|by Betty McGettigan
|© Copyright 2005 Betty McGettigan
“...and no matter when he
arrived would have been too late – because too much had happened by the
time you were born, let alone by the time you met each other.”
By James Baldwin
upon a time - actually 1969 - two people from completely different worlds met
in a serendipitous way. He was not a Prince, but Duke; she, a busy wife and mother
of four. It is a true story which had its beginning in San Francisco and covers
their 5-1/2 intense years together. He was a well-known musician, piano player and
composer. She was involved in
music and its young performers, tasked to find a soloist for a concert to
benefit the well-known California Youth Symphony on the San Francisco
each other more than fulfilled her task. The benefit concert turned into years
of touring and road tripping with Duke and his orchestra, assisting in his various
musical projects, being at his bedside as he lay dying, and then struggling against
invisible and almost unsurmountable odds to finish the last task he entrusted
The story of Duke Ellington
and Betty McGettigan is really the tale of two night creatures and their lives
on the other side of the clock. The musicians in Ellington’s orchestra, some of
the finest in the world then or now, provide the backdrop for this unlikely
was a very private person who let you know ONLY what he wanted you to know!
This is why almost every book about Ellington has the same old facts chewed and
digested over and over again. I am uniquely able to invite readers into the
private world of Duke’s last years.
When I met him he was
twilight, a sunset at the ready – elegantly matured from that brash,
“hip” young man still portrayed by the press. Unknown to all except his most
intimate friends, Duke was struggling with heavy public and private
responsibilities as he edged ever closer to a final serious illness. On stage
somewhere almost 340 out of 365 days and nights, his public persona of enormous
talent, sophistication and elegance never betrayed his fondest wish for some
degree of “normalcy” in his life. His orchestra was his family, his music
explored his wish to be closer to his God, and he was feeling the unmistakable
weight of his own mortality. Yet, to the end he still made such beautiful
often said that ours was the closest, most intensely personal relationship he
had ever allowed himself to have. When I wondered the 'why' of it he only said,
"You knew me before you knew you knew me." He believed that statement
absolutely, and he may have been right. I only know that I was blessed to be
the one at his side as he left this world, comforted in the knowledge that he
was truly loved, and he had been a good, gentle man of honor who had
unconditionally dedicated his entire life to lifting peoples’ spirits through
He was born in a big
American city before her parents had even met. By the time she was born in a sparsely-populated
Prairie state, he already was the head of his own family. That difference alone
could have made the whole thing impossible. Beyond that, each came from radically
different cultures, lifestyles and races.
His story first: He was
a handsome child, the only male in a constellation of adoring aunts and
cousins. From the beginning his mother assured him that he was “blessed,” a
force unto himself. He grew up supremely confident, a junior showman with
attentive audiences and an extraordinary talent. Yet there were missteps. He
became a husband and father too young, abruptly ending his formal education. As
a rising star he found undisciplined pleasure in all the world could
offer. By the time they met, life
had long ago become more serious and he had grown into the responsibility his
Her story. She was
raised in a small - really small -- town, the youngest child of educated
parents who lavished her with love, attention and opportunities. Her father was
a stringer for the Associated Press and mayor of the town. Mother was a
housewife whose life was clouded by chronic illness. It was a Norman Rockwell
life of school, family, community and church with precious few distractions.
Necessity required that she become resourceful and self-sufficient, skills that
served her well throughout life.
were dreamers. Oh, did they have dreams! He developed into a fine musician,
moved to New York City, lived fast and probably recklessly, and became famous -
the toast of big city nightlife. Another world away and oblivious, she was
connected to him by the radio. Late on long winter nights she listened to the
wonderful music emanating from New York City, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles
– taking coast-to-coast trips with Big Band jazz. In the summer, gazing
into the billions of stars in the endless sky, she imagined being on the dance
floors in big city hotels and romantic resorts. He and his music were there;
she dreamed of being there some day.
forward to 1969. She had married a
fourth-generation Californian at the end of World War II. They had two sons and
two daughters and lived the typical busy suburban lifestyle. Each of the
children had musical talents and had played with the California Youth Symphony.
Although the children were unaware, the marriage was seriously troubled and
held together only by common devotion to the children and their practice of
California Youth Symphony played a key role in changing the lives of everyone
in this story. Invited to tour Australia during July, 1969, the symphony had to
raise money to fund the trip. Previous trips to Japan, Mexico and several U.S. cities
were financed by benefit concerts that featured well-known performers like Jack
Benny and Mary Costa. As the fund-raising deadline for the Australian trip was
fast approaching, she was charged with finding a marquee musician.
day, when the youth orchestra had gone to the ABC studios in San Francisco to
prepare a tape to be used on television to solicit contributions, one of the
young percussionists told her that a Big Band was scheduled to perform at
Bimbo's 365. He wanted to sneak out to get tickets. She agreed to cover for his
absence, but a thought crossed her mind. Would the bandleader agree to perform
at the symphony fundraiser? She gave the young man a symphony recording to give
to the bandleader to see if she could interest him in performing with the talented
teenager made the contact but, because of his youth, the band leader wouldn’t
talk about the concert with him. The young fan called her with the name and
telephone number of the hotel where the bandleader was staying. The ball was now
in her court.
