It’s a mad gambit, but she knows down to the skin
the workings of allure, pulls rank
in the slope of her shoulderblades
against formica & chrome. Marilyn twirls
the flute of Dom, sleek in blond chiffon & pearls.
The neon trapeze of light’s a treat
along her jaw; the cockatiels tremble their bars,
bob into silence. There’s something
about this woman at the table down front
that knows a bit about cages. All these men
in their rococo suits, smacking of a Paris
she’ll never see, scrim of absinthe & gin fizz,
sententious post-war bonhomie. & as she feels
she’s been gazed to the vanishing point,
Ella takes the stage with that calm relish
born in a woman out of long, slow trying,
chalking up the strokes in some record book
legible only to men. & it’s a plum way
she takes the mike, looks to Marilyn
across the scrubby hecklers down front,
scats her opener in a voice all
rasped-up thankful. What they share electric
in that impossible room. I feel the freedom in my soul,
flying home at last.
Historical note: Ella Fitzgerald was unable to play the Mocambo nightclub in Hollywood because she was black. In 1955, Marilyn Monroe called the club’s owner and told him that if he booked Ella, Marilyn would be at a table down front every night. When the owner agreed, true to her word, Marilyn was there every night, and so was the press.
The italicized words in the final two lines of the poem are taken from Fitzgerald’s hit song “Flying Home” (Goodman, DeLange, Hampton, and Robin, 1939).