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Members' Room: Diane Richards, Ella, a Novel of Ella Fitzgerald, with Deborah Kampmeier

Saturday, May 11, 2024 - 2:00 PM | Members' Room | open to the public | free of charge | registration required

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In the vein of The Paris Wife and The Personal Librarian comes this debut novel, a magnificent work of “biographical fiction” that reimagines the turbulent and triumphant early years of Ella Fitzgerald, arguably the greatest singer of the twentieth century. In this one-of-a-kind event, author Diane Richards converses with screenwriter and director Deborah Kampmeier.

When fifteen-year-old Ella Fitzgerald’s mother dies at the height of the Depression in 1932, the teenager goes to work for the mob to support herself and her family. When the law finally catches up, the “ungovernable” adolescent is incarcerated in the New York Training School for Girls in upstate New York—a wicked prison infamous for its harsh treatment of inmates, especially Black ones. Determined to be free, Ella escapes and makes her way back to Harlem, where she is forced to dance for pennies on the street. Looking for a break into show business, Ella draws straws to appear at the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night on November 21, 1934. Four years later, at barely twenty-one, Ella Fitzgerald has become the bestselling female vocalist in America.

Diane Richards’ Ella Fitzgerald is inspiring and intriguing—an emotionally rich, psychologically complex character, a flawed mother and wife who struggles with deep emotional scars and trauma and battles racism, sexism, and colorism as she learns to find her voice on the stage. Ella takes us from the brothels, speakeasys, and streets of Depression-era New York City to the grand hotel suites where Ella, now older and wiser, looks back on her life and finally confronts the demons from childhood that torment her.

Compelling and rich in historical detail, Ella is a remarkable debut novel about an extraordinary woman. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says "Richards's research brings the sights and sounds of 1930s Harlem to vivid life, and she portrays Fitzgerald's troubling teen years with care and sensitivity. Readers will be grateful for the chance to feel so deeply acquainted with 'The First Lady of Song.'"

Diane Richards is a novelist, singer, playwright, and theater producer, and she serves as the Executive Director of the Harlem Writers Guild, the oldest (founded in 1950) and most prestigious African American writers guild in the world. She lives in Harlem a few blocks from the Apollo Theater, not too far from Ella Fitzgerald’s Boulevard of Dreams.

Deborah Kampmeier is an award-winning filmmaker who has written, directed, produced, and edited multiple independent feature and short films. Her first feature, Virgin, starring Elisabeth Moss and Robin Wright, was nominated for two 2004 Independent Spirit Awards; her second feature, Hounddog, starring Dakota Fanning and Robin Wright, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Kampmeier’s third feature, Split, won Best of Show at the 2016 Female Eye Film Festival. Kampmeier made her television directorial debut on Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey’s heralded drama Queen Sugar in 2019 and has directed episodes of The Gilded Age, Star Trek: Discovery, and Tales of the Walking Dead, among others.


This event is generously sponsored by Polymath Educational Services - providing personalized support for teens with learning differences.


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