A Look Into Ella Fitzgeralds Failed Marriages

Ella Fitgerald was one of the leading voices of jazz in music history. Her silvery vocals, impeccable timing, and flawless pitch are instantly recognizable to jazz and music fans everywhere. And Fitzgerald's music — unlike another jazz sensation, Billie Holiday — never betrayed a hint of sadness. Fitzgerald always kept her music bright, upbeat, and positive — which was a far cry from the reality of her personal life, as The Independent reports.

Born in 1917 in Newport News, Virginia, says Biography, Fitzgerald was abused by her stepfather, orphaned at a young age (she was sent to live with an aunt in Harlem), and mostly neglected as a child. The young Ella dropped out of school in her teens to work on illegal lotteries run by the mafia and be a lookout at a sporting house. She was caught by the police and sent to an orphanage and later, after she tried escaping the orphanage, sent to a reformatory. 

This tumultuous childhood left Fitzgerald with a natural need to want a more steady and normal adult life — a life that would include a stable marriage. While Fitzgerald did achieve a successful career and the fame that went with it, she never did secure the happy, fulfilling marriage and family life that she longed for. 

Ella Fitzgerald's First Marriage Was Annulled

Fitzgerald was first married to a shipyard worker named Benjamin Kornegay, who had heavily pursued her. Fitzgerald's childhood wasn't the easiest, and she hoped to gain some stability through marriage, as noted by her official biography site. But Kornegay wasn't much of a winner as a husband — he was nothing more than a petty thief who had served time in jail for drug charges; Biography categorizes him as a "hustler." To Kornegay, his successful, professional singer wife represented a steady paycheck. It's hard to know how much Fitzgerald knew about her husband's criminal background when she first married him — probably very little, perhaps nothing at all. According to The Independent, it took a team of private investigators hired by her management team to uncover Kornegay's shady past. 

Once she was apprised of the details of her husband's dirty dealings, Fitzgerald — with her management team's encouragement — decided the marriage was a huge mistake and wanted not just a divorce, but an annulment. She did manage to get the annulment she wanted, but not without a particularly demeaning reprimand from the presiding judge: "You go back to singing 'A-Tisket, A-Tasket,' and leave the boys alone."

Ella Fitzgerald Married Ray Brown

While touring with Dizzy Gillespie's band in 1946, Fitzgerald fell in love with bassist Ray Brown. They married in 1947. Together, they adopted a son named Ray Brown, Jr. It seemed to be an ideal marriage between two artists — two musicians and performers who understood each other's passions and had busy, active careers. Unfortunately, their careers were what ultimately drove the two apart. According to The Independent, Fitzgerald admitted that it just became too hard to maintain a marriage: "It was a good marriage, but it's hard for two people in show business."

Both Fitzgerald and Brown spent enormous amounts of time on the road, and they had conflicting schedules. Not only did they not see much of each other, but their son, Ray Jr., was spending more time with Fitzgerald's aunt than with his parents. Ella, especially, seldom seemed to stop working. Her schedule was especially grueling and kept her away from her family. Ultimately, Fitzgerald and Brown divorced in 1953, but the two would still remain good friends and occasional collaborators. Fitzgerald's aunt ultimately raised Ray Jr., as Fitzgerald saw very little of him when he was young. As noted by her official site, their relationship was strained, although mother and son managed to reconcile when he was older. Ray Jr. would say later, "All I can say is that she gave to me as much as she could. And she loved me as much as she could."

Ella Fitzgerald Might Have Had A Secret Marriage

Even after two failed marriages, Fitzgerald never gave up hope that she might one day marry and get it right. Show business might be rewarding, but it can be a lonely profession. According to The Independent, in the late 1950s, Fitzgerald started a transatlantic romance with Norwegian producer Thor Einar Larsen. There were rumors that the two had secretly married in 1957. This rumor was never confirmed, but Larsen and Fitzgerald certainly had a serious relationship. Any romantic relationship the two had ended after Larsen's shady activities came to light: Fitzgerald had become entangled with yet another man with a delinquent past.

Reports emerged that Larsen had a criminal record — he'd been charged with stealing money from a former fiancee. A significant offense like that meant Larsen was banned from entering the United States. With no chance of him coming to America, there was really no realistic way for Fitzgerald and Larsen to remain together, effectively ending any romantic relationship they had, married or not.

After this last major heartbreak, Fitzgerald never married again and pursued no other serious romantic relationships. Instead, she devoted herself to her music and supported charities dedicated to child welfare. In her later years, she would reconcile with her son and his family.

Ella Fitzgerald sold more than 40 million records, earned 13 Grammy awards, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H.W. Bush in 1992. Fitzgerald died at her home in Beverly Hills in 1996.