Deliciously Ella: the truth behind the First Lady of Jazz
On the centenary of Ella Fitzgerald's birth, Liadan Hynes looks at the truth behind the First Lady of Jazz - and the secret past of violence and homelessness she overcame
"All alone, all at sea
Why does nobody care for me?
When there's no love to hold my love
Why is my heart so frail?
Like a ship without a sail."
(Ship without a Sail, Rodgers & Hart)
Though her audience would never have known it, Ella Fitzgerald could have been singing the famous lyrics about her own life. Unlike her contemporary, Billie Holiday, who poured the heartbreak of her life as a drug addict who spent time in jail into her singing, Ella Fitzgerald - the "First Lady of Jazz", as she became known - always presented a happy, upbeat, facade to her public.
In fact, Fitzgerald suffered huge trauma as a young child; an orphan from a young age, in the care of an abusive stepfather, later living on the streets of Harlem, on the run from the police. As an adult, she would seek endlessly, and unsuccessfully, to achieve romantic fulfilment. But for most of her life, the true details of her early years were kept secret.
Ella herself never spoke about it, preferring instead, in the rare interviews she gave, to stick to the vague story created by her press team.
While she gave her date of birth as April, 1918, she was, in fact, born a year earlier, April 25, 1917, in Virginia. Her parents, William and Tempie Fitzgerald, were not married, and while Ella was still a very young child her father left the family. Ella and her mother moved to Yonkers, Westchester County, New York, eventually setting up with Tempie's boyfriend, Joseph Da Silva.
Childhood friends remember Ella as shy but ambitious, even then convinced that she was going to be a star; "someday you're going to see me in the headlines. I'm going to be famous", she told a friend. By all accounts, she was a jolly, happy-go-lucky girl who loved to sing and dance. School records show that she was a good student. At this point, her focus was dancing rather than singing, and by the age of 15, she and a male friend had several dance jobs in clubs around the neighbourhood.
Then, out of nowhere, tragedy struck her young life. As Ella herself told it, her mother died from injuries incurred while trying to save a child from being run over by a car. In fact, Tempie died from a heart attack.
The extent of her stepfather's subsequent ill-treatment of the teenage Ella is unclear, but it seems certain that she suffered at his hands. Biographer Stuart Nicholson says it is impossible to rule out the possibility that she was abused.
Her aunt, Virginia, took the young girl to live with her in Harlem. Life improved, but only marginally.
Impoverished and largely neglected, Ella became a difficult teenager, dropping out of school, running numbers - working on the mafia-run illegal lottery, and working as a lookout for a sporting house. Caught by the authorities, she was sent to an orphanage, and after running away, was then sent to a reformatory. To this day the building remains; it is now a men's prison.
Conditions were harsh, the accommodation was run down, black girls were housed in particularly crowded quarters, and suffered abuse and beatings, shackled in their rooms, kept at times on a diet of bread and water.
Ella never spoke of these experiences, which she largely kept secret for most of her life - but she donated huge amounts to children's charities throughout her career. It remains unclear whether she eventually ran away or simply outgrew the reform school, but she eventually landed back in Harlem, now living on the street, singing and dancing for money.
She made her stage debut on November 21, 1934, at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem - on the amateur night. Originally, Ella had planned a dance number, but when she found herself wearing cast-offs and an old pair of men's boots and faced with the venue's notoriously opinionated crowd, stage fright struck. The crowd began to boo, there was a shout of "what are you going to do?" And so she started to sing. By the end of her number, the crowd was roaring for an encore.
At the time, the Chick Webb Swing Band was looking for a female singer. She was taken to audition for Chick - but things got off to an inauspicious start. "You're not putting that on my bandstand," was his original response to the sight of Ella. ("She hadn't had a bath and smelled like it could have been a year," recalled one musician.)
Not only that, she was big, unprepossessing, and socially awkward. Chick was persuaded to listen, and a witness recalls "when she sang you could hear a pin drop in the room". Ella got the job, digs were found, new clothes provided. "She was very shy, but get her on stage and she blossomed," recalled a friend. "There was no such thing as her not winning over an audience."
With their new addition, the band gained a national profile. Ella moved into rooms and employed a maid. She began to have affairs with fellow musicians, and it was about this time that she was given the name First Lady of Jazz.
From the start, Ella displayed a voracious work ethic. A rare interruption came in 1937, the cause is unknown - though her biographer speculates that Ella left to have an abortion and took time to recover after it went wrong: the reason she would never have children.
In 1938, A-Tisket, A-Tasket, written by Ella herself, inspired by a childhood nursery rhyme she had sung in Yonkers, went to No 21 in the charts. Aged 21, "Ella was now the most popular female vocalist in America", recalls Nicholson.
Chick Webb died in June 1939. He had been something of a protective figure. It was a huge blow to Ella. It was possibly the loss of this almost father figure that led shortly after to a huge mistake in her personal life - her marriage to Benny Kornegay, a street hustler who had spent time in jail over drug charges. Ella represented a regular pay check to her new husband but as soon as they learnt of the marriage, Ella's management hired private investigators, who unearthed his unsavoury past. Ella was persuaded that the marriage was a mistake, and an annulment was gained, with the judge allegedly telling her, somewhat patronisingly, "You go back to singing A-Tisket, A-Tasket, and leave the boys alone."
Nicholson points out that though at first she was devastated when it became clear that her husband saw her as a meal ticket, "Ella had been raised on the strict show business ethic that the show must go on." Asked years later about the marriage, she could apparently barely remember her one-time husband's name.
As adored as she was by her fans, in her personal life Ella never enjoyed much sustained happiness. In a way, it was a vicious circle. Music provided the joy in her life, but the brutal touring schedule she maintained meant any sort of personal life was difficult to sustain. It also meant that her relationships were mainly with musicians, whose own conflicting schedules and unconventional lifestyles did not necessarily lend themselves to domestic bliss.
On a tour with Dizzy Gillespie, Ella became romantically involved with the band's bass player, Ray Brown. He was nine years her junior. The couple were married in late 1947. The difficulties of two married musicians were instantly clear; Dizzy's band were about to set off on a European tour. This time, Ray stayed with his wife. For Ella, her career had never been so successful. She hardly ever stopped working, a decision that would put huge strain on her marriage. "It was a good marriage," she said later, "but it's hard for two people in show business."
Shortly after they married, Ray and Ella adopted her half-sister Frances's baby, whom they named Ray Jnr. Thanks to Ella's relentlessly brutal tour schedule, he was largely looked after by her aunt Virginia. Relations between Ray and his adopted mother were strained as he grew up. It was clear to him that he was never her top priority.
Despite now being universally considered at the top of her profession, Ella's self-confidence never caught up. A journalist who interviewed her a number of times noted: "The graciousness, the kindness, the enthusiasm have always been there. But so has the self-doubt."
Ella suffered from performance anxiety throughout her life, peering at her audience from behind the curtains before a concert, worrying aloud "I hope they like me".
Socially, she was insecure about her background, and paranoid about her appearance. Friends recall how if people were chatting among themselves she would presume they were talking about her, in particular about her weight. Ella never dabbled in drink or drugs; food was her drug of choice. Throughout her life, she would swing between binge eating and dieting.
Ray and Ella divorced in 1953. They would remain friends for the rest of their lives. From that point on the most constant man in Ella's life was her manager, Norman Granz, who signed her to his new label Verve. Granz, while considered a svengali figure by some, seems to have had Ella's best interests at heart, and at times provided much needed creative direction - the famous songbooks were his idea.
Granz was also adamantly against any sort of racial discrimination, and would cancel a concert where audience segregation was planned.
A performer's life was a lonely one, maybe especially for a woman. Different cities every night, returning to a hotel room alone each night, surrounded by male musicians. "I want to get married again. I'm still looking," Ella commented after her marriage to Ray ended. "Everybody needs companionship."
In the late 1950s, rumours began to abound in the press that Ella had married the Norwegian Thor Einar Larsen, with whom she had conducted a transatlantic affair after meeting him on tour in Europe. Reports soon surfaced about Larsen stealing from a former fiancee, which had resulted in a criminal record, and therefore a temporary ban from entering the USA.
Mostly though, life was a non-stop round of touring. Her pianist at this time, Paul Smith, recalls a tour of 46 consecutive weeks.
It was about this time, in 1964, that Ella came to Dublin, for her first Irish concert, two nights at the Adelphi Cinema, with a combined audience of more than 5,000. She also played the Cork Jazz Festival in 1982. "When the show was over," Smith recalled of life on tour, "she usually went back to her hotel with her maid". Often they would do double-nighters, with one concert at six and then flying to another city for a second gig on the same evening.
When her half-sister Frances, possibly the person closest to her, died unexpectedly, Ella was back giving concerts within days of the funeral. Documentary footage shows her crying on stage. As Ella aged, the gruelling schedule began to take its toll. After she collapsed on stage and had to be carried off by a band member, several concerts were cancelled.
Eye problems meant she would be forced to wear glasses. In fact, this was the least of her health problems. There was open-heart surgery in the mid-80s, and diabetes would eventually lead to both her legs being amputated below the knee. All these setbacks seemed career-ending - but Ella's attitude was "but there's nothing wrong with my throat. I'm not singing with my legs".
Otherwise, life was somewhat lonely. She and her son reconnected in her later life, and there is speculation of a long-term boyfriend, possibly a policeman, but a great deal of time was spent at home watching her favourite soap operas.
As much as possible, she still performed, explaining: "I love giving concerts. Doesn't weaken me. Strengthens me."
Ella Fitzgerald died at her home in Beverly Hills in June 1996, aged 79,
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