The Mocambo night club in Los Angeles refused to book Ella Fitzgerald due to her race but was eventually persuaded to do so by actress Marilyn Monroe.
A popular anecdote about how actress Marilyn Monroe helped Ella Fitzgerald book a gig at the posh West Hollywood night club Mocambo in the 1950s is frequently shared on social media. In November 2019, the History Lovers Club Twitter account posted a photograph of the two celebrities along with one of the most oft-repeated versions of this story:
This is a genuine photograph of Monroe and Fitzgerald. It’s also true that Monroe urged Mocambo’s owner Charlie Morrison to book Fitzgerald in 1955. However, Fitzgerald was not the first black singer to perform at the West Hollywood hot spot. Singers Herb Jeffries and Earth Kitt both hit the stage at the Mocambo years earlier. Joyce Bryant also wowed crowds at the club two years before Monroe urged Morrison to book Fitzgerald.
Jet Magazine reported in 1953:
Silver-haired Joyce Bryant played a smash-hit, two-week engagement at Hollywood’s plush Mocambo Club and drew rave notices from critics who called her the “beltin’est babe of the bistro set.” Movie stars and entertainers packed the club every night, wildly applauded Miss Bryant in her biggest night club engagement to date. Singing from a tigerish crouch in decollete, skin-tight gowns, she stopped the show nightly with a sexed-up version of “Love for Sale.” Commented Hollywood Reporter critic Nat Kahn: “Miss Bryant stamped herself as a different entertainer-with terrific stage presence and a new style.”
Black singers certainly faced discrimination in the 1950s, but it doesn’t appear that Morrison was hesitant to book Fitzgerald due to her race. In the version of this story found in the the biography “Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox,” Morrison didn’t think Fitzgerald was sexy enough to perform at his posh club (emphasis ours).
In early December Sidney Skolsky took (Marilyn Monroe) to hear Ella Fitzgerald at a small club where she was singing. Marilyn was enthusiastic; she had long studied Fitzgerald’s singing. She decided to boost Ella’s career. She contacted the owners of the Mocambo, a top Sunset Stip nightclub, and persuaded them to hire Fitzgerald for a week. Marilyn promised to be in the front row every night and to take friends with her. According to Dorothy Dandridge, however, the real problem with Fitzgerald at that time was not that she was African-American but that she was overweight, without much sex appeal. Singing at the Mocambo was a turning point in Fitzgerald’s career. With a major nightclub on her resume, she was no longer relegated to small clubs. She was grateful to Marilyn, although she held back from close friendship because of Marilyn’s drug habit.
Another anecdote can also be found in “Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz.” In that account, Morrison was hesitant to book a true “jazz singer” at the Mocambo (emphasis ours):
While on the West Coast, (record producer Norman) Granz had booked Ella into the Mocambo, a big upper-crust nitery in Hollywood. This was done with the help of Marilyn Monroe, who, while recuperating from minor surgery in November 1954, went to hear Ella at a club near her Hollywood home and became a devoted fan. Between them, Granz and Monroe put pressure on the Mocambo’s owner Charlie Morrison to open the doors of one of America’s most exclusive night spots to a “jazz singer.” On opening night Monroe ensured that the audience was liberally sprinkled with celebrities, including Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. The engagement was a huge success, and night after night of full houses encouraged Morrison to extend Ella’s run there. When she finally completed her stay, Granz booked her into the huge Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, where she became the first-ever jazz performer to entertain in the hotel’s Venetian Room.
A 1955 report from Jet Magazine shows that Monroe was true to her word, as celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Eartha Kitt all turned out during Fitzgerald’s Mocambo debut:
In sum, Fitzgerald was the not the first black singer to perform at the Mocambo. However, her performance at the West Hollywood hot spot would prove to be a breaking point in numerous ways. After Monroe helped Fitzgerald get into the club, the “First Lady of Jazz” proved that she was worthy of performing at the hottest venues in the country.
The popularity of Fitzgerald’s performance may have also encouraged other night clubs to open their doors to more black singers. Tad Hershron writes in “The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice,” a biography about record producer Norman Granz, that the “success of Fitzgerald’s appearance also helped usher in the opening of integrated night clubs in Hollywood, among them Pandora’s Box, the Purple Onion, the Crescendo, and the Renaissance.”