Other Photos & Stars from Marilyn Monroe’s Happy Birthday Night to JFK & His Reaction

The program cover for the birthday gala.

Monroe on her way to the event.

Fifty years ago tonight, more happened than just Marilyn Monroe singing her famous sultry rendition of Happy Birthday to President Kennedy. With the need to reduce so much news and history to a single snapshot image or quotable line, the mis-impression has long been cast about that night being some sort of public display of affection between them.

In fact, her song came not at the end or beginning, but in the middle of the program of the May 19, 1962 Birthday Salute to the President.

Preceding and following her was the entertainment line-up which opened with the Star Spangled Banner being sung by opera baritone Robert Merrill.

Produced by Richard Adler, the program then got underway: comedy by Jack Benny, jazz sung by Ella Fitzgerald, a Jerome Robbins ballet piece called, “New York Import, Opus Jazz,” an historical reading by Henry Fonda, excerpts of the opera Carmen by Maria Callas, an appearance by British spy author Eric Ambler who used the pseudonym “Eliot Reed,” a torch song from Peggy Lee, then the introduction by Peter Lawford of Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday.

Jack Benny with Marilyn Monroe at the rehearsal.

Ella Fitzgerald, backstage before her appearance.

Peggy Lee, who left her sickbed to perform.

Monroe with Lawford backstage at Madison Square Garden.

Henry Fonda, who delivered a dramatic reading.

She was followed by the gruff-voiced comic singer-actor Jimmy Durante, popular music by Bobby Darin, a witty sketch routine by the comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and music sung by Diahann Carroll.

In between two visits that day to his father Joseph P. Kennedy, then in rehabilitation seeking to recover some function from the stroke he had suffered five months earlier, was making his second visit to Madison Square Garden that day. Earlier, he’d given a rousing and strong address to tens of thousands of retirement-aged citizens on issues related to Medicare and Social Security.

Following the show, the President gave a speech not only thanking the performers and making a point of thanking Vice President Lyndon Johnson, but also making a strong partisan point about obstruction in Congress by Republicans to economic recovery and unemployment. He also joked about his daughter’s pony Macaroni, a rarely heard reference – as well as his large family. (If you prefer to read, rather than hear the recording of the President’s remarks, they are posted at the end of the article with other documentation). You can hear this audio recording from the online collections of the John F. kennedy President Library & Musuem at the following link: President Kennedy’s May 19, 1962 speech thanking performers at his birthday.

After leaving Madison Square Garden, JFK with his brother Robert, the Attorney-General and his wife Ethel, his sisters Eunice Shriver, Jean Smith and Pat Lawford and their husbands Sargent Shriver, Steve Smith and Peter Lawford headed over to the duplex apartment of entertainment lawyer Arthur Krim, the National Democratic Committee’s Finance Chairman, for the after-party. There the Presidential orbit collided head-on into the Hollywood-Broadway axis, all of them taking in an impromptu performance by Diahann Carroll.

The President’s brother-in-law Steven Smith with Monroe.

Jack and Jack Benny and Kennedy with JFK sister Eunice Shriver.  Monroe’s coiffure can be seen at far left, background.

The actual untouched photo which also shows Attorney General Robert Kennedy at left, Presidential adviser Arthur Schlesinger, at far right, who spoke with her, and performer Harry Belafonte over the President’s shoulder; inset shows the darkened, more luridly suggestive one most often used to support the JFK-Monroe story. In truth, there is no first-hand account insisting their brief interaction was furtive or secretive.

JFK speaks with Diahann Carroll.

The President with Harry Belanfonte.

Comedic team of Elaine May and Mike Nichols with the President.

A composite of two photos taken of each side of the room where JFK (far left), Maria Callas, Jack Benny, Ethel Kennedy, Pat Lawford, Jean Smith (seated along back wall), Marilyn Monroe (far right) listen to Diahann Carroll sing.

The President’s thank-you note to one of the committee organizers.

Copy of a thank you letter sent to Marilyn Monroe for her agreeing to appear, from  Presidential Aide Kenny O’Donnell.

