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The Doctor Who Designed a Cipher Wheel to Decode Shakespeare

In the years immediately after his death in 1616, Shakespeare was merely remembered as a good, though not necessarily brilliant, writer. But as literary styles and tastes changed, Shakespeare’s work began to be appreciated more and more, so that by the mid-19th century, appetite and acclaim for his writing had reached near fanatical levels. By the late Victorian era, Shakespeare was being hailed as a literary genius, the author of perhaps the greatest works of English literature that had ever been written—but the sheer quality of his work soon began to stir up discontent.

We know relatively little of Shakespeare’s life, and only the barest bones about his background and upbringing. But what little we do know paints a fairly humble picture—and it’s precisely that that some Victorian scholars and writers just couldn’t square up with the quality of Shakespeare’s writing.

In 1848, the American author Joseph C. Hart wrote an essay in his travel memoir The Romance of Yachting in which he expressly questioned, for the first time, the true authorship of Shakespeare’s work. Hart was traveling in Europe when he began to ponder an apparent error in the plot to Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: Act 3, scene 3 of the play opens in “Bohemia, a desert country near the sea,” despite the fact that Bohemia—a region of central Europe roughly equivalent to the modern-day Czech Republic—is entirely landlocked. To Hart, such a basic geographical error didn’t sit well with the impossibly high standard of Shakespeare’s writing, which led him to suggest that Shakespeare—dismissed as a “mere factotum of a theatre,” “a copyist for the prompter,” and a “vulgar and unlettered man”—was not the author of the works attributed to him. Shakespeare’s contribution, he suggested, was probably limited to providing the plays’ dirty jokes.

Following the publication of Hart’s memoir, other 19th century writers soon started to break cover and began to question the authorship of Shakespeare’s work themselves. In 1857, writer Delia Bacon published The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded, a work—more than a decade in the making—now credited with providing the earliest fully-formed theory that Shakespeare was not the author of his work. Bacon theorized that the works were the result of a collaboration between a number of high-society Elizabethan writers and figures, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spenser and, most notably of all, Sir Francis Bacon. They, she believed, had left encrypted messages and descriptions of an entirely new philosophical system hidden deep in the wording of Shakespeare’s plays, which they could not be seen to advocate publicly.

Although they didn’t agree with her theory, Bacon’s friendships with several high-profile literary figures of the day (including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson) helped her notion of a secret cabal of writers gain ground in 19th-century literary circles. By the turn of the century, dozens of books and essays had been written on the subject, societies had been established to promote the so-called “anti-Stratfordian” theory, and several high profile figures—such as Walt Whitman and, later, Sigmund Freud—had signed on to the idea.

For every advocate of the anti-Stratfordian viewpoint, however, there was a pro-Stratfordian only too happy to point out the holes in their arguments. (Even Joseph Hart’s original quibble over Bohemia being landlocked was easily explained by the fact that Shakespeare had based The Winter’s Tale on Pandosto: The Triumph of Time, an earlier work by Robert Greene that made the same mistake.) Still, the authorship question rumbled on—until finally, in the late 1880s, it attracted the attention of Dr. Orville Ward Owen.

THE DOUBTING DOCTOR

Owen was a hugely successful physician based in Detroit who had a habit of reading and memorizing passages of Shakespeare as a way of clearing his mind between patients. Eventually he became so well-versed in Shakespeare’s works that he found he had committed the entire 1623 First Folio to memory, and as a party trick could pinpoint the exact play, act, and scene from which any line given to him was taken. The only lines he struggled with were those that cropped up with almost identical wording in more than one play, and it was precisely these curious repetitions—combined with all the other anachronisms, geographical missteps, and erroneous details that had fueled the authorship debate so far—that led Owen to believe certain passages in Shakespeare’s works must have been implanted deliberately. He concluded that they were the coded passages that would reveal Bacon’s secret message, and he dedicated his life to deciphering them.

Having followed a series of clues littered throughout Shakespeare’s work (“Beginning in the middle, starting thence away …”), Owen worked out a word-based cipher that he then applied to other works outside of the Shakespeare canon—including Arcadia, a 16th-century prose piece by the English poet Sir Philip Sidney (which, he later claimed, Sir Francis Bacon must also have written). All that work left him with the following decrypted passage:

The easiest way to carry on the work is to
Take your knife and cut all our books asunder,
And set the leaves on a great firm wheel
Which rolls and rolls...

It may be a decoded message explaining the best method to decode the code in which it was originally encoded, but Owen nevertheless took his cue from this passage and began construction of an extraordinary contraption to help expedite his research: the cipher wheel.

Around two huge cylindrical spools, each 3-foot by 4-foot, Owen wound an enormous length of canvas fabric, onto which he pasted pages of Shakespeare’s Complete Works plus extracts from his contemporaries’ works. By aligning the pages in a specific order and then turning the spool, vast swathes of text could be analyzed at once. Owen would sit between the two spools, calling out passages of interest to an assistant, who would then collate the extracts for later analysis. Eventually, he managed to decipher a now well-known conspiracy theory: Bacon was not only the true William Shakespeare, but the forgotten son of Queen Elizabeth I and her secret lover Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Shunned from his rightful claim to the throne, Bacon had laid out his scandalous life story into numerous encoded works of literature, the majority of which he attributed to other writers of the day. Owen published his extraordinary theory—and his equally extraordinary methodology—in a vast five-volume treatise, Sir Francis Bacon’s Cipher Story (1893-1895). But he did not stop there.

Continuing his analysis of the jumbled text on his cipher wheel, Owen concluded that Bacon had also written two more long-lost plays—namely The Tragical Historie of Our Late Brother Robert, Earl of Essex and The Historical Tragedy of Mary, Queen of Scots—which Owen claimed to have successfully extracted. But the real prize would be finding the manuscripts and personal belongings that would prove Bacon’s birthright and authorship, which Owen believed were somewhere close to the river Wye on the border of England and Wales. His quest for the truth was about to take him across the Atlantic.

A FRUITLESS SEARCH

Owen arrived in Britain in 1909. A preliminary search in caves behind Chepstow Castle on the banks of the Wye in southwest Wales was turned up nothing, but he returned a year later to carry out an even more extensive examination. Based on further decoded lines from Bacon’s text (“boxes like eels in the mud,” “make a triangle of 123 feet due north and 33 paces,” “I filled up the shallow water …”), Owen financed an excavation of the riverbed of the Wye itself, believing there was a secret vault containing 66 lead-lined boxes somewhere beneath the mud along its course. Two dozen men were employed, several hundredweight of material was excavated, and Owen’s research caused a media frenzy.

A previously unknown Roman bridge was discovered, as was a medieval cistern. But as for proof of Bacon’s royal bloodline and his authorship of Shakespeare’s work? After great expense, Owen unearthed nothing.

In the years that followed, he continued his research with the cipher wheel, but his confidence began to falter and his health began to fail rapidly. Although he continued to provide new textual evidence for other Baconian advocates—who carried out their own explorations around Chepstow in the late 1910s and early 1920s—none found anything ironclad to support their theory. Finally, Owen was quoted as saying:

“When I discovered the word cipher, I had the largest practice of any physician in Detroit. I could have been the greatest surgeon there … but I thought that the world would be eager to hear what I had found. Instead, what did they give me? I have had my name dragged in the mud, had more calumny heaped upon my character than many people can imagine, lost my fortune, ruined my health, and today am a bedridden, almost penniless, invalid.”

He died shortly after, on March 31, 1924, at the age 70. The Baconian and anti-Stratfordian viewpoint has continued to be argued over ever since—although not quite as inventively as with Owen’s cipher wheel.

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25 Royals in the Line of Succession to the British Throne
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Between the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge welcoming their third child on April 23, 2018 and Prince Harry's upcoming marriage to Suits star Meghan Markle in May, the line of succession to the British throne has become a topic of interest all over the world. And the truth is, it’s complicated. Though Queen Elizabeth II, who turned 92 years old on April 21, shows no signs of slowing down, here are the royals who could one day take her place on the throne—in one very specific order.

1. PRINCE CHARLES

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As a direct result of his mother being the world's longest-reigning monarch, Prince Charles—the eldest child of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip—is the longest serving heir to the throne; he became heir apparent in 1952, when his mother ascended to the throne.

2. PRINCE WILLIAM

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At 35 years old, odds are good that Prince William, Duke of Cambridge—the eldest son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana—will ascend to the throne at some point in his lifetime.

