You were the music, red roses, wild things, Royalty wearing a crown. I was the words, waiting soft for your call To slow all the madness on your merry-go-around. From "Mon Cher Amant," copyright by Betty McGettigan and Duke Ellington estate
Those words were written to music by Duke Ellington, music now held in copyright by the Ellington estate, which is, in effect, his son Mercer Ellington.
"I wrote that after he died and sang it for him on the first anniversary of his death," says Betty McGettigan, who was closely associated with Ellington during the last five years of his life. "I can write words to his music at the drop of a hat, but I can't for anyone else's music."
Legally speaking, she can't write words for Duke Ellington's music, either -- at least not for publication or public performance -- except possibly in the case of his last, still unpublished work -- a opera called "Queenie Pie," on which she has a partial copyright claim. The Ellington estate also owns a share of the work, including some vintage songs by Duke Ellington which have never been performed in public and probably cannot be until a settlement is reached between the two claimants.
As McGettigan tells it, the story behind "Queenie Pie" is that of a man and woman in love -- a May-December partnership producing not a home and family but a work of art. Now, with Ellington dead, she sees "tributes" on television and the recycling of his music into such efforts as the current Broadway hit "Sophisticated Ladies," but no effort to respect what she says were his last wishes about his last work. She wants to see it staged, not only because she feels that "Queenie Pie" is partly her work, but mostly because, as she says, "it was what Duke wanted."
She says the job of completing "Queenie Pie" was a definite assignment to me from Duke himself on his deathbed, just as he assigned Mercer to complete 'The Three Black Kings' and to finish producing the recording or the 'Third Sacred Concert.' He used to give assignments like this, and he would never tell one person what another person's assignment was."
"Queenie Pie" was commissioned by National Educational Television in 1972 and was in preparation when Ellington died on May 24, 1974. The music written for it amounted to some 20 pieces, which exist in "lead sheets" -- voice and piano score without orchestration.
McGettigan has filled in gaps in the script, though she admits it "still needs a lot or work." She also filed a copyright claim. Her troubles began when she started trying to have it produced. "I have been trying for nearly seven years, devoting about 90 percent of my time and energy to it," she says, "and whenever it begins to seem possible, I run into a stone wall."
One early effort to have "Queenie Pie" staged in a workshop and polished for a definitive production was made at Stanford University. "They went to the National Endowment for the Arts to get a grant," McGettigan recalls, "and it looked good until the NEA got a letter from Mercer Ellington's attorneys, saying that I had no right to the material and if they dealt with me there would be a lawsuit. Merv Griffin was interested in producing it -- until he got a phone call. The Houston Opera was interested, and their lawyer even talked to Mercer about it after talking to me, and he seemed willing to go on with it. Then something happened to stop it; I don't know what. There was a producer in Palm Springs who thought he could get it produced -- until he talked to Cress Courtney, and that was the end of that."
Cress Courtney, Mercer Ellington's manager, confirmed the general outline of Betty McGettigan's story on production problems. "I'm well aware of her," he said brusquely when McGettigan's name was mentioned in a phone conversation. "She falsely claimed that she was the co-author of 'Queenie Pie' and filed for a copyright; then our lawyers got a copyright. She's approached everybody to do it, and we've stopped her every time."
At the moment, Courtney says, the primary interest of the Ellington estate is in "Sophisticated Ladies." "Frankly, 'Queenie Pie' has a low priority at the moment. It would be possible to make a show out of it; a certain amount of writing would have to be done . . . It's the property of the Duke Ellington estate, and if we don't want to do it, we don't do it."
Asked about Betty McGettigan's relationahip to the material, he snaps: "It's a long story and I really wouldn't want to see it published because it gets a little sticky." I'd ask "Do you love me?" You'd say "Too much -- too much." I still see your face -- feel your touch. We took that long chance On an impossible romance With odds as high as the sky. We cared. We dared to fall in love. From "Mon Cher Amant," copyright by Betty McGettigan and Duke Ellington estate
Betty McGettigan met Duke Ellington on Jan. 12, 1969. He was nearly 70 years old, and she was a bit more than half that age, a suburban mother in Menlo Park, Calif., recently separated from her husband. One son, Michael, was a teen-ager, still in school and playing French horn in the California Youth Symphony Orchestra. (Later, he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra but was fired, his mother says, after Duke's death.) He other three children were living on their own.
