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    Auction Finds

    Marilyn’s ‘62 birthday dress leads me to her friendship with Ella

    Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles will be selling that slinky see-through gown that Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang a sexy “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy in 1962.

    The “skintight, sheer, flesh-colored dress that sparkled with over 2,500 handstitched crystals” will be put up for auction on Nov. 17. It sold for $1.27 million in 1999 at Christie’s and is expected to bring in $3 million this time around. About 1,300 of Monroe’s personal items will also be sold over three days.

    While the dress and its history are iconic, I found out a more interesting tidbit as I was looking at photos and reading news coverage of the upcoming auction: Marilyn Monroe was a fan of Ella Fitzgerald. The women seem so far apart in their personas that I would never have pegged them as friends. But presumably, they were.

    Marilyn Monroe & Ella Fitzgerald

    Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe.

    One of the photos from that night in May 1962 showed Fitzgerald in a black dress as she waited to appear among the two dozen or so folks entertaining the president on his 45th birthday at Madison Square Garden. Diahann Carroll, Peggy Lee, Maria Callas, Henry Fonda (who gave a dramatic reading), Jack Benny, Harry Belafonte and Jimmy Durante, among others, were there.

    The relationship between the two women seemed to have jelled around the mid-1950s.

    Fitzgerald was still playing small jazz clubs and couldn’t seem to break into the big times. One of those famous nightclubs was the Mocambo in Hollywood, where Frank Sinatra made his solo debut and movie stars and celebrities frequented. The lovely Eartha Kitt, Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne had performed there. It was at the Mocambo where MGM studios first spotted Horne and put her in the movies.

    Fitzgerald couldn’t seem to get a gig at the club. A few stories on the web attributed that to her race, but the club had allowed other African Americans to entertain its patrons. Fitzgerald was not allowed, according to other stories, because she was either not glam enough or the club didn’t cater much to jazz.

    Marilyn Monroe's dress

    Marilyn Monroe’s dress from President Kennedy’s 45th birthday celebration in 1962. It will be sold on Nov. 16 at Julien’s Auction in Los Angeles.

    Monroe was an admirer of Fitzgerald, and one account noted that she had studied the singer’s voice.

    Fitzgerald finally got her break when Monroe called the owner of the Mocambo and told him that she’d sit at the front table for a week if he’d give the singer a chance. According to Fitzgerald, she was there every night (although one account disputed this and believed Fitzgerald was referring to her previous stint at the Tiffany Club the year before).

    “I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Fitzgerald reportedly told an interviewer for Ms magazine in 1972. “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, 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.”

    There apparently is no question that Monroe made the phone call.

    Ella Fitzgerald at kennedy program

    Ella Fitzgerald performing at President Kennedy’s 45th birthday celebration in 1962. Photo from JFK Library.

    At the Kennedy event in 1962, Fitzgerald and an accompanying trio were number 4 on the program after Danny Kaye, followed by a ballet choreographed by Jerome Robbins.

    Monroe came on past the midway point in the program, walking on stage in a white mink wrap that she tossed into the arms of Peter Lawford, revealing a dress that had been sewn onto her. Her appearance shocked the audience, just as much as her 30-second song. Jackie Kennedy did not attend the event; she was at a horse show in Virginia.

    I wondered what Fitzgerald thought about Monroe’s performance that night, but I’m sure she was just as shocked as everyone else.

    The dress will be part of an exhibit titled “Marilyn: Character Not Image” at the Mana Contemporary art center in Jersey City, NJ, and the Newbridge Silverware Museum of Style Icons (MOSI) in Kildare, Ireland, before returning to Los Angeles for the auction.

    Update: The dress sold for $4.8 million at auction. It was purchased by Ripley’s Entertainment, of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum in Hollywood. Ripley says that it will likely display the dress in the Marilyn Monroe Gallery at its Hollywood Odditorium, and it will be part of a collection of other Monroe personal items. The dress will eventually head off on tour.

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