60 Years Ago: Marilyn Sings for the President

Artwork by Rick Carl

On May 19, 1962 – sixty years ago today – Marilyn sang ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President’ to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden, and a legend was born. Here’s how it was first reported in the Sydney Morning Herald:

“President Kennedy is 45 on Tuesday week, but his birthday was officially celebrated at a Democratic extravaganza at Madison Square Garden. It came on the hottest May day in New York City history, when the temperature had risen to 99.

Democrats paid up to 1,000 dollars (£446) for a seat at the birthday concert when a glittering array of theatrical talent provided a two and a half hour show. After a sultry rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ by Marilyn Monroe, the President remarked: ‘I can now retire from politics.’

Discarding most of a prepared speech on his legislative programme and the Republican Opposition, the President joined in the birthday party spirit.

In the speech, which was released earlier to the press, however, he blasted Republicans for what he called their tendency to ‘be against everything… against every new programme, against every appropriation, against every attempt to help the individual citizen find a better life for himself and his family.’

Two chefs carried around the arena a five-foot birthday cake, sparkling with 45 blue candles. The President then went on to a reception at the home of the President of United Artists, Mr Arthur Krim, who headed the birthday salute committee.”

Here’s another contemporary account, from TIME.

And here’s what Marilyn said about the night in her last interview, for LIFE.

“I was honored when they asked me to appear at the President’s birthday rally in Madison Square Garden. There was like a hush over the whole place when I came on to sing Happy Birthday, like if I had been wearing a slip I would have thought it was showing, or something. I thought, “Oh, my gosh, what if no sound comes out!”A hush like that from the people warms me. It’s sort of like an embrace. Then you think, by God, I’ll sing this song if it’s the last thing I ever do. And for all the people. Because I remember when I turned to the microphone I looked all the way up and back, and I thought, ‘That’s where I’d be, way up there under one of those rafters, close to the ceiling, after I paid my $2 to come into the place.’

Afterwards they had some sort of reception. I was with my former father-in-law, Isidore Miller, so I think I did something wrong when I met the President. Instead of saying, ‘How do you do?” I just said “This is my former father-in-law, Isidore Miller.’ He came here an immigrant and I thought this would be one of the biggest things in his life, he’s about 75 or 80 years old and I thought this would be something that he would be telling his grandchildren about and all that.

I should have said, ‘How do you do, Mr. President,’ but I had already done the singing, so well you know. I guess nobody noticed it.”

Marilyn at the after-party with Isidore Miller

One of the many persistent myths about this event is that Marilyn was sewn into her dress – Sergio Serrano has created an infographic for Marilyn Mexico about the making of a fashion icon.

Secondly, Marilyn was atypically punctual that night – but Peter Lawford, who hosted the event, jokingly introduced her as ‘the late Marilyn Monroe.’ Tragically, just three months later this offhand remark would echo like a prophecy, as author Michelle Morgan explained to Radio 5 Live’s Colin Murray yesterday. You can listen to Michelle’s interview here – it requires a BBC login, and then skip to the 2:08 mark.

Marilyn with Peter Lawford

And finally, another Monroe biographer, Gary Vitacco Robles, breaks down exactly what happened that night (and what didn’t) in this YouTube video.