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Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

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 100th 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.”

Carl Van Vechten - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

2. SHE DABBLED IN CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES AS A TEENAGER.

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.

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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.

William P. Gottlieb - LOC, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

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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14 Deep Facts About Valley of the Dolls
The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection

Based on Jacqueline Susann's best-selling 1966 novel (which sold more than 30 million copies), Valley of the Dolls was a critically maligned film that somehow managed to gross $50 million when it was released 50 years ago, on December 15, 1967. Both the film and the novel focus on three young women—Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke), Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), and Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins)—who navigate the entertainment industry in both New York City and L.A., but end up getting addicted to barbiturates, a.k.a. “dolls.”

Years after its original release, the film became a so-bad-it’s-good classic about the perils of fame. John Williams received his first of 50 Oscar nominations for composing the score. Mark Robson directed it, and he notoriously fired the booze- and drug-addled Judy Garland, who was cast to play aging actress Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward took over), who was supposedly based on Garland. (Garland died on June 22, 1969 from a barbituate overdose.) Two months after Garland’s sudden demise, the Manson Family murdered the very pregnant Tate in August 1969.

Despite all of the glamour depicted in the movie and novel, Susann said, “Valley of the Dolls showed that a woman in a ranch house with three kids had a better life than what happened up there at the top.” A loose sequel, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—which was written by Roger Ebert—was released in 1970, but it had little to do with the original. In 1981, a TV movie updated the Dolls. Here are 14 deep facts about the iconic guilty pleasure.

1. JACQUELINE SUSANN DIDN'T LIKE THE MOVIE.

To promote the film, the studio hosted a month-long premiere party on a luxury liner. At a screening in Venice, Susann said the film “appalled” her, according to Parkins. She also thought Hollywood “had ruined her book,” and Susann asked to be taken off the boat. At one point she reportedly told Robson directly that she thought the film was “a piece of sh*t.”

2. BARBARA PARKINS WAS “NERVOUS” TO WORK WITH JUDY GARLAND.

Barbara Parkins had only been working with Judy Garland for two days when the legendary actress was fired for not coming out of her dressing room (and possibly being drunk). “I called up Jackie Susann, who I had become close to—I didn’t call up the director strangely enough—and I said, ‘What do I do? I’m nervous about going on the set with Judy Garland and I might get lost in this scene because she knows how to chew up the screen,’” Parkins told Windy City Times. “She said, ‘Honey, just go in there and enjoy her.’ So I went onto the set and Judy came up to me and wrapped her arms around me and said, ‘Oh, baby, let’s just do this scene,’ and she was wonderful.”

3. WILLIAM TRAVILLA BASED THE FILM'S COSTUMES ON THE WOMEN’S LIKES.

Costume designer William Travilla had to assemble 134 outfits for the four leading actresses. “I didn't have a script so I read the book and then the script once I got one,” he explained of his approach to the film. “I met with the director and producer and asked how they felt about each character and then I met with the girls and asked them what they liked and didn’t like and how they were feeling. Then I sat down with my feelings and captured their feelings, too.”

4. SUSANN THOUGHT GARLAND “GOT RATTLED.”

In an interview with Roger Ebert, Susann offered her thoughts on why Garland was let go. “Everybody keeps asking me why she was fired from the movie, as if it was my fault or something,” she said. “You know what I think went wrong? Here she was, raised in the great tradition of the studio stars, where they make 30 takes of every scene to get it right, and the other girls in the picture were all raised as television actresses. So they’re used to doing it right the first time. Judy just got rattled, that’s all.”

5. PATTY DUKE PARTIALLY BLAMES THE DIRECTOR’S BEHAVIOR FOR GARLAND’S EXIT.

During an event at the Castro Theatre, Duke discussed working with Garland. “The director, who was the meanest son of a bitch I ever met in my life ... the director, he kept this icon, this sparrow, waiting and waiting,” Duke said. “She had to come in at 6:30 in the morning and he wouldn’t even plan to get to her until four in the afternoon. She was very down to earth, so she didn’t mind waiting. The director decided that some guy from some delicatessen on 33rd Street should talk to her, and she crumbled. And she was fired. She shouldn’t have been hired in the first place, in my opinion.”

6. DUKE DIDN’T SING NEELY’S SONGS.

All of Neely’s songs in the movie were dubbed, which disappointed Duke. “I knew I couldn’t sing like a trained singer,” she said. “But I thought it was important for Neely maybe to be pretty good in the beginning but the deterioration should be that raw, nerve-ending kind of the thing. And I couldn’t convince the director. They wanted to do a blanket dubbing. It just doesn’t have the passion I wanted it to have.”