3. PRINCE GEORGE 

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On July 22, 2013, Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge welcomed their first child, Prince George of Cambridge, who jumped the line to step ahead of his uncle, Prince Harry, to become third in the line of succession.

4. PRINCESS CHARLOTTE 

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On May 2, 2015, William and Catherine added another member to their growing brood: a daughter, Princess Charlotte of Cambridge. Though her parents just welcomed a bouncing baby boy, she will maintain the fourth-in-line position because of the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, which went into effect just a few weeks before her arrival, and removed a long-held rule which stated that any male sibling (regardless of birth order) would automatically move ahead of her.

5. PRINCE OF CAMBRIDGE

 Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge depart the Lindo Wing with their newborn son at St Mary's Hospital on April 23, 2018 in London, England
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On April 23, 2018, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge welcomed their third child—a son, whose name has yet to be announced, but who has already pushed his uncle, Prince Harry, out of the fifth position in line to the throne.

6. PRINCE HARRY

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As the second-born son of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Prince Harry's place in the line is a regularly changing one. It changed earlier this week, when his brother William's third child arrived, and could change again if and when their family expands.

7. PRINCE ANDREW, DUKE OF YORK

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Prince Andrew is a perfect example of life before the Succession to the Crown Act 2013: Though he’s the second-born son of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, he’s actually their third child (Princess Anne came between him and Prince Charles). But because the rules gave preference to males, Prince Andrew would inherit the throne before his older sister.

8. PRINCESS BEATRICE OF YORK

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Because Prince Andrew and his ex-wife, Sarah, Duchess of York, had two daughters and no sons, none of that male-preference primogeniture stuff mattered in terms of their placement. But with each child her cousin Prince William has, Princess Beatrice moves farther away from the throne. If Beatrice looks familiar, it might be because of the headlines she made with the Dr. Seuss-like hat she wore to William and Catherine’s wedding. (The infamous topper later sold on eBay for more than $130,000, all of which went to charity.)

9. PRINCESS EUGENIE OF YORK

Princess Eugenie of York arrives in the parade ring during Royal Ascot 2017 at Ascot Racecourse on June 20, 2017 in Ascot, England
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Though she’s regularly seen at royal events, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson’s youngest daughter spends the bulk of her time indulging her interest in fine art. She has held several jobs in the art world, and is currently a director at Hauser & Wirth’s London gallery.

10. PRINCE EDWARD, EARL OF WESSEX

 Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex leaves after a visit to Prince Philip
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Like his older brother Andrew, Prince Edward—the youngest son of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip—jumps the line ahead of his older sister, Princess Anne, because of the older rule that put males ahead of females.

11. JAMES, VISCOUNT SEVERN

 James, Viscount Severn, rides on the fun fair carousel on day 4 of the Royal Windsor Horse Show on May 11, 2013 in Windsor, England
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James, Viscount Severn—the younger of Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex and Sophie, Countess of Wessex’s two children, and their only son—turned 10 years old on December 17, 2017, and celebrated it as the 10th royal in line of succession. (The birth of the youngest Prince of Cambridge pushed him back a spot.)

12. LADY LOUISE MOUNTBATTEN-WINDSOR

Lady Louise Windsor during the annual Trooping the Colour Ceremony at Buckingham Palace on June 15, 2013 in London, England.
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Because the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 wasn’t enacted until 2015, Lady Louise Mountbatten-Windsor—the older of Prince Edward’s two children—will always be just behind her brother in the line of succession.

13. PRINCESS ANNE, THE PRINCESS ROYAL

Princess Anne, Princess Royal, visits the Hambleton Equine Clinic on October 10, 2017 in Stokesley, England
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Princess Anne, the Queen and Prince Philip’s second-born child and only daughter, may never rule over the throne in her lifetime, but at least she gets to be called “The Princess Royal.”

14. PETER PHILLIPS

Peter Phillips poses for a photo on The Mall
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The eldest child and only son of Princess Anne and her first husband, Captain Mark Phillips, stands just behind his mother in line. Interesting fact: Had Phillips’s wife, Autumn Kelly, not converted from Roman Catholicism to the Church of England before their marriage in 2008, Phillips would have lost his place in line.

15. SAVANNAH PHILLIPS

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On December 29, 2010, Peter and Autumn Phillips celebrated the birth of their first child, Savannah Anne Kathleen Phillips, who is also the Queen’s first great-grandchild. She’s currently 15th in line.

16. ISLA PHILLIPS

Princess Anne, Princess Royal, Isla Phillips and Peter Phillips attend a Christmas Day church service
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Less than two years after Savannah, Peter and Autumn Phillips had a second daughter, Isla, who stands just behind her sister in line. It wasn’t until 2017 that Savannah and Isla made their Buckingham Palace balcony debut (in honor of their great-grandmother’s 91st birthday).

17. ZARA TINDALL

 Zara Tindall arrives for a reception at the Guildhall
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Not one to hide in the background, Zara Tindall—Princess Anne’s second child and only daughter—has lived much of her life in the spotlight. A celebrated equestrian, she won the Eventing World Championship in Aachen in 2006 and was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year the same year (her mom earned the same title in 1971). She’s also Prince George’s godmother.

18. MIA TINDALL

Mike Tindall, Zara Tindall and their daughter Mia Tindall pose for a photograph during day three of The Big Feastival at Alex James' Farm on August 28, 2016 in Kingham, Oxfordshire.
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Zara Tindall’s daughter Mia may just be 4 years old, but she’s already regularly making headlines for her outgoing personality. And though she’s only 18th in line to the throne, her connection to the tippity top of the royal family is much closer: Prince William is her godfather.

19. DAVID ARMSTRONG-JONES, 2ND EARL OF SNOWDON

David Armstrong-Jones, 2nd Earl of Snowdon
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David Armstrong-Jones, the eldest child of Princess Margaret, isn’t waiting around to see if the British crown ever lands on his head. The 56-year-old, who goes by David Linley in his professional life, has made a name for himself as a talented furniture-maker. His bespoke pieces, sold under the brand name Linley, can be purchased through his own boutiques as well as at Harrods.

20. CHARLES ARMSTRONG-JONES, VISCOUNT LINLEY

Margarita Armstrong-Jones and Charles Patrick Inigo Armstrong-Jones
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David Armstrong-Jones’s only son, Charles, may be 20th in line to the throne, but the 18-year-old is the heir apparent to the Earldom of Snowdon.

21. LADY MARGARITA ARMSTRONG-JONES

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (R) talks with Lady Margarita Armstrong-Jones (C) as her father David Armstrong-Jones (L), 2nd Earl of Snowdon, known as David Linley
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Lady Margarita Armstrong-Jones, the youngest child of David Armstrong-Jones and his only daughter, is also the only granddaughter of Princess Margaret. Now 15 years old (she'll turn 16 in June), Lady Margarita made headlines around the world in 2011 when she served as a flower girl at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.

22. LADY SARAH CHATTO

Lady Sarah Chatto, the daughter of Princess Margaret arrives for her mother's memorial service
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Lady Sarah Chatto, Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones’s only daughter, is the youngest grandchild of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. In addition to serving as a bridesmaid to Princess Diana, she is Prince Harry’s godmother.

23. SAMUEL CHATTO

Lady Sarah Chatto (L) and her son Samuel Chatto (R) leave a Service of Thanksgiving for the life and work of Lord Snowdon at Westminster Abbey on April 7, 2017 in London, United Kingdom
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The first-born son of Lady Sarah Chatto and her husband, Daniel, has a long way to go to reach the throne: He’s currently 23rd in line.

24. ARTHUR CHATTO

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For better or worse, Sarah and Daniel Chatto’s youngest son Arthur has become a bit of a social media sensation. He's made headlines recently as he regularly posts selfies to Instagram—some of them on the eyebrow-raising side, at least as far as royals go.

25. PRINCE RICHARD, DUKE OF GLOUCESTER

Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester makes a speech during the unveiling ceremony of London's first public memorial to the Korean War on December 3, 2014 in London, England
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At 73 years old, Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester is the youngest grandchild of King George V and Queen Mary. Formerly, he made a living as an architect, until the 1972 death of his brother, Prince William of Gloucester, put him next in line to inherit his father’s dukedom. On June 10, 1974, he officially succeeded his father as Duke of Gloucester, Earl of Ulster, and Baron Culloden.

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10 Fascinating Facts About Ella Fitzgerald
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Today marks what would have been the 101st birthday of Ella Fitzgerald, the pioneering jazz singer who helped revolutionize the genre. But the iconic songstress’s foray into the music industry was almost accidental, as she had planned to show off her dancing skills when she made her stage debut. Celebrate the birthday of the artist known as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, or just plain ol’ Lady Ella with these fascinating facts.

