Waltzing to
a Tango
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

            Once 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 peninsula.

            Meeting 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 to her. 

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 romance.

About Ellington

            Duke 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 music.

            Duke 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 music.

The Beginning

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 talent carried.

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.

            Both 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.

            Fast 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 Catholicism.

            The 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.

            One 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 young musicians.

            The 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.

            Parking 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.

            She 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."

            As 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?

            She 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.

            As 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 me."

That’s where their story begins.

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 bettym@differnet.com 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 bettym@differnet.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: