The LIFE Photographers, an exhibition of classic images from the magazine’s heyday, is beginning its last week at the aptly-named Monroe Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico (closing next Sunday, June 26.) Among the photographs on display is Bill Ray’s portrait of Marilyn singing ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President’ in 1962.
The Monroe Gallery previously hosted a Bill Ray retrospective in 2014. The photographer, who died in 2020, remembered that night in Madison Square Garden vividly.
“‘It had been a noisy night, a very ‘rah rah rah’ kind of atmosphere. Then boom, on comes this spotlight. There was no sound. No sound at all. It was like we were in outer space. [Marilyn’s dress] was skin-colored, and it was skin-tight. It was sewn on, covered with brilliant crystals. There was this long, long pause … and finally, she comes out with this unbelievably breathy, ‘Happy biiiiirthday to youuuu,’ and everybody just went into a swoon. I was praying [that I could get the shot] because I had to guess at the exposure. It was a very long lens, and I had no tripod, so I had to rest the lens itself on the railing, and tried very, very hard not to breathe … If you got a picture from the front, everybody else would have it on the front page the next day and it wouldn’t be good for LIFE. You always needed something different. I had this idea that if I got way up I could shoot over Marilyn’s shoulder and have Kennedy in the picture. There was one slightly before that’s a little blurry because of the 300 mm lens. Shortly thereafter the lights went out and she disappeared, and the next thing I knew JFK was up on the stage. If I’d been luckier, there would have been a tiny bit of light that would have spilled onto Kennedy, who was over her shoulder between the podium and her head.”