It remains, of course, an incredible and iconic performance that has been copied, mimicked and parodied on many occasions during the past half century, and had been made all the more poignant by the fact this was one of Monroe's last significant public appearances. Added to that poignancy, there is, of course, the speculation of an affair between her and the young President, as well as her sudden death later that year, and his assassination just eighteen months later.
In reality, JFK was still a fledgling President. He'd only been President for a just a little over a year, though, of course, he was nearly halfway through the time he was to actually be in the White House. The 'Bays of Pigs' invasion had already taken place, but this was still before many of his most memorable moments including the standoff that became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and well before his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech about the building of the Berlin Wall.
At the end of 1960, at just 43 years 236 days, John Fitzgerald Kennedy had become the youngest person, and the first Roman Catholic, to be elected to the Presidency of the United States when he narrowly defeated Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate who later went on to become President in 1968 (Theodore Roosevelt was actually the youngest person to ever become President aged just 42, but he had assumed office following William McKinley's assassination and wasn't elected). Kennedy's youthful vitality gave hope to an American population that was beginning to looking forward, standing strong against communism and the threats of the Soviet Union, and, finally, putting memories of the Second World War behind it.
By 1962, Marilyn Monroe was, arguably, the biggest name in all of Hollywood with a string of successful movies already behind her, including Some Like It Hot, The Seven-Year Itch, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. As well as her acting, she was also well-known for a number of songs including I Wanna be Loved by You and Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend. Added to that, she had a private life that was the source of considerable scandal and gossip. Marilyn married three times in total, to James Dougherty, baseball superstar Joe DiMaggio, and playwright Arthur Miller, and, as well as her alleged affair with JFK , she was rumoured to have had several other affairs including with Marlon Brando and JFK's brother, Robert Kennedy, who, like JFK, was also assassinated.
It had been decided to hold a gala evening to mark the President's birthday. It was, as you'd expect, to be a rather over the top and lavish event at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and, it was hoped, that it would help raise funds for the Kennedy's Democratic Party. The event took place on May 19th, 1962, ten days before the President's real birthday, and lasted several hours, featuring a number of performances by various celebrities. Impressively, more than 15,000 people paid to attend the event, which is testament to quite how popular JFK was at that time. One person who wasn't there, though, was Jackie Kennedy, JFK's wife.
Peter Lawford, an English-American actor who was compering the event, introduced Marilyn onto the stage. He was a member of the infamous show business "Rat Pack" group of actors and entertainers which, of course, included the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. The "Rat Pack" had backed Kennedy's push for the Presidency and this was another opportunity for some of them to show their support and help the Democratic cause. Additionally, Lawford was also JFK's brother-in-law, having married Patricia Kennedy, JFK's sister.
Monroe was notorious for her lateness to events, and also on to movie sets, and had recently been struggling to get over a virus that had badly interrupted her filming of Something's Got To Give, in which she was to co-starr alongside Cyd Charisse and Dean Martin. On the day of the birthday gala, it was reported that Marilyn had a very high temperature and recurrent sinusitis. She had also suffered from several bouts of sickness. As was shown in the recent movie, My Week with Marilyn, Monroe was beset with nerves and doubts about her own abilities as an actress, and she often found it difficult to confront and overcome these nerves, which often lead to her being physically sick.
Lawford decided that he would make a joke of Monroe's notorious lateness. He had decided to introduce her several times throughout the evening, but, of course, on each of those occasions she didn't appear. Eventually though, several hours into the event, she walked out on to the stage, and Lawford amusingly announced to the audience that they were witnessing the "late Marilyn Monroe".
Monroe's performance was astonishing for its racy, saucy and blatantly sexual nature. It had been choreographed by Carol Haney who had made a name for herself as the choreographer of The Pajama Game. Marilyn simpered and oozed sensuousness while she was on stage, in a way that some found surprising and other considered shocking for an event marking the birthday of someone who was, at the time at least, considered to be rather wholesome President, married and with a young family.
Monroe was accompanied by the jazz pianist, Hank Jones, but I doubt that anybody remembers anything about the accompaniment. Singing in her famous breathy and sultry voice, Marilyn sang the traditional "Happy Birthday to You" lyrics, with "Mr. President" inserted at the point when the birthday boy or girl's name is normally sung.
"Happy Birthday to You" is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most performed song in musical history. The melody comes from a song entitled "Good Morning to All" which had been composed by Patty and Mildred J. Hill way back in 1893. Patty was a teacher at a kindergarten, and Mildred, her sister, was a pianist and composer. They hoped that "Good Morning to All" would be song that would be easy for young children to sing at the start of their day at school. The melody wasn't published with the lyrics "Happy Birthday to You" until 1912, but it's thought it is likely that the birthday version of the song existed as part of an aural tradition for a few years before that. Never before Marilyn's performance had anyone seen or heard it sung in such a blatantly sexual and sensuous way - never before had it been vamped up in the way that Marilyn did for JFK on that night in 1962.
Following straight on at the end of "Happy Birthday to You", Marilyn continued with a short snippet from the classic Bob Hope and Shirley Ross song, "Thanks for the Memory", for which she had specially penned some new lyrics aimed at Kennedy:
For all the things you've done
The battles that you've won
The way you deal with U.S. Steel
And our problems by the ton
We thank you so much
At the end of the performance, President Kennedy came onto the stage and joked about the performance, saying, quite clearly with his tongue in his cheek, "I can now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way," making out, of course, that Monroe's delivery, as well as her racy dress, were more cutesy girl next door and American apple pie than simpering sex symbol.
Alongside Marilyn's actual performance, the other big star of the show was the dress she wore that night. Monroe's dress had been designed by Jean Louis. It was made of a sheer, flesh coloured marquisette fabric, into which an astonishing two and a half thousand rhinestones had been hand-sewn into it. In fact, it wasn't the only thing that had been sewn in by hand - according to reports, the dress was so tight-fitting that Marilyn had to be literally sewn into it. For that self same reason, it is claimed that she wore nothing underneath it either. When the bright stage spotlight was directed onto her, those in the hall were under the impression that the fabric simply "melted away" and she was left appearing to be dressed in nothing more than the spectacularly shining rhinestones. In 1999, the dress was sold at an auction in New York for a sum just over $1.26 million.
Marilyn Monroe's body was found at her home in Brentwood, Los Angeles, less than four months after her performance of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" on August 5, 1962. She had died from an overdose of barbiturates. She was aged just 36.
John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.
Fifty years on, both of them remain significant iconic figures of post-war America, and her performance of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" is still remembered as one of the most famous performances in history.