Can’t We Be Friends: A Novel of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe

Written by Denny S. Bryce
Review by Kate Braithwaite

On the face of it, a close friendship between jazz icon Ella Fitzgerald and movie superstar Marilyn Monroe might be surprising, but by the end of this book it makes perfect sense. When Marilyn is preparing for her role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she decides to write to Ella Fitzgerald and ask for singing lessons. Ella’s not interested—she’s self-taught and would have no idea how to help—and initially it’s her cousin and assistant Georgiana who replies. But Marilyn keeps writing and Ella starts to write back… and so it begins. Different as they are, the women find many things in common: struggling to find autonomy in male-dominated industries, challenging family histories, difficulties balancing ambition with desires for marriage and family, and, entertainingly, a shared love of potato salad.

Told in alternating chapters, the voices and concerns of Ella and Marilyn are distinct but equally engaging. Marilyn’s descent into depression and substance abuse is well rendered, and Ella’s concern and frustration ring true. There are occasions where events are reported in fictionalized letters or summarized in their conversations—for example, some of the racism Ella Fitzgerald had to live with, and Marilyn’s struggles with husband Arthur Miller—and it feels like each author could easily have written a full novel, so well have they grasped the material and characters involved.

That said, this is a novel about friendship. The support Ella and Marilyn show to each other is heartfelt and fascinating, and their relationship is nuanced and natural. Fans of either—or both—of these tremendous women will not be disappointed.