Categories: Hollywood, Pop Culture, Presidents, The Kennedys

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15 replies »

  1. Loved the pictures! Also, the additional background. You know, it has always seemed that, even had there been any relationship between the two, it seems so highly unlikely that JFK would have done anything to make it obvious as the retouched pictures and innuendo have always suggested. It was rare to see demonstrable acts of affection even between the President and Jackie. However, when you did see them, they were obviously genuine and spontaneous.

    Regardless of what JFK might have gotten up to with others, it obviously makes no difference whatsoever. It’s easy to say that because, after fifty years, the JFK presidency has been dissected every way possible. It’s impossible to suggest that, had there been the kind of goings-on we’ve been led to believe occurred, it certainly didn’t impact policy or his presidential performance. It’s when the “journalists” or those with an axe to grind get the information that things get ugly. I would assume that, like the rest of us, presidents have many facets. There are some behaviors that we don’t make public, some activities that are strictly private. We often have another face for our public lives. I don’t mean this to imply that our public faces are false, just sometimes more selective and more refined.

    One of the things that I really enjoy about all of your work is that you tell a complete story, but you don’t feel the need to fill us in on every wart and wrinkle. You leave your subjects with some sense of privacy and dignity. At the same time, you don’t simply rehash the same tired stories we read over and over. We sometimes forget that, in between the Madison Square Garden appearances, the State occasions and the elections, there is still a lot of day to day life that goes unrecorded. Take the photos of Jackie and the kids coloring eggs in the kitchen at Palm Beach. What a different perspective that gives to the image of someone who’s image has become such a cliche to many.

    Sorry to go on so. Your pieces really make me think and broaden my perspective on the many people we both admire and are fascinated by!

    Take care,


    • Excellent analysis there Jake. After having written three books on the Kennedy family total – the oral history biography of Jackie Kennedy, the Kennedy family White House book and the chapters about Jackie and the JFK marriage in the second volume of First Ladies, I honestly conclude that he and his wife very much loved each other and would have remained together, despite his problem. That said, to be fair, there is some indication that at least two of those women may have complicated matters of state – though it is theoretical and plausible but can only be argued, never proven. I don’t understand how it is that people cannot admire and still hold up as examples a public figure who manages to achieve and create and change life for the better of millions – even in spite of their shortcomings and failings. Anyway, thanks again.

  2. Fantastic Pictures – love the historical aspects of this story – putting the story together in this way as it gives the background, story and reaction

  3. Very informative, great photographs as well.
    Thanks for the efforts in researching all this.
    Wish they were more historians, focused on facts and objectivity, as you are.
    Good work!

    • Thank you very much Lucas – what a great surprise. I appreciate it. Actually, I find that the facts can actually often make a story more fascinating when one seeks to trace the point of departure of human wishful thinking. So many customs and legends and myths are shaped by the human imagination which can’t accept the starkness of fact. Opinion and interpretation – ah, well that’s another matter. Happy New Year to you.

  4. A wonderful insight into what really took place that evening. Thanks for the great photos.

  5. Carl, scot fortner sent me to this site. i enjoyed seeing the pictures and reading the letters especially the speech. i look forward to learning more from you and am now a follower. really, great job, thx.

    • Josh – You have no idea how grateful I am that you’re not only subscribed to the site but that you took the time to write. I’m always on the verge of quitting this somewhat irrational endeavor which takes so much time and produces zilch income, but anytime I hear from someone it encourages me. So I seriously appreciate you writing. Thanks.

  6. I’d like to finish the quote that the reporter could not hear: It is now a known fact that the rest of his thank you to Monroe was “…in such a sweet, wholesome way.”
    Thank you for such a detailed and objective article!

    • Thanks so much for that – an important extra few words which showed the President’s deft gift of the understatement! I’m especially grateful of the fact that someone who knows far much more than I do about Monroe and her work, as you do, would appreciate my effort at objectivity. As you know, too often fervent admirers of one or the other of these two iconic figures only want the facts to either praise or denigrate their hero/heroine.


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