This blog post comes from Vivian Kirkfield, our Author of the Month for January, and the writer behind Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe.
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What was your dream when you were a child? Growing up, I dreamed of becoming a teacher. I went to school, worked hard, and when I graduated, I got a job teaching kindergarten. I loved it! I got married and started a family and many years passed.
Then, when I was sixty-four, my son gave me a very unusual birthday present… he took me skydiving. I loved that, too! But the best part was when my feet touched the ground, I knew that if I could jump out of a perfectly good airplane, I could do anything. This was a very good thing, as I had realized a new dream: I wanted to write books for children. So, I jumped into learning how to do that the same way I had jumped out of the airplane, with my whole heart.
I took classes and worked hard and wrote stories about tobogganing otters and courageous mice. But my favorite stories to write were about real men and women — ordinary people who had done extraordinary things. And to do the research the right way for a nonfiction picture book, I had to become a detective.
One day, while surfing the internet for new story ideas, a photo of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe caught my eye. Sitting shoulder to shoulder in a nightclub, these two icons seemed to be fast friends. I had to find out more. Digging deeper, I discovered that Marilyn had helped Ella get a booking at a top Hollywood nightclub. But were they really friends? I needed to verify that.
I reached out to the author of several books on Marilyn Monroe. She knew a lot about Marilyn, but she didn’t know about that. She suggested I ask the president of the oldest Marilyn Monroe fan club. I emailed him and although he was thrilled that a book about Ella and Marilyn was in the works, he couldn’t answer my question. However, he gave me the phone number of the woman who had been Ella’s promoter for thirty-seven years. I called her and we spoke for hours and she told me: Yes — Ella and Marilyn had indeed been friends!
As I continued my research, I discovered that Ella was also a major influence in helping Marilyn with her career. When Marilyn got the script for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, her manager told her to study the best female singer around, and for Marilyn, there was no doubt who that would be.
“My very favorite person, and I love her as a person as well as a singer, I think she’s the greatest,” Marilyn said, “that’s Ella Fitzgerald.”
Marilyn and Ella shared their hopes and dreams and plans of what might be. When Marilyn found out that the owner of Hollywood’s top nightclub wouldn’t hire Ella because of race and appearance discrimination, these two icons put their heads together and came up with a plan. Marilyn called the owner of the club and promised to bring the media if he would book Ella for the week. And afterwards Ella said, “I never had to sing in a smoky jazz club again.”
Having grown up in the 1950’s, I felt a strong connection to this story — which takes place in 1954 — when gender inequality and racial discrimination were being challenged. Think about it: until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, women could not even get a credit card or a mortgage without the co-signature of a male relative or spouse. Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe is a wonderful launchpad for classroom discussions about these topics.
In addition, just like Ella and Marilyn, I was extremely shy as a child. I didn’t participate in many activities because I didn’t like going places I had never been or doing things I had never done. Ella almost missed her chance to audition at the Apollo Theatre’s Amateur Night because she didn’t think her dancing could compare with the act that preceded her, so she sang instead. And young Marilyn stuttered when she spoke with adults. But just like Ella and Marilyn, I was not shy when it came to standing up for my friends.
It’s my hope that young readers will embrace the concept of building inclusive friendships and will make their voices heard – speaking out on issues of concern for themselves, their schools, and their communities. After all, even though Ella and Marilyn were famous celebrities in their own right, they both understood that even stars need a little help to shine.