Since the 1930s and 1940s when the March of Dimes held an annual “Birthday Ball,” for President Franklin Roosevelt‘s January 30 birthday as a primary fundraiser for infantile paralysis, which FDR lived with, the birthdays of incumbent Presidents have brought in the big bucks. Eisenhower‘s birthday was used to raise money for United Jewish Appeal in the early 1950s but everything changed in 1962.
That year, President John F. Kennedy, born on May 29, had his birthday turned into as massive Hollywood meets Washington convergence at a May 19 fundraiser held in New York’s Madison Square Garden. The event proved so successful, it paid off the lingering $4 million debt of Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign with Lyndon B. Johnson as Vice President and laid the groundwork for the anticipated 1964 re-election campaign and even, so joked the President, held the promise of reducing the federal deficit. The draw was an array of Jet Age Pop Culture icons from a diversity of the performing arts including Diahann Carroll, Ella Fitzgerald, Jack Benny, Shirley MacLaine, Harry Belafonte, Jimmy Durante, Marilyn Monroe, Peggy Lee, Henry Fonda, Jerome Robbins, Robert Merrill, Gwen Verdon, Elaine Maye and Mike Nichols.
The biggest catch of all, however, was the one entertainer who lived overseas and flew over to participate. It was someone whose talents First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy very much admired and hoped to have showcased as the entertainment following a state dinner – but who the President got for his 1962 birthday. That person had, by 1962, become world-famous not only for her voice, but for her love affair with Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.
An opera singer, her name was Maria Callas.
In later years, several of Maria Callas’s operatic performances were filmed and released as feature films; thus, while she was not technically a Hollywood star, she was technically a film actress. At the time of her performance at President Kennedy’s birthday gala, she was 38 years old and at the height of her fame and talent. Until President Kennedy thanked “Cal-los” (as he pronounced her name), few might have realized that she was a native-born American and spent her early years in New York, daughter of a Greek immigrant George Kalogeropoulos. Frm the podium he thanked Maria Callas, “who came all the way from Europe. She said to Mr. Rosenberg she came from Brooklyn. Her father works for the mayor in the city of New York’s services. And we are very complimented by your coming so far to help us out.” Here is a clip of her performance for him:
Three years before her performance in Madison Square Garden, Maria Callas had divorced her husband and manager, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, having been pursued for several years by Onassis and taken up with him by 1960.
A year later, however, it was Jackie Kennedy who began pursuing Maria Callas to come and perform at the White House. In a series of letters which Jackie and Callas exchanged, it was clear how strongly the First Lady hoped to have the opera singer sing for everyone’s supper. Maria Callas liked the idea, even suggesting she might be accompanied by their mutual friend, Leonard Bernstein, but her tour schedule did not permit her coming until possibly the spring of 1964. Here are copies of their correspondence in the spring and early summer of 1963:
Of course, as events unfolded, shortly within weeks of Jacqueline Kennedy’s second letter to Maria Callas, the First Lady prematurely gave birth to her second son, Patrick, and he died in August.
Two months later, through her sister Princess Lee Radziwill, who lived in London and had become a close friend of Onassis, the First Lady accepted his invitation to take a vacation on his famous yacht, the Christina, joined by her sister, brother-in-law Stanislaus Radziwill, Navy Undersecretary Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. and his wife Suzanne.
Maria Callas, although usually invited aboard by Onassis to meet many of his famous guests, was not present during the cruise and thus never met Jackie.
Two years later, however, as a widow, Jacqueline Kennedy finally met Maria Callas, when she went backstage to meet her, following a Metropolitan Opera performance of Tosca. Reportedly both women kept calling each other “magnificent.”
Three years after that, on October 20, 1968, the far more famous and ironic turn came when Jacqueline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis. Not only Jackie Kennedy but John F. Kennedy had met Onassis before their White House years, having been invited aboard the Christina in the early 1950s, while Kennedy was a U.S. Senator and was especially eager to meet former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, whom he greatly admired and was a long-time friend of Onassis.
John F. Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis also dined together on at least one occasion in New York and apparently both Kennedys invited him to dinner at their home in Georgetown, before JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign.
There are no known photographs of either Jackie Kennedy with Maria Callas or of John F. Kennedy with Aristotle Onassis. It was only after the show, when the President, his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his wife Ethel, his sisters Eunice Shriver, Jean Kennedy, and Pat Lawford and his brother-in-law, the actor Peter Lawford, joined the entertainers at a private party at the apartment of producer Arthur Krim that the husband of Jacqueline Kennedy met the mistress of Aristotle Onassis.
The moment that has come down as the most legendary was, of course, when actress Marilyn Monroe famously sang a sultry version of “Happy Birthday.” The story of that appearance has taken on a life all its own and despite evidence strongly suggesting there was no after-show get-together between Kennedy and Monroe, the public’s fantasy of it as some furtive love story has proven so persistent that the mythology of it having happened has by now overtaken any rational argument that it did not.
It is a story worthy of its own Hollywood Meets Washington column and, if time permits to do it justice, will appear here next week, along with some rare images of others at the event that night.
Marilyn Monroe was also an apparent acquaintance of Onassis, though again no photo shows them together. More appropriately placed here, however, is one photo linking Monroe with her fellow entertainer at the post-birthday gala party held that night in the Krim apartment,when she and Maria Callas met for the first and only time.
- Jackie Kennedy’s Television Tour 50 Years Ago Today (carlanthonyonline.com)
- New Allegations Emerge About Marilyn Monroe’s Final Hours (losangeles.cbslocal.com)