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Key Lessons in Allyship: The Bond Between Ella Fitzgerald & Marilyn Monroe

By March 29, 2023April 3rd, 2023No Comments
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In the treacherous world of allyship, the uninitiated are often lost in a sea of confusion. But fear not, for the history of power dynamics reveals that true friendship can transcend all boundaries. Behold the deep personal bond between American icons Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe, forged in the racially segregated 1950s. Fitzgerald, The First Lady of Song, an American jazz vocalist, a black woman from Newport News, Virginia, and Monroe, a white, blonde pin-up model and Hollywood starlet from Los Angeles, California, found solace in the shared passions of gardening, knitting, and literature. Their shared fangirldom for author Harper Lee, Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and long phone conversations proved that true connection transcends societal barriers.

This reminds me that to be the most insightful advisor to my clients, and I must look beyond the surface level of things. When navigating the markets or political climate, it would be wise risk management to uncover the commonalities at the heart of the issue, despite how unrelated or uncommon they may seem. The same applies to people – by looking at the heart of individuals and finding what connects us, we can overcome the challenges of allyship in the 21st century.

For many, however, taking a stand could have consequences the closer you are to the C-suite, as was the case with Miyoko Schinner, the founder of Miyoko Creamery and an ardent fan of Ella Fitzgerald. Schinner was recently ousted as CEO by the company’s board, despite her valiant efforts to defend the honor of the women under her leadership who were patronized and belittled. Schinner believed that the remarks made by her colleagues had sexist undertones, and she refused to tolerate such behavior.

In my book “Exits,” I explore how founders like Miyoko are often consumed with serving their customers and those who work for them, and rightly so, rather than solely focusing on meeting investors’ expectations for a fast-track liquidity event through an IPO or acquisition. Unfortunately, in this instance, the customers did not emerge victorious. Not many people rallied with Schinner upon her exit. They dismissed her as “angry” and “having an issue with the patriarchy,” which prompted her to write a powerful LinkedIn post calling on women to “stand up for each other.”

Schinner’s love of jazz is well known, as she once recounted the story of seeing Ella Fitzgerald perform at Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa in 1977, which she described as a highlight of her life. Schinner grew up listening to Ella, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday and even dabbled in jazz vocals herself. “Just never got into rock even though that’s what everyone else was listening to,” she quipped.

Schinner believes that women, especially those who are white, have a responsibility to go the extra mile to understand the experiences of women of color who speak out against sexism and racism. “People of color who speak out against sexism and racism are often judged as angry, difficult, or having an issue,” she said. “If you are a woman, especially a white woman, it is incumbent upon you to find out what happened before you judge another woman or person of color and write them off.”

And to think I arrived at these observations while recreating the menu of my favorite long-lost brunch spot Babette’s in East Hampton, my hometown. As the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald’s vocal masterpiece “Lullabies of Birdland” filled the room, fond memories came flooding back. While the Hooray bacon sizzled and the bubbling of multigrain banana pancakes griddled, I began to recount my early days as a farmstand entrepreneur, doing business with Dean & DeLuca, and as a stock boy for the beauty counter at White’s Pharmacy. Even as a food prep with Barefoot Contessa and later, fining dining and French 75 experiences as an investment banker in New York City. Ella’s music was a constant presence. It was a compelling spectacle, a sensory experience that made the food taste all the more delicious. And it made me realize that every fine dining and epicurean experience I’ve ever had was made all the more memorable by the setting and the soundscape.

Marilyn Monroe discovered the soothing melodies of Ella Fitzgerald through her vocal coach. The calming presence of Ella’s vocals resonated with Marilyn, and she soon became a regular at every one of Ella’s shows. Despite their starkly different backgrounds, Marilyn and Ella shared a deep bond centered on their love of gardening, knitting, poetry, and literature. Marilyn admired Ella’s authenticity, while Ella was enamored with Marilyn’s glamorous approach to every aspect of life. Marilyn made digging in the dirt to plant tomatoes look lavish.

Their relationship deepened when Marilyn decided to take on booking Ella at the wildly popular Mocambo Club in Los Angeles. While the popular account paints Marilyn as a civil rights hero, the truth is more complicated. Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, and Eartha Kitt, all black women, had performed at the club before Ella, but the Mocambo Club deemed Ella unfit for their stage in front of A-listers due to her heavy set appearance. Even Frank Sinatra, a big fan of Ella, failed to get her booked at the Mocambo.

Marilyn, however, saw an opportunity to use her star power to help her “favorite person.” She promised the club owner that she would show up every night to watch Ella perform, and in return, he agreed to let Ella take the stage. Marilyn kept her word, and soon, the crowds followed. Marilyn’s loyalty to Ella created a cult-like following and elevated Ella’s career to new heights.

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.”

Marilyn Monroe publicly honors her friendship Ella Fitzgerald in her interview with Life Magazine, 1955

In the end, Marilyn’s need for belonging and connection drove her to use her influence for good. She played on people’s need to believe, creating a following that changed the entertainment industry. Marilyn and Ella’s friendship may have been unlikely, but their impact on each other and the world around them was undeniable.

In this age of division and polarization, it is all too easy to retreat into our own echo chambers, surrounding ourselves with like-minded individuals and turning a blind eye to the struggles of others. But true power comes not from isolation but from a common connection. We also learn from Ella and Marilyn that some of us must get past the pre-disposed opinions and judging on appearances. 

She was an unusual woman. A little ahead of her times, and she didn’t even know it.

Ella Fitzgerald reflects on her friendship in rare interview for Ms. Magazine 1972

My friend, do not let the challenges of male-dominated industries hold you back. Remember that not all women share the same struggle. Instead, use the friendship between Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe as inspiration to challenge yourself and delve deeper. By strengthening allyship through shared passions, upbringings, work ethic, and hobbies, you will find more in common with those around you than you may realize. Do not be discouraged by the obstacles before you. Rise to the occasion and harness your own power.

Amidst the discord in allyship, there is yet another cause worth fighting for. The release of Miyoko’s new YouTube show, “The Vegan Good Life with Miyoko,” is underway for an April debut, and despite her exit as CEO, she remains on the board. Her presence there makes her cashew butter, a personal favorite of mine, still a product worth supporting as I watch it melt over my stack of pancakes.

Just as Marilyn admired Ella’s authenticity, we too can admire Miyoko’s courage in standing up for what is right. As a woman of color, Miyoko’s experience with sexism and racism is unfortunately not uncommon. But just as Ella and Marilyn stood together in friendship, Miyoko urges us to do the same. “Stand up for each other,” she wrote in a LinkedIn post. “Don’t be bystanders to injustice. You might think it doesn’t affect you, but it does.” As we continue to enjoy the fruits of Miyoko’s labor, let us also remember to stand with her and all those fighting for a more just and equitable world for all.