She made her first phone
call early in the evening of January 10, a Friday. At her inquiry about setting
up a meeting, the bandleader hedged. But he did ask her to call again the next
evening. She complied the next evening only to get the same kind of rebuff - and
another request that she call again the next morning at 7 a.m. Whoa! She wasn't
usually up on a Sunday morning at 7 a.m.! Who was this guy?!? However,
desperation drove her to put aside her usual habits; she set her clock for the
early morning wakeup call.
At 7 a.m. she dialed, he
picked up and again she heard his same tired excuses. Enough! "Excuse me,
but you have made excuse after excuse. Now I have called a special rehearsal of
100-plus youngsters tonight, and I don't really intend to let you off the hook!
I'm coming to San Francisco about 5 p.m. and I'm going to kidnap you!" His
response? "Well, good luck." And he hung up. Oh, boy, what had she
provoked? She thought she had
better go to San Francisco to offer a polite apology for "losing it.” And
so, she did.
in Fairmont garage that afternoon, she went up to the lobby, picked up a house
phone and dialed his room. An operator intercepted her call, saying that his phone
was turned off until 9 o'clock. What to do for four hours?
First she called home,
asking that the orchestra proceed with the rehearsal as planned and explaining
that she would remain in San Francisco to discuss the benefit performance - if
she got the chance. She filled the rest of the time with coffee and an ice
cream soda, magazines, browsing the lobby shops and chatting-up the bellmen
with questions about the bandleader. Then it was 9 o'clock.
called his room, saying, "Sir, I have been sitting here for four hours and
I really don't intend to leave until I talk with you." To which he
replied, "Give me ten minutes, and come on up."
the ten minutes expired she was in the elevator, nervous but determined to
convince him that a guest concert would not only help the youth orchestra
afford its trip but would also offer him good publicity. Could she sell it?
knocked on the door. It opened only a crack, about eight inches. He seemed very
sleepy, flustered. Turning away, he said, "Come in, find a chair."
Then he disappeared into what, from the sounds of running water, must have been
a bathroom. She guessed he was shaving and grooming. She went into the main
room and saw that there wasn't even one empty chair! All surfaces had clothes
draped or folded over them. Even the lamps were lopsided with drying clothes. A
piano was piled with manuscripts, the work of a busy musician/composer.
she searched for a place to sit, a beautiful, deep voice came from behind her
and suggested that she step through the window drapes and look out on the view
of the city for a moment. A strange request, she thought, but by now she was
curious to know where this was going. He probably wanted to get some piece of
clothing, she guessed. After a short time, that deep, sexy voice rolled out
again toward the drapes. "Madame, you may come out now."
She stepped out to see a
tall, handsome, bronzed man wearing a beautiful headscarf, a polo sweater and a
blanket tucked in at his waist and falling to the floor - a long, improvised
skirt! A thought ran through her mind: "This is a different man -
interesting, handsome and certainly in complete charge of the situation."
She quickly glanced around the room, noticing that no clothing on the chairs
seemed to have been disturbed. "Just keep focused on his eyes," she
told herself, "the eyes, and the face. Things do come undone."
Hoping she looked at
ease, as if she found the situation ordinary, she stepped toward him, held out
her hand and said, "I'm Betty McGettigan. Thank you for seeing me." Taking her extended hand, he replied
smoothly, "I'm Duke Ellington. I'll do your concert. Have dinner with
That’s where their story
That was the prologue to “Waltizing to a Tango”, a new book by Betty McGettigan.
Betty is seeking a publisher for the entire book. Please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested.
Watch this site for more news about the book.
More About “Tango”
“Waltzing to a Tango” is a new book written by Betty McGettigan, who was a close companion of Duke Ellington during the last five years of his life,
that tells the story of their years together. The main section of the site on your left contains the beginning of the book. Betty is actively
seeking a publisher for the entire book; if you know anyone who is interested, please contact her at email@example.com
More About Betty McGettigan
Betty McGettigan was one of Duke Ellington's closest companions and confidants for the last five years of his life.
She has a unique and valuable perspective on the great jazz innovator that she eloquently expresses in her new book.
Betty is a mother of four who currently resides in Palo Alto, CA.
More About Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington:
There are lots of Duke Ellington resources on the web. Here are
links to a few of them: