So! The story! In 1955, African-American performers weren’t often able to play at mainstream venues. (Yeah, Rick Santorum, American was totally awesome before 1965!) Ella Fitzgerald was one of the best and most popular singers even with this restriction, but she made a lot of her money playing in clubs — and all-white clubs wouldn’t let her in the door. In Fitzgerald’s own words:
“It was because of [Marilyn] onroe] that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. 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 don’t know if Monroe changed Fitzgerald’s career all by herself; 1955 is also when Fitzgerald left Decca Records and collaborated with Duke Ellington, so stuff was going on that would’ve made her a superstar even without this — but she always credited Monroe for changing her life. But it seems like Monroe didn’t really see what the BFD was; I mean, she got to sit in the front row and listen to her favorite singer for a week, you know? She was probably like, “Best week ever!” in her diary. I know I would be.
Bonnie Greer wrote a play a few years ago about this; I haven’t seen it yet or read the script, but I’m looking for it.
This is one of those stories that’s so fucking awesome for so many reasons. It shows a lot of things about the reality of race in the fifties, about the power of stardom and how it was used, but one thing it absolutely proves is: women like each other. A lot! We’re total fangirls, every one of us, and if given half the chance we use whatever platform we can to say “THIS LADY? RIGHT HERE? SHE’S COMPLETELY RAD. CHECK HER OUT.” There’s jealousy, sure, but mostly there’s admiration and awe and a determination to show the world that the person we love should be loved universally. Monroe was like, “Fuck, I adore this woman and I think everyone should adore her, what’s some way to accomplish that? WAIT I KNOW.” And lo, she did it and got a week of awesome music out of the deal. Women giving props to women: it’s a beautiful thing. And it’s been going on since — well, certainly since 1955.