"I knew that such a person as Duke Ellington existed and that he had composed certain songs," she recalls, "but I never really thought much about him until I started raising funds for Michael's orchestra to make a trip to Australia. We decided to have two benefit concerts. Jack Benny agreed to do one, and I thought I would try to get Duke Ellington for the other. I sent him some recordings and he wrote back that it was 'a great orchestra.' When I phoned him he said 'I'm too busy to talk now, but call me back.' I did -- several times, but he was a nocturnal creature and very hard to contact."
Finally, she tracked him down at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, waited for hours in the lobby and went up to confront him in his room. "I think maybe previous ladies who came for symphony orchestras were different," she says.
Their first face-to-face conversation ended with Ellington saying, "I'll do your concert. Will you have dinner with me?" She did.
The friendship that began with this meeting lasted for the rest of Ellington's life. "We began traveling together a lot," she recalls. "At first, it was just two people being together, but after a while he started asking me to do things for him -- he needed a lot of things done. Sometimes, when he had me work for him, it rocked boats . . . and there were a lot of boats out there . . . I think resentments were built up because of the influence I had on him, how effective I was, the way I could get through to him when other people couldn't. Duke certainly didn't hide me. I was with him in public a lot. I was about ready to change my life, and fortunately when I did, I really changed."
In 1970, when Ellington was composing his ballet, "The River," McGettigan recalls, "he phoned me and said, "I want you to find all the symphonic records you can that deal with water -- and get a few orchestral scores, too.' So I went out and got all kinds of music about water: "The Moldau,' 'La Mer,' even Handel's 'Water Music.' I didn't know where he had called from, so I put it all together and waited. Then he called me from Vancouver and said, 'You're supposed to be here.' I got up to Vancouver as soon as I could. I did all kinds of things like that for him.
"When his book, 'Music Is My Mistress,' was in galley proofs, I went through the galleys with him for additions, corrections and deletions. Then I went to New York, to Doubleday, and we spent weeks going through the changes. I am mentioned in the acknowledgements section of this book.
"The relationship started as something else, but we became very close. I got to be pretty essential to him -- I think."
Ellington had been thinking about "Queenie Pie" before he met Betty McGettigan. She says he began talking to her about the opera "on that first night, or soon after. Before long it became a sort of joint project. In a way, it grew out of our mutual love of words. I carried dictionaries around for him, and we spent hours talking -- hours and hours."
As Betty McGettigan remembers it, "Queenie Pie" began to develop during those hours of talk. "We would be riding in the car, and he would like something that came up in the conversation and say, 'Put that down for 'Queenie Pie,'" she recalls. "Or if we weren't in the same town, he would call me with an idea. I remember, we worked out a sequence at the dinner table one evening. It grew, gradually, in the form of a lot of little scraps of paper."
"Queenie Pie" has entered the "official" Ellington biographies in a number of contexts. In "Duke: A Portrait of Duke Ellington," Derek Jewell says that around 1963 Ellington wrote "a version of a quaint fantasy, Queenie Pie , which verged on opera."
In his book, "Duke Ellington in Person," Mercer Ellington says that "he had virtually completed 'Queenie Pie' before he died," and that on his deathbed "He was really creative to the end, still fussing with details of his humorous opera, Queenie Pie . When we went through his effects, we found that the notes he had written -- if it were possible to line them up -- would almost enable anyone to read his mind from day to day."
Perhaps one reason Mercer Ellington has trouble lining up all of his father's last notes is that the one relating to "Queenie Pie" are, Betty McGettigan says, in her possession.
She adds: "I'm the last person on earth that he spoke to. He told me that he wanted his opera finished and produced. Now that he is dead, the people who control his material are making other tributes and using his music in various ways, but they are not doing anything about this opera. They're doing what they want, not what he wanted. I think he may have given me 'Queenie Pie' as a way of seeing that it would be done the way he wanted it." '
Mercer Ellington disputes this. "We can prove that the work was entirely Duke Ellington's," he says. "McGettigan was simply a secretary. She rushed down to Washington and got it copyrighted."
Bettty McGettigan's reply is: "I'm not a secretary and never was. I don't take shorthand and I don't even make coffee, and I was never on his payroll. I'm not ashamed of anything that happened." We danced through the storm clouds, With ghosts of the past, Lived every moment, right to the last, Laughed at them all Who hoped we would fall, Those odds stayed as high as the sky. From "Mon Cher Amant," copyright by Betty McGettigan and Duke Ellington estate