7. GARLAND STOLE ONE OF THE MOVIE'S COSTUMES.

Garland got revenge in “taking” the beaded pantsuit she was supposed to wear in the movie, and she was unabashed about it. “Well, about six months later, Judy’s going to open at the Palace,” Duke said. “I went to opening night at the Palace and out she came in her suit from Valley of the Dolls.”

8. A SNEAK PREVIEW OF THE FILM HID THE TITLE.

Fox held a preview screening of the film at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, but the marquee only read “The Biggest Book of the Year.” “And the film was so campy, everyone roared with laughter,” producer David Brown told Vanity Fair. “One patron was so irate he poured his Coke all over Fox president Dick Zanuck in the lobby. And we knew we had a hit. Why? Because of the size of the audience—the book would bring them in.”

9. IT MARKED RICHARD DREYFUSS'S FILM DEBUT.


Twentieth Century Fox

Richard Dreyfuss made his big-screen debut near the end of Valley of the Dolls, playing an assistant stage manager who knocks on Neely’s door to find her intoxicated. After appearing on several TV shows, this was his first role in a movie, but it was uncredited. That same year, he also had a small role in The Graduate. Dreyfuss told The A.V. Club he was in the best film of 1967 (The Graduate) and the worst (Valley of the Dolls). “But then one day I realized that I had never actually seen Valley of the Dolls all the way through, so I finally did it,” he said. “And I realized that I was in the last 45 seconds of the worst film ever made. And I watched from the beginning with a growing sense of horror. And then I finally heard my line. And I thought, ‘I’ll never work again.’ But I used to make money by betting people about being in the best and worst films of 1967: No one would ever come up with the answer, so I’d make 20 bucks!”

10. THE DIRECTOR DIDN’T DIG TOO DEEP.

In the 2006 documentary Gotta Get Off This Merry Go Round: Sex, Dolls & Showtunes, Barbara Parkins scolded the director for keeping the film’s pill addiction on the surface. “The director never took us aside and said, look this is the effect,” she said. “We didn’t go into depth about it. Now, if you would’ve had a Martin Scorsese come in and direct this film, he would’ve sat you down, he would’ve put you through the whole emotional, physical, mental feeling of what that drug was doing to you. This would’ve been a whole different film. He took us to one, maybe two levels of what it’s like to take pills. The whole thing was to show the bottle and to show the jelly beans kinda going back. That was the important thing for him, not the emotional part.”

11. A STAGE ADAPTATION MADE IT TO OFF-BROADWAY.

In 1995, Los Angeles theater troupe Theatre-A-Go-Go! adapted the movie into a stage play. Kate Flannery, who’d go on to play Meredith Palmer on The Office, portrayed Neely. “Best thing about Valley of the Dolls to make fun of it is to actually just do it,” Flannery said in the Dolls doc. “You don’t need to change anything.” Parkins came to a production and approved of it. Eventually, the play headed to New York in an Off-Broadway version, with Illeana Douglas playing the Jackie Susann reporter role.

12. JACKIE SUSANN BARELY ESCAPED THE MANSON FAMILY.


By 20th Century-Fox - eBayfrontback, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The night the Manson Family murdered Tate, the actress had invited Susann to her home for a dinner party. According to Vanity Fair, Rex Reed came by The Beverly Hills Hotel, where Susann was staying, and they decided to stay in instead of going to Tate’s. The next day Susann heard about the murder, and cried by the pool. A few years later, when Susann was diagnosed with cancer for the second time, she joked her death would’ve been quicker if she had gone to Tate’s that night.

13. PATTY DUKE LEARNED TO EMBRACE THE FILM.

Of all of the characters in the movie, Duke’s Neely is the most over-the-top. “I used to be embarrassed by it," Duke said in a 2003 interview. "I used to say very unkind things about it, and through the years there are so many people who have come to me, or written me, or emailed who love it so, that I figured they all can’t be wrong." She eventually appreciated the camp factor. “I can have fun with that,” she said. “And sometimes when I’m on location, there will be a few people who bring it up, and then we order pizza and rent a VCR and have a Valley night, and it is fabulous.”

14. LEE GRANT DOESN’T THINK IT’S THE WORST MOVIE EVER MADE.

In 2000, Grant, Duke, and Parkins reunited on The View. “It’s the best, funniest, worst movie ever made,” Grant stated. She then mentioned how she and Duke made a movie about killer bees called The Swarm. “Valley of the Dolls was like genius compared to it,” Grant said.

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6 Tips From Experts on How to Fake Loving a Gift You Hate
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In this season of holiday giving, it's almost inevitable that you're going to get a gift you just don't like—and nobody wants to hurt another person's feelings when they went to the trouble of buying you a gift. So as you struggle to say thanks for that gaudy scarf from a beloved relative, or that stinky perfume from a well-meaning coworker, we bring you these tips from Jack Brown, a physician and body language expert from New York, and Alicia Sanders, a California-based acting coach with the conservatory program Starting Arts, for how to fake enjoyment—at least until you can exchange your gift at the store.

