48 YEARS AGO: MARILYN MONROE SINGS "HAPPY BIRTHDAY" TO PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY
May 19, 2010 | Source: Monroe Gallery of Photography
On May 19, 1962, screen goddess Marilyn Monroe — literally sewn into a sparkling, jaw-droppingly sheer dress — sauntered onto the stage of New York's Madison Square Garden and, with one breathless performance, forever linked sex and politics in the American consciousness. For the 15,000 spectators there that night, including LIFE photographer Bill Ray, Marilyn's "Happy Birthday" to President John F. Kennedy amplified the buzz about an affair between the two. But beyond the titillation, the moment Ray captured in this, his most iconic shot, went on to play a major role in both Marilyn's and JFK's biographies, coming as it did near the end of their short lives. As the 48th anniversary of that legendary birthday party approaches, Ray sits down with LIFE.com to share his photos from that night, most of which have never been seen, and to tell the story of how he overcame countless obstacles — the cavernous setting, tricky lighting, and security "goons" eager to keep the press at bay — to get The Shot. ---life.com
"On the evening of May 19th, 1962, the brightest stars in the Hollywood galaxy joined Hollywood's heaviest hitters and New York's power elite at the old Madison Square Garden to celebrate with President John F. Kennedy his 45th birthday.
It was a good time to be young. The country was "moving" again. Our fathers had voted for Eisenhower; we voted for JFK. We had the Peace Corps, were going to the moon, and the New Frontier was here. It was High Tide in America.
With Jack Benny as host, and a long list of stars that featured Maria Callas, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Durante and Peggy Lee, the evening was going to be great. But the moment every one of the 17,000 guests was waiting for, was for the Queen of Hollywood, the reigning Sex Goddess, Marilyn Monroe to serenade the dashing young President.
Venus was singing to Zeus, or maybe Apollo. Their stars would cross, their worlds would collide.
I was on assignment for Life Magazine, and one of many photographers down in front of the stage.
As the show was about to start, the New York police, with directions from the Secret Service, were forcing the Press into a tight group behind a rope. I knew that all the "rope-a-dopes" would get the same shot, and that would not work for LIFE, the great American picture magazine. I squeezed between the cops and took off looking for a better place.
In addition to 2 Leicas with 35mm and 28mm lenses, and 2 Nikons with 105mm and 180mm, I brought along a new 300mm 4.5 Kilfit just for the Hell of it. I started to work my way up, one level at a time, looking for a place where I could get a shot of both MM and JFK in the same frame. An impossibility behind the rope, the 300mm telephoto was looking better and better.
It seemed that I climbed forever, feeling like Lawrence Harvey in "The Manchurian Candidate" up among the girders. When I found a pipe railing to rest the lens on, (exposure was by guess), I could see JFK through the telephoto, but the range of light level was too great. I worked with feverish intensity every second MM was on stage, but only one moment was truly magical, and perfectly exposed!
When the moment came, the Garden went black. Then all sound stopped. All that low buzz/roar that a crowd gives off stopped; total silence.
One very bright spotlight flashed on, and there was Marilyn Monroe, in the dress, the crystals sparkling and flashing. Marilyn was smiling, waiting several beats, with everyone on the edge of their seats, trying to hear the silence.
Then, in her breathy, sexy, unique voice, looking the entire time at JFK in the front row, she sang "Happy Birthday Mr. President".
No one that night could imagine that in two and a half months, Marilyn would be dead of an overdose; in eighteen months JFK would be assassinated; Viet Nam would turn into our worst nightmare; Camelot would be gone.
Marilyn wore a dress designed by Jean Louis, that had no zippers, buttons, hooks, or snaps. The pieces were sewn together on her body. It was more or less flesh-colored, and decorated with thousands of Zwarovski crystals. Adlai Stevenson described it as "Skin and Beads".
It was auctioned off at Christie's in New York, October, 1999 for over 1.2 million dollars. The buyers later thought it was a steal, and said they were prepared to pay 3 million.
Though the evening was long and illustrious, and Marilyn's song was short, the world, myself included, only remembers her, the song, the dress, and JFK's 45th birthday.
The rest is history. " -- ©Bill Ray