Happy Birthday Mr. President: It’s true Monroe’s dress was so tight she had to be sewn into it

Stefan Andrews
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It seems there wasn’t ever a more popular interpretation of the “Happy Birthday” song than the one iconic actress and model Marilyn Monroe so elegantly crooned to President John F. Kennedy on May 19, 1962.

Monroe showed up late on stage that evening, looking all “skin and beads” as some people later commented. She enchanted people with a dress that was sketched by Bob Mackie and finished by the eminent French-born designer Jean Louis, whose designing talents had already been bestowed with an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.

The iconic gown filled the room with gasps and whistles: it was open at the back, with thousands of tiny, glistening rhinestones and crystals hand-sewn onto the skin color marquisette fabric. Monroe owned that dress and looked exceptionally beautiful the entire evening.

Marilyn Monroe, in a stunning white dress and fur coat.

The lavish evening to celebrate President Kennedy’s 45th birthday was organized by the Democrats, a fundraising party at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The fancy gathering was supposed to help the committee of the political party recover financially from their 1960 presidential campaign effort.

Kennedy endorsing Adlai Stevenson II for the presidential nomination at the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Apparently, having the President around for the party wasn’t enough. There had to be someone glamorous — like Marilyn Monroe, who would stir some drama and entertain the huge crowd for the evening.

British-American actor and JFK’s brother-in-law, Peter Lawford, who was introducing Monroe on stage, struggled with several unsuccessful attempts to do so. For a moment it seemed the entire thing was off, a gag, a spoof. Even the spotlight flashed once but Monroe didn’t show up. When she finally did, Lawford ultimately referred to her as the “late Marilyn Monroe.” He helped her with her white ermine fur coat and left her alone in front of the microphones.

Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President’ dress displayed at a Christie’s auction, August 13, 1999, in Beverly Hills, Ca. (Photo By Getty Images)

The wait was probably worth it, as Monroe was suddenly stripped to only to her flesh-colored glimmering gown. It fitted her seamlessly and tightly. In fact it was so tight, word has it Monroe needed to be sewn into the piece ahead of the party.

Hugging the contours of her figure, the dress completed Monroe’s blonde bombshell image. The ovation from the audience was instant. An immediate effect of magic, whoops and whistles echoed through the venue.

John F. Kennedy giving his speech in Madison Square Garden, 1962. Photo by Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

She seems to enjoy the moment on the footage. The last birthday wishes she ever delivered to the President and possibly the greatest moment of all her career before her life reached it’s end later that summer of 1962.

Quotes from Marilyn Monroe

The singing was evocative. The scene left the space for all kinds of rumors, especially in the face of the apparent absence of the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy. Was Monroe perhaps a love interest of Mr. President? Was there some intense affair behind the curtains? Perhaps only a fling? The public imagination was captivated by such lascivious fantasies.

Marilyn Monroe singing ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President,’ 1962. Photo by Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

As Monroe finished, President Kennedy was next under the spotlight. He wittily commented on Monroe’s act: “I can now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.”

Monroe’s motivation to select such a provocative outfit was perhaps nothing more than to cement her sex-symbol status. She greatly enjoyed the moment. But her decision to attend the New York party fueled only displeasure among her producers. At the time she was filming for Something’s Got to Give, and it didn’t go so well.

The film ran behind schedule as she struggled with her personal demons. Nobody had expected at the studio she would make a trip to the other end of the country and serenade the president. In L.A., her contract was canceled and actress Lee Remick was invited to take her role instead.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy (with his back to the camera), U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy (far left), and actress Marilyn Monroe, on the occasion of President Kennedy’s 45th birthday celebrations at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Arthur M. Schlesinger is at the far right. Facing the camera in the rear is singer Harry Belafonte.

The dress cost Monroe probably much less than the piece sold for at auctions later on. But then, this was no ordinary purchase. Her iconic ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President’ dress broke its first record in 1999 when it was bought for $1.26 million by American stock investor and economist, Martin Zweig. Reportedly, that was double the amount predicted by the auction house.

Read another story from us: Factory girl to blond bombshell: the life of Norma Jeane before she became Marilyn Monroe

The gem-emblazoned dress was offered at auction once again in 2016 by Julien’s Auction of Los Angeles, when it fetched a mesmerizing $4.8 million. The worlds most expensive dress is now proudly displayed by it’s new owners, Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum.