Shortly after the election in November, a piece of presidential memorabila goes on the auction block. Well, sort of presidential. The skin-tight, highly sequined gown Marilyn Monroe wore on the occasion in 1962 when she breathily and memorably sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy. The dress, which has been mostly out of the spotlight, so to speak, since that night is expected to fetch between $2 million and $3 million.
It’s well-known that the flesh-colored dress was so tight, Marilyn had to be “sewn” into it. As the young people say, literally.
Although she got only a fraction of the attention, North Dakota native Peggy Lee was also on the bill that night at Madison Square Garden and played an integral part in Marilyn’s moment. The singer was a long-time Kennedy supporter. The admiration was mutual. Lee, whose hits included “Fever” and “I’m a Woman,” was one of the president’s very favorite singers. It was said he listened to her records to relax just before the famous Kennedy-Nixon debates.
Miss Lee, as she liked to be addressed despite her four marriages, was in town and in the middle of a hugely successful run at Manhattan’s then-famous Basin Street East night club. According to her autobiography, Peggy brought with her to the Garden her long-time lighting director Hugo Granata who was also asked to do the lighting for Marilyn’s number. One of Mr. Granata’s signature effects was very strong back-lighting. As beautiful as it was, it could also be “revealing,” especially under the right conditions. Get the picture? Because of that, Miss Lee writes in her book she always had her own gowns lined, or wore slips underneath them so as not to reveal too much. Not so, Ms. Monroe.
Underneath the now famous, flesh-colored dress, Marilyn was wearing absolutely nothing at all. A fact that was clearly evident, especially to audience members in the first couple of rows who, Lee claims, “gasped” as Marilyn made her stage entrance.
Mrs. Kennedy, who was not one of the 15,000 guests in attendance at the president’s 45th birthday party, was said to be furious with Marilyn’s “display” and the frat boy-like atmosphere of the “event.” The rest, as they say, is history.
I remember watching Marilyn’s Happy Birthday moment on television in grainy, black and white. Even though I was only thirteen at the time–or maybe because I was only thirteen at the time–I remember thinking, if this politics, count me in.