'Happy Birthday, Mr. President': A Look Back at the Unforgettable Marilyn Moment
Celebrated LIFE photographer Bill Ray remembers the iconic performance from 1962 — one of Monroe's last public appearances before her death two months later.
Published May 17, 2018
Published 2 months ago
A quick scan of the program for "New York's Birthday Salute to President Kennedy" on May 19, 1962, reveals a veritable who's who of Old Hollywood: Jack Benny, Ella Fitzgerald, Henry Fonda, Danny Kaye. And there, nestled between Peter Lawford and Jimmy Durante, an unmissable entry: Marilyn Monroe. No explanation. No footnote.
The assembled crowd in Madison Square Garden — some 16,000 well-heeled Democrats — had no idea what to expect from the starlet. But the hype was strong: Lawford, the event's emcee, teased the 35-year-old's impending appearance all night long, to the point that when she finally took the stage, he introduced her as "the late Marilyn Monroe," a quip that would seem in poor taste just a few months later.
But that night in May — 10 days before the president's actual 45th birthday on the 29th — the audience was dazzled by a sexy, seductive Monroe. Bathed in a spotlight, she shrugged out of her fur coat, revealing a glittery, skin-tight dress that she had to be literally sewn into backstage. What followed would be, perhaps, the most famous (and infamous) rendition of "Happy Birthday" ever, with Monroe breathlessly singing the tune to a shocked audience and president.
"You could have heard a pin drop," recalls Bill Ray, the celebrated LIFE photographer assigned to cover the event for the magazine, who made the now-iconic image of the actress from behind. "I think people were stunned when she finished."
It's an evening that would go down in history, both for bolstering claims that Monroe and Kennedy were engaged in a torrid love affair and for being one of Monroe's final public appearances before being found dead in her Los Angeles home on August 5, 1962.
For Ray, his singular image of Monroe remains his calling card, even after a lifetime of memorable shots.
"I get more requests for that print than any other," Ray tells FOTO. "People, when they introduce me, they say, 'He's the guy that made the Marilyn Monroe.' Every photographer has this happen to him whether they like it or not. In this case, it's fine with me."
On what would have been JFK's 101st birthday, Ray recalls that glittering evening.
Bill RayLINING UPIf you weren't one of the approximate 16,000 ticket holders for the main event, your best chance to catch a glimpse of JFK as he passed in his glass-domed car was elbowing your way into the crowd outside the old Madison Square Garden (which was razed six years later to make way for a more modern structure). People lined the streets and hung out of apartment windows and fire escapes, craning for a look at the handsome young president. "All these people were very excited about seeing him," says Ray. "The thing I find so interesting is that neighborhood is gone. Look at those people, look at those undershirts with the straps, and the faces — all the people are gone. The neighborhood is gone."Bill RayELLA ON THE THRESHOLDWhile the spectre of Monroe hangs heavy over the event, the birthday gala was full of top-shelf talent, including a 45-year-old Ella Fitzgerald, who was accompanied by the Paul Smith Trio. Ray caught her backstage, in a sparkling black gown, just before her big performance. "I was kind of wandering around down there where the dressing rooms were," remembers Ray. "She was looking kind of anxious and waiting to go on [so] I didn't have a chat with her."
Bill RayGETTING THE SHOTAs the event finally began, security shepherded photographers into a cordoned-off area in front of the stage, but Ray broke away from the pack to find his own angle. "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," Ray says. "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."
So atop one of the Garden's girders, with his long lens braced against a railing, Ray made an educated guess at the exposure and took several frames of Monroe as she vamped on stage. Only one — the "silver bullet" — would turn out. "There was one slightly before that's a little blurry because of the 300mm lens," explains Ray. "Shortly thereafter the lights went out and she disappeared, and the next thing I knew JFK was up on the stage."
Due to the disparate lighting conditions — Monroe in a bright spotlight, Kennedy in total darkness — Ray's dream of getting the two in the same picture didn't come to fruition. "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." Over the years, as technology has improved, Ray has tried multiple times to digitally manipulate the photo to reveal the president, but to no avail. "We can't get him up from the negative."
Whatever its negligible shortcomings, the photo is an undeniably iconic one. Which makes its omission from the magazine even that more head-scratching.Bill Ray"I thought this spectacular birthday gala — the first one ever in Madison Square Garden after all these years of horse shows, rodeos, bicycle races, world-champion prize fights — would be a big story. I was hanging onto my hat, and I don't think LIFE ran a thing, I know they didn't run my Marilyn picture," says Ray. The photo later appeared in one of the publisher's "Best of LIFE" books.
For his part, Ray says he may try once again to see if technology can help shed light — literally — on Kennedy over Monroe's shoulder. But whatever the outcome, Ray is satisfied with his picture — a winning combination of skill and luck.
"How it worked, I'm not even sure," Ray says. "But it worked. Je ne sais quoi — it's got something in it."