1. SHE WAS A JAZZ FAN FROM A YOUNG AGE.

Though she attempted to launch her career as a dancer (more on that in a moment), Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz enthusiast from a very young age. She was a fan of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, and truly idolized Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters. “She was tops at the time,” Fitzgerald said in 1988. “I was attracted to her immediately. My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it. I tried so hard to sound just like her.”

2. SHE DABBLED IN CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES AS A TEENAGER.

A photo of Ella Fitzgerald
Carl Van Vechten - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Fitzgerald’s childhood wasn’t an easy one. Her stepfather was reportedly abusive to her, and that abuse continued following the death of Fitzgerald’s mother in 1932. Eventually, to escape the violence, she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. While she had been a great student when she was younger, it was following that move that her dedication to education faltered. Her grades dropped and she often skipped school. But she found other ways to fill her days, not all of them legal: According to The New York Times, she worked for a mafia numbers runner and served as a police lookout at a local brothel. Her illicit activities eventually landed her in an orphanage, followed by a state reformatory.

3. SHE MADE HER STAGE DEBUT AT THE APOLLO THEATER.

In the early 1930s, Fitzgerald was able to make a little pocket change from the tips she made from passersby while singing on the streets of Harlem. In 1934, she finally got the chance to step onto a real (and very famous) stage when she took part in an Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater on November 21, 1934. It was her stage debut.

The then-17-year-old managed to wow the crowd by channeling her inner Connee Boswell and belting out her renditions of “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” She won, and took home a $25 prize. Here’s the interesting part: She entered the competition as a dancer. But when she saw that she had some stiff competition in that department, she opted to sing instead. It was the first big step toward a career in music.

4. A NURSERY RHYME HELPED HER GET THE PUBLIC’S ATTENTION.

Not long after her successful debut at the Apollo, Fitzgerald met bandleader Chick Webb. Though he was initially reluctant to hire her because of what The New York Times described as her “gawky and unkempt” appearance, her powerful voice won him over. "I thought my singing was pretty much hollering," she later said, "but Webb didn't."

Her first hit was a unique adaptation of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she helped to write based on what she described as "that old drop-the-handkerchief game I played from 6 to 7 years old on up."

5. SHE WAS PAINFULLY SHY.

Though it certainly takes a lot of courage to get up and perform in front of the world, those who knew and worked with Fitzgerald said that she was extremely shy. In Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, trumpeter Mario Bauzá—who played with Fitzgerald in Chick Webb’s orchestra—explained that “she didn't hang out much. When she got into the band, she was dedicated to her music … She was a lonely girl around New York, just kept herself to herself, for the gig."

6. SHE MADE HER FILM DEBUT IN AN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MOVIE.

As her IMDb profile attests, Fitzgerald contributed to a number of films and television series over the years, and not just to the soundtracks. She also worked as an actress on a handful of occasions (often an actress who sings), beginning with 1942’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy, a comedy-western starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

7. SHE GOT SOME HELP FROM MARILYN MONROE.

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Fitzgerald said in a 1972 interview in Ms. Magazine. “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.”

Though it has often been reported that the club’s owner did not want to book Fitzgerald because she was black, it was later explained that his reluctance wasn’t due to Fitzgerald’s race; he apparently didn’t believe that she was “glamorous” enough for the patrons to whom he catered.

8. SHE WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN TO WIN A GRAMMY.

Ella Fitzgerald
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Among her many other accomplishments, in 1958 Fitzgerald became the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award. Actually, she won two awards that night: one for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, and another for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook.

9. HER FINAL PERFORMANCE WAS AT CARNEGIE HALL.

On June 27, 1991, Fitzgerald—who had, at that point, recorded more than 200 albums—performed at Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she had performed at the venue, and it ended up being her final performance.

10. SHE LOST BOTH OF HER LEGS TO DIABETES.

In her later years, Fitzgerald suffered from a number of health problems. She was hospitalized a handful of times during the 1980s for everything from respiratory problems to exhaustion. She also suffered from diabetes, which took much of her eyesight and led to her having to have both of her legs amputated below the knee in 1993. She never fully recovered from the surgery and never performed again. She passed away at her home in Beverly Hills on June 15, 1996.

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