One of the most famous renditions of “Happy Birthday” in the last century was that of Marilyn Monroe, wearing an extraordinarily tight, sequined, backless dress, serenading President John F. Kennedy in Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1962, which was 10 days before the actual date he turned 45.
The dress was exclusively designed for Monroe by the designer Jean Louis. She paid $1,440 for it. Born in France, Louis came to the U.S. and was a top talent, designing for the Duchess of Windsor and for Hollywood royalty such as for Rita Hayworth, creating the gown she wore in Gilda, and for Monroe.
The original sketch of the dress was made by the young Bob Mackie as his first job out of college. The material was a sheer, flesh-colored marquisette fabric and embellished with over 2,500 hand-sewn crystals and 6,000 shimmering rhinestones. The dress was so tight-fitting that Monroe had to be sewn into it on the day of the celebration. Moreover, she decided to wear absolutely nothing underneath the gown in order for a seamless fit.
The birthday celebration was a packed fund-raising event held at the Garden, attended by 15,000 paying guests. Its purpose was to pay off the Democratic National Committee’s deficit for the 1960 campaign. President Kennedy had personally asked Monroe to appear while both attended an event at Bing Crosby’s home in Palm Springs in March of 1962.
British actor Peter Lawford, the president’s brother-in-law, introduced Marilyn. He made a play on the actress’s reputation for tardiness by giving her a number of introductions throughout the night, after which she did not appear on stage. When Monroe finally appeared in a spotlight, Lawford introduced her as the “late Marilyn Monroe” Monroe peeled off her white ermine fur coat, revealing the dress, and the audience gasped. Adlai Stevenson said later her appearance was “skin and beads.”
Her breathy, rather intimate performance, coupled with the absence of Jacqueline Kennedy, sparked rumors about an affair between Monroe and the president. Monroe biographer Donald Spoto has written that despite all the salacious fantasies about an intense love affair, Kennedy and Monroe had had no more than a fling. She was a political supporter of Kennedy and other Democrats, and her decision to wear this sort of dress was to strengthen her sex-symbol status, which she was feeling insecure about.
After the performance of Marilyn, an enormous birthday cake was presented to President Kennedy. He popped on stage and expressed humor over Monroe’s version of the song, saying: “I can now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.”
Afterward, a private reception was held at the Manhattan home of Arthur Krim. Marilyn brought her former father-in-law, Isidore Miller. “There was a softness to her that was very appealing,” said Marilyn Krim. “She was–well, just extraordinarily beautiful.”
Marilyn Monroe had risked the anger of her studio bosses to fly to New York City to perform for the president. Upset over her tardiness on the set and other problems, the producers of Something’s Got to Give had not wanted her to leave in the middle of the shoot. The next day she flew back to L.A. However, on June 7, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was fired and sued for damages.
On August 5, Marilyn Monroe died, the coroner ruling it “acute barbituate poisoning.” President John F. Kennedy was assassinated the following year.
In 1999 Marilyn Monroe’s dress was sold for over $1.26 million, to collector Martin Zweig. It sold for almost twice as much than previously estimated by the auction house. On November 18, 2016, the auction house “Julien’s Auctions” created a bidding event in Los Angeles, where the dress was sold for $4.8 million. It was bought by the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum.
Edward Meyer, Ripley’s vice president of Exhibits and Archives, who has been acquiring items for the company for more than 35 years, placed the winning bid for the iconic dress, reporting: “This is the most famous item of clothing in 20th-century culture. It has the significance of Marilyn, of Hollywood, of JFK, of American politics. Any museum in the world would love to have it on display, and now it belongs to Ripley’s Believe It or Not!”
It is a signature piece within a collection of many other of Monroe’s personal belongings.