Ella Fitzgerald, first lady of humanity

By Fran Morris Rosman
Ella in white suit and hat with baseball player

After her death in 1996, curators from this museum worked with caretakers of the Ella Fitzgerald Estate, Richard Rosman and Fran Morris Rosman, to establish an Ella Fitzgerald Collection at the Smithsonian. The museum received items and mementos from Fitzgerald’s career and personal life, including her famous red dress, numerous awards, and 50 cubic feet (39 boxes and 2 oversized folders) of archival material.

On the anniversary of Ella’s death (June 15) and in celebration of her 95th birthday (April 25), here is a lesser known account of the legendary vocalist from Fran Morris Rosman, the Executive Director of the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, who determined which items came to the museum and which went to the Library of Congress. All photos are from our collection.

Ella Fitzgerald on stage
Ella Fitzgerald performs at New York City’s Downbeat Club in 1949. Courtesy of Herman Leonard Photographic Collection, Archives Center.

There are many reasons Ella Fitzgerald is called “The First Lady of Song.” She earned 13 Grammy Awards and sold more than 40 million albums. An artist of the people, she appealed to people of every age, nationality and socio-economic background. Mel Torme declared her “the High Priestess of Song.” American music and theater composer Richard Rodgers said “Whatever she does to my songs, she always makes them sound better.” Duke Ellington loved her “madly.” Such was the gift of Ella Fitzgerald the artist.

Western Union telegram
A telegram from Duke Ellington to Ella Fitzgerald. Courtesy of Ella Fitzgerald Collection, Archives Center.

But there is another side of Ella Fitzgerald—the humanitarian who came from humble beginnings and never forgot that American experience.

I’ve worked for the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation since Ms. Fitzgerald’s death in 1996. An archivist by profession, I was hired to go through her house and office to try and figure out what the Smithsonian Institution would want, and what the Library of Congress needed, to preserve her place in American cultural history. When the archival work was completed, my familiarity with “all things Ella” led me to the Charitable Foundation that she had established back in 1993, with the help of her personal attorney and my husband of over 30 years, Rich Rosman.

The Foundation exists to enrich the lives of less fortunate people of all backgrounds, cultures and beliefs. It started out small, but has grown over time enabling scores of people to receive what Ms. Fitzgerald regarded as basic human necessities: the right to good food, shelter, health care, education and the arts, especially music.

Much of the Foundation’s work benefits disadvantaged children, providing them with music, education, cultural enrichment, and health and dental care. Funding also helps people afflicted with diabetes and heart disease, illnesses from which Ms. Fitzgerald herself suffered.

Let me brag a little about the Foundation’s “A BOOK JUST FOR ME” program. Annually it places over 100,000 brand-new books into the hands and homes of at-risk kids and families. Ella Fitzgerald loved to read and she loved kids. We think this program is a fitting tribute to that love and the fruits of her music career.

And speaking of her career, I also work surrounded by photographs and archival images of the legendary Ella Fitzgerald, the bright-eyed diva dressed for the spotlight in elegant furs and flowing gowns. I usually go to work in my Dodger tee-shirt. But even there, I’m still in sync with Ella Fitzgerald the huge baseball fan. One of the photos on my office wall is of her singing the Star Spangled Banner at Dodger Stadium. Baseball and Ella = Heaven.

Two people posing in a stadium
Ella Fitzgerald poses with Willie Mays, who was a player for the San Francisco Giants. Photo courtesy of Ella Fitzgerald Collection, Archives Center.

Downstairs are numerous cookbooks from the star’s house in Beverly Hills. While she never actually cooked, Ella Fitzgerald did like to eat. She read cookbooks the way some people read good novels, with gusto! These food-stained volumes speak to the warmth and friendliness of her kitchen and her hospitality.

Next to my desk are cartons of photographs documenting a fifty-year career in music, film, and television that took Ella Fitzgerald around the world. She traveled by bus, train and plane—and once actually performed on a jumbo jet—Continental Airlines from LA to Denver and back. Pretty cool, huh?

I wonder if she sang “Fly Me to the Moon”…

Want to learn more about the American experience through the transformative power of jazz? The museum’s Smithsonian Jazz team strongly recommends you check out their website to explore our jazz oral history collection, get tickets to performances by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month, and more. Or sign up to receive a monthly jazz e-newsletter from the museum for regular reminders.

Fran Morris Rosman is Executive Director of the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, and a supporter of Jazz Appreciation Month Initiatives at the National Museum of American History. Click here to see photos from the Foundation’s recent Jazz Appreciation Month poster contest for 4-12 graders in the Los Angeles, California school system.