One of the most showstopping moments in pop culture and political history, photographer Bill Ray recounts the events of May 19, 1962, the night Marilyn Monroe seductively sang for US President John F. Kennedy on his 45th birthday celebration in New York. Ray shares rare photos from one of Monroe’s last appearances.
“On comes this spotlight. There was no sound. No sound at all. It was like we were in outer space,” said photographer Bill Ray of John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday party in Madison Garden, New York. He was 26 in 1962 and struggled to find the perfect spot to shoot the grandiose event from, determined to get moneyshots of Marilyn Monroe and JFK.
Marilyn Monroe was to sing for the former US president, alongside musical greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee, and everyone was excitedly anticipating the performance. For one, there were rumors that the Hollywood sex symbol and JFK were having an affair (his wife Jackie was not present at the event). Second, Monroe had become notorious for arriving to her gigs (fashionably) late.
The bombshell didn’t disappoint as she finally appeared onstage, shrugging off a white fur to reveal a sparkly, skin-tight gown. Ray found himself on a balcony, where he had the perfect back view of the sultry songstress.
“It 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 wanna relive the atmosphere of that infamous night, watch Ray talk about the night in detail in this video from LIFE and listen to the recording of Monroe singing 'Happy Birthday, Mr. President‘. Definitely a night to remember for the attendees, as it was one of Marilyn’s last and iconic public appearances, inspiring this candle-blowing birthday cake photograph used at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.
Browse the Magazine for more Marilyn Monroe articles.
- Today in History: Marilyn Monroe is Born
- Fast Facts & Rare Photos of Marilyn Monroe
- Last But Not the Least: Marilyn Monroe’s Last Photo