then and did not return for Ella’s shows.
Ella Fitzgerald had been performing on the club circuit for 20 years by then. She had even earned the title, “First Lady of Song.” Even so, it is true, apparently, that Charlie Morrison was reluctant to hire Ella and that Marilyn had used her star power to convince him to book her at Mocambo. As the columnist Dorothy Kilgallen put it, Marilyn “agented” Ella’s engagement at the club. Perhaps Morrison thought Ella’s jazz stylings weren’t right for Mocambo – or maybe he thought she was insufficiently glamorous to appeal to his A-list clientele. Whatever the reason was, it wasn’t racism.
It is plainly untrue that Mocambo had a racist booking policy. Ella was not the first African American to perform there. Lena Horne’s engagement in July 1942 had sold out, as had Eartha Kitt’s in 1953. Dorothy Dandridge, Bob Jeffries, Joyce Bryant and others had performed at Mocambo by the time Ella Fitzgerald took the stage.
So where was the photo taken? In November 1954, Ella appeared at the Tiffany Club, one of the top jazz venues in Los Angeles. It was located across town from Mocambo, at 3268 8th Street, a block west of the Ambassador Hotel. The Tiffany’s proprietor was Chuck Landis, a storied impresario who later launched Largo, a strip club on the Sunset Strip (now the Roxy Theatre), and a popular rock ‘n roll club in the Valley. At the Tiffany, he booked the top jazz acts of the day, and the majority of his bookings were African-Americans. Billie Holliday, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn and Art Tatum had all played the Tiffany before Ella Fitzgerald appeared there.
On the night when Ella and Marilyn were photographed at the Tiffany, it had been two months since Marilyn’s marriage to Joe DiMaggio had fallen apart, as was referenced in the wire service caption. Trouble in the marriage had surfaced in New York when Joe accompanied Marilyn on location to film exteriors for “Seven Year Itch.” One of the scenes she shot was the famous moment when a blast of air from a subway grate sent her dress billowing up, exposing her underwear.
Billy Wilder, the director, had opted to film the titillating scene at night on a Manhattan sidewalk. The spectacle drew a hundreds of gawkers who lined the streets off camera. Marilyn wore two pairs of white shorts under the skirt, but Joe was reportedly humiliated by the catcalls from the crowd. Later, in their hotel room, he allegedly lost control of his temper. No one knows what really happened – how or even whether, he expressed his rage – but Joe did not contest it when Marilyn filed for divorce in Los Angeles immediately after the production wrapped in New York. The divorce became final on October 27, less than three weeks before the photo was taken at the Tiffany.
In the interim, Marilyn checked into Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in East Hollywood (today’s Church of Scientology) for surgical treatment of endometriosis. She was released six days later, on November 12. Six days after that, she was in the audience at the Tiffany Club for Ella’s show. A month later, Marilyn moved east. She first lived in Connecticut with her business partner and his wife, Milton and Amy Greene, and later in an apartment in the city.
She was in New York during the entire two-week run of Ella’s engagement at Mocambo in mid-March 1955 – four months after the photo was taken. Thanks to wire service archives, there are near daily accounts of her activities. For example on March 14, the night before Ella’s opening, Marilyn was photographed dancing with writer Truman Capote at El Morocco in New York. The next day, she posed for photographs promoting her appearance at a charity event at the end of the month. On March 17, she was at a benefit at the Hotel Astor. On March 28, a gossip column noted Marilyn was furnishing the apartment she’d rented on 56th Street. The next day, Walter Winchell reported that Marilyn had been seen entering her apartment building. On March 30, she appeared at a Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus benefit at Madison Square Garden for the Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundation wearing a leotard and riding an elephant painted pink.
But the best evidence that Marilyn was not at Mocambo when Ella played there is the fact that she was missing from the considerable press coverage of Ella’s debut. Take this write-up from Jet Magazine for example: “Celebrated jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald made her debut on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip by packing the plush Mocambo night club. Billed as ‘The First Lady of Song,’ Ella’s smooth vocals lured some of the biggest singing names in show business. Among them: Eartha Kitt, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.” But no Marilyn.
At the end of show that first night, Ella was presented with a bouquet of long-stemmed red roses. The presenter was Eartha Kitt, not Marilyn Monroe.
So why did Marilyn intercede at Mocambo on Ella’s behalf? For one thing, Marilyn was a huge fan. In 1953, as she prepared for her role in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” her pianist and accompanist Hal Schaefer gave her a selection of Ella’s records and told her to play the songs repeatedly until she understood Ella’s technique. Schaefer’s approach worked. Marilyn’s performance in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was well-received, and the movie’s grosses doubled its costs.
The second reason Marilyn set up the gig for Ella: They were friends. Marilyn once said, “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.” The feeling seems to have been mutual. “She was an unusual woman,” Ella said. “A little ahead of her times, and she didn’t know it.” There was a snag in their friendship, however. Ella didn’t drink or smoke. She could never reconcile herself to Marilyn’s drinking and drug use.
Marilyn Monroe died 60 years ago, yet she remains one of the best-known and most beloved stars Hollywood has produced. The myth that she knocked down the color line for her friend connects with her enduring appeal. It depicts her striking a blow for racial equality and suggests a depth of character that belies the superficial blondes she played on film. A less generous take on the myth is that it casts Ella as oppressed, with Marilyn riding in to her rescue. The blonde goddess as white savior.
Neither scenario describes what really happened. Even so, nothing changes the fact that Marilyn did her friend a solid by arranging a prestige gig at Mocambo, or that after her debut there, as Ella said, she never had to play a small jazz club again,