Marilyn Monroe Sings “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Film star Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy for his forty-fifth birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden in New York. Wearing a gown of sheer silk with shimmering beads and pearls, and singing in a sexy voice, Monroe’s rendition gave credence to rumors of a sexual relationship between her and the president, rumors that marred Kennedy’s legacy. The performance also led to added speculation about Monroe’s death from an overdose of barbiturates less than three months later.

Summary of Event

On Saturday evening, May 19, 1962, glamorous film star Marilyn Monroe entered New York City’s Madison Square Garden dressed in a sheer, form-fitting gown with sparkling beads. She was running late, which was her habit, and she came on stage in a rush. Despite being congested and running a fever of 102 degrees from a sinus infection, she was radiant and smiling as she began to sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy, the president of the United States. Her rendition has been described as breathless and sexually charged. The audience cheered as she began to sing and continued to do so throughout her performance. [kw]Monroe Sings “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”, Marilyn (May 19, 1962) Monroe, Marilyn Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;and Marilyn Monroe[Monroe] "Happy Birthday" (song)[Happy Birthday (song)] Monroe, Marilyn Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;and Marilyn Monroe[Monroe] "Happy Birthday" (song)[Happy Birthday (song)] [g]United States;May 19, 1962: Marilyn Monroe Sings “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”[01130] [c]Drugs;May 19, 1962: Marilyn Monroe Sings “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”[01130] [c]Hollywood;May 19, 1962: Marilyn Monroe Sings “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”[01130] [c]Music and peforming arts;May 19, 1962: Marilyn Monroe Sings “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”[01130] [c]Politics;May 19, 1962: Marilyn Monroe Sings “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”[01130] [c]Publishing and journalism;May 19, 1962: Marilyn Monroe Sings “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”[01130] [c]Sex;May 19, 1962: Marilyn Monroe Sings “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”[01130] Kennedy, Robert F. [p]Kennedy, Robert F.;and Marilyn Monroe[Monroe] Lawford, Peter

Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Following the birthday song, Monroe sang a verse she had written to “Thanks for the Memory,” which lauded some of Kennedy’s victories in office. Then, raising her arms, she invited the audience to join in with their own verse of “Happy Birthday.” Kennedy thanked her after her performance, saying that he could finally retire from politics after hearing such a sweet song, sung in such a wholesome manner. Gossip columnists suggested that after a private party following the gala, Kennedy had spent the night with her.

The planning for this event had begun in the spring of 1962, as the Democratic Party needed to raise funds to pay back debts incurred during the 1960 presidential Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1960 campaign as well as to raise more money for an even bigger campaign in 1963 for the next presidential election. Members of the Kennedy family, including the president, Robert, and actor Peter Lawford, the husband of their sister, Jean, held a number of planning meetings with Hollywood friends, ultimately deciding to hold a gala birthday party at Madison Square Garden for the president in May. The event would be a gathering of music and song and culminate with Monroe’s singing of “Happy Birthday.”

Monroe had been making plans to be part of the president’s birthday party since early in 1962, when she had been invited to meet the president and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy at a party given by Peter and Jean Lawford in California. The Lawfords were close to the president, as were all the Kennedys. A second planning meeting was held in New York, with the final meeting in Palm Springs, California, at the home of entertainer Bing Crosby. In addition to Monroe, a number of celebrities had promised to attend, including Ella Fitzgerald, Henry Fonda, Jack Benny, and Harry Belafonte.

At the time of the scheduled party, Monroe had been in the middle of filming Something’s Got to Give at Twentieth Century-Fox Studios in Los Angeles. Speculation and disagreement about Monroe’s relationship with the studio had existed in the months and weeks before and immediately following her trip to New York. Some commentators said that Monroe thought she had permission from the studio to fly to New York; others said that studio executives let her know a few days before she was scheduled to leave that they objected to her leaving California. Indeed, they reportedly told Monroe that if she left Hollywood, she would be fired. Others suggested that both Peter Lawford and Robert Kennedy tried to negotiate with the studio executives on her behalf, but that her bosses were determined to keep her in Hollywood.

Filming started without Monroe, who missed a few weeks of work because of a bad cold that became worse. The film was nine days behind schedule at the time she flew to New York, desperate to attend the birthday celebration. Although she was in New York for just three days, she found a letter upon her return to Hollywood. The letter, from studio executives, expressed the studio’s displeasure with her actions and warned her about further infractions of company rules. Still sick and unhappy over the threatened firing, it is possible that Monroe then called Robert Kennedy to intercede for her. She also might have called Peter Lawford.

Monroe had returned to work at the studio that Monday and was greeted by negative comments about her appearance, an exchange that had been televised, and by rumors that executives planned to fire her. By the beginning of June, she was sick again, her sinus infection perhaps exacerbated by stress and her increasing use of barbiturates and alcohol. By June 4, the studio told her she was being replaced; the film, though, was shelved after her departure and, given its ties to the chaos of Monroe’s life that year, remains one of the most notorious unfinished films in Hollywood history.

Much has been written about what really happened in the days and months both before and after Monroe’s New York birthday performance for Kennedy. Rumors included everything from sexual liaisons with the Kennedys to theories about Robert Kennedy being involved in Monroe’s alleged suicide on August 5, 1962; gossip about the weekend of the gala was rife with innuendo as well.

Nevertheless, a few facts can be ascertained from a number of sources. The first is that the presidential birthday gala had been planned for several months and Monroe had always planned to attend. Second, her firing from the film could have come from the desires of a studio wanting to get rid of an actor who was becoming too expensive and too unreliable—and not from the studio’s anger that she left Los Angeles, and the film’s production, for the party in New York. Third, her involvement with the president may have consisted of as few as four meetings, three of those meetings in the company of his family members. Also, she reportedly told confidants that her relationship with the president went no further than friendship.

Impact

Monroe’s scandal-provoking Madison Square Garden performance also marked her final public appearance. The events of that summer were chaotic for Monroe: Hints of a physical and mental breakdown brought on by alcohol and drugs surrounded her before her death on August 5 at her home in Brentwood, California.

For Kennedy, the gala and its aftermath reinforced the public’s perception of him as a flawed person willing to risk his Marriage;John F. Kennedy[Kennedy] marriage, reputation, and health by engaging in risky sexual liaisons. Most critics agree that he refused further contact with Monroe after the gala. His political life was very important to him, as was his image as a family man. Whatever the truth, within eighteen months of his birthday party, Kennedy was dead from an assassin’s bullet. Monroe, Marilyn Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;and Marilyn Monroe[Monroe] "Happy Birthday" (song)[Happy Birthday (song)]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Churchwell, Sarah. The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe. New York: Picador, 2004. Churchwell tries to get to the truth about Monroe and to find the real woman hidden behind the gossip and innuendo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mahoney, Richard. Sons and Brothers. New York: Arcade, 1999. Mahoney, the first John F. Kennedy scholar at the University of Massachusetts and the Kennedy Library, presents the details of the lives of both Kennedy brothers in a comprehensive manner. His portraits show lives of great promise. Sources named in detailed and comprehensive endnotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spoto, Donald. Marilyn Monroe: The Biography. New ed. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001. A scholarly yet readable book especially valuable for its afterword, “The Great Deception,” in which Spoto debunks gossip and innuendo that began soon after Monroe’s death. He also offers an explanation of the cause of her death using previously unpublished material from her inquest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Victor, Adam. The Marilyn Encyclopedia. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1999. Entries in this work answer questions about Monroe and include many previously unpublished photographs from her early days in modeling and film.

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