Rare color photo of the Mocambo, published in a 1949 issue of ‘Modern Screen.’

What Happened One Night at the Mocambo

A nightclub on Sunset Strip. And why it matters now.

There’s this one story about Marilyn Monroe that I just love. Maybe you’ve heard it. Monroe herself never told it. But an important jazz vocalist, Monroe’s contemporary, did, years later, in a 1972 interview with Ms. magazine.

In the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe was taking voice lessons. Her coach gave her a recording of a little-known jazz singer, and told her to listen to it as much as she could, to see how these things were done. As Monroe did her homework, listening to the record, by one account, hundreds of times, she developed a deep kind of respect, a love, even, for the singer’s artistry. Later, when the two met in person, they became friends. The singer was touring at the time, gigging at these grimy, hole-in-the-wall clubs across the country.

That singer’s name was Ella Fitzgerald.

Back then, there was this club in Hollywood, THE club, really, called the Mocambo, on Sunset Boulevard. In 1943, when Frank Sinatra became a solo artist, he made his debut at the Mocambo. It was that kind of place — a see-and-be-seen kind of place. Clark Gable, Liz Taylor, Humphrey Bogart, and Sophia Loren were regulars, so performing there was a huge deal.

But the Mocambo wouldn’t allow Ella Fitzgerald to sing there, on account of the color of her skin. One day Marilyn Monroe, by then a superstar, paid a visit to Charlie Morrison, the owner of the club. She made Charlie an offer: if he booked Ella, she promised she would be there, front and center, every single night of Ella’s show. Morrison agreed, because there was no star bigger than Marilyn Monroe at the time (imagine the publicity!), and Ella suddenly found herself on that stage.

“Marilyn was there, front table, every night,” Fitzgerald told Ms. “The press went overboard.”

After that, Ella never had to play a small jazz club again.

“She was …ahead of her times,” Fitzgerald said in that interview, of Monroe. “And she didn’t know it.”

I love this story for many reasons, but mostly because it’s a testament to the power of friendship; how it has the potential to really open us up, heart and mind, how it can have the most surprising, extraordinary ripple effects. It’s a beautiful thing to see.

These days, we could really use more of this sort of thing. More harmony. Compassion. More helping each other out. Less bonking each other over the head wack-a-mole style.

People are so stressed out lately. There’s so much conflict. All this arguing. I’ve muted all but, like, twelve people on my Twitter, that’s how loud the shouting is. It’s too loud.

It’s too loud and I’m too tired. I wish we could stop yelling at each other. I wish we could see we’re at our best when we reach beyond the categories that separate us: religion, politics, race, gender identity.

Did I mention politics?

I wish we could make like Ella and Marilyn.

Or Antonin and Ruth.

There was this picture that ran in the papers earlier this year, right after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away. It was of Scalia, riding an elephant, Ginsburg behind him. Their politics were different, there’s no doubt about that. And yet they were friends. Good friends, in fact.

They hung out together, chilled with each other’s families. They even celebrated their birthdays, just days apart, with each other. When Ginsburg lost her husband, Scalia publicly teared up over the death.

That’s what friends do, isn’t it? They support each other, comfort each other. They share laughs, even when they don’t share opinions. It’s important to remember that. Especially now, especially this election season, with so many hungry for a fight.

It seems to me, we can either continue snarling at each other from behind our screens, from across the Aisle, or we can see that, whether or not we look the same or come from the same places or believe the same things, friendship is possible.

And that sometimes, maybe even when we least expect it, we may find ourselves waving down from atop an elephant. We may find ourselves up there, sitting behind the unlikeliest of people, and actually enjoying their company.

And wouldn’t that be something?

Fitzgerald and Monroe, at the Mocambo in 1955.

Justices Scalia and Ginsburg in India (via the Oyez Project).