1. FIND ONE TRUE THING YOU CAN SAY.

Your inner voice may be saying "No!" the moment you peel pack that paper, but there may be a hidden yes inside you somewhere that you can mine for.

Sanders explains that the key to successful acting "is finding the truth in your scene." She encourages her students to tap into a moment when they felt the emotion they are trying to convey, for authenticity. "So you get an ugly sweater with a hideous shape and a terrible image, but you think the color blue is not so bad. You can say, ‘This color blue is so beautiful,' because it's truthful," she explains. The more you can find a real truth to speak from, "the more convincing you can be."

By opening with a grain of truth, you don't set yourself off on a chain of lies. "When you have to start to lie, that's when it's going to show through that you're an inexperienced actor, because you'll be more transparent," Sanders says.

2. WATCH YOUR HAND GESTURES.

However, faking joy runs deeper than just the words you speak. Sanders reminds us to think of what our hands are doing. "If you sit there statically, it feels like you're working too hard," she says.

Your hands can be a telltale giveaway that you don't really like a gift, according to Brown. People experiencing unhappy emotions tend to ball their hands into fists, tuck them against their bodies, or put them in their pockets. "If a person likes what they are getting, their arms and hands are going to go further out from the body, and tend to be more loose and relaxed," he says.

Similarly, we can reveal falsehood by touching our face or head, which often signals lying, anxiety, or discomfort, Brown says. People in these emotional states "tend to touch their face with one hand, and slowly. They might scratch near their eye, right in front of their ear, or their forehead."

Sanders suggests you put a hand on your chest or bring the gift closer to your body as a way of showing that you can stand to have it near you.

3. AVOID GIVING A FAKE SMILE …

Indeed, the gift-giver is most likely going to be looking at your face when they assess your reaction, so this is the canvas upon which you must work your most convincing efforts at false gratitude.

While you may think a bright smile is the perfect way to fake joy, Brown says smiling convincingly when you're feeling the opposite is not as easy. "Most people aren't good at it," he says.

A fake smile is obvious to the onlooker. These usually start at the corners of the mouth—often showing both top and bottom teeth, he points out. A sincere smile almost always just shows your top teeth, and begins more from the mid-mouth. Another giveaway of a fake smile is tension in the mid-face: "If you see someone with mouth tension, where the mouth opening gets smaller, the person's got some anxiety there."

4. … AND USE YOUR EYES.

Smile with your eyes first, Brown advises. "Completely forget about your mouth," Brown instructs. "If you smile with your mouth first, you're absolutely going to mess up."

And be sure to make eye contact, which Sanders says is "crucial to convince someone that you like their present."

But keep in mind that there are degrees of appropriate eye contact if you want to look natural. "If the eye contact is too little or too much, it'll feel like it's not sincere," Brown says. You want to be sure to avoid a stare—which can feel "predatory or romantic," he explains. Instead, make "a kind of little zig-zagging motion that people have when they look around a face."

5. SKIP THE CLICHÉS.

As you unwrap your unwanted gift and have a moment of unpleasant surprise, you may be tempted to reach for the simplest phrase, such as "awesome," which Brown calls "a one-word cliché" that tries to convey a happiness you don't really feel. Brown says this is a no-no, too: "If you use a cliché, your body language will parallel that."

Instead, eliminate canned words and phrases from your repertoire, he urges, "because then you'll think more about what you're going to say."

Aunt Suzie will also notice if your voice is strained or you have to clear your throat before choking out a "thanks." But how do you convincingly soften your tone of voice so that your words sound as authentic as they can?

Back to acting. Sanders suggests mining your own personal happy experiences for honest emotional content; you may be seeing an ugly sweater you'll never wear but thinking of those prized theater tickets you received another year.

Brown, meanwhile, recommends you think of your favorite comedians; they're good at improvisation, and are often laughing or smiling. "When you do that, you're getting yourself in a better emotional state," Brown says. "Or you can think about a funny time in your own personal life."

A mental rehearsal before you get a gift is a good idea too. Brown says you can imagine a gift that this person could realistically have gotten you and draw on the joy of that imagined gift instead.

6. NOW, DO ALL OF THIS AT ONCE.

If you aren't completely overwhelmed yet, keep in mind you must try to get these small communications by your eyes, mouth, hands, language, and tone in alignment with one another. Brown calls this "paralanguage."

"If they're not congruent, if they don't all line up, then you're not going to come across as sincere," Brown says.

If all of this advice has you contorting yourself into a state of confusion, Brown says that if you remember nothing else, just smile with your eyes. You might just fake it until you make it.

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