The date was May 19, 1962. The venue, Madison Square Garden. The event, a fundraiser for the Democratic party, to which President John Fitzgerald Kennedy belonged. The song was the traditional “Happy Birthday” song, the one they wouldn’t sing in chain restaurants for all those years because of royalty claims, only Marilyn Monroe sang the “Happy Birthday” song unlike anyone had ever sang it before. (This was long, long before the days of email and custom birthday greeting cards.)
Marilyn Monroe’s delivery was breathy and sexed up. She had spent two days rehearsing her performance. President Kennedy’s response on stage was to say, “I can now retire after having had ‘Happy Birthday’ sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.” The audience laughed.
Three months after this occasion, on August 5, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was found dead from a drug overdose in her home. She and JFK never saw each other again after the birthday song.
A year and a half after Marilyn sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” JFK was shot and killed. That date was November 22, 1963.
When Marilyn Monroe sang happy birthday to JFK, the total performance lasted for just a few minutes; however, it may well be one of the most remembered and beloved performances of her entire career. Many of the movies in which she starred have faded from the forefront of pop culture’s collective memory, but people remember two things about her: the photo of Marilyn over the subway grate, and the birthday song she sang to JFK.
The lyrics Marilyn Monroe sang to JFK were this: “Happy birthday to you / Happy birthday to you / Happy birthday Mr. President / Happy birthday to you.”
As Marilyn was being introduced to come on stage to sing the birthday song to JFK, she missed her first and second cues, which caused much audience laughter. The presenter, a man named Peter Lawford, had said at first that Marilyn was punctual. He said, “Mr. President, on this occasion of your birthday, this young lady is not only pompitudinous but punctual.” But as spotlights searched the stage for the Hollywood superstar, she was nowhere to be found.
The presenter then continued, laughing: “A woman about whom it truly may be said, ‘She needs no introduction.’ Let me just say, ‘Here she is.’” The drummer in the band gave a quick drumroll, yet still no Marilyn.
“But I’ll give her an introduction anyway,” the presenter continued, and then he read a flattering introduction, leading the observer to believe that this might have been staged as part of the fun.
When Marilyn finally stepped up to the microphone, the presenter said – in an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come just three months later – “Mr. President, the late Marilyn Monroe.”
The crowd cheered, and Marilyn sang her breathy rendition of the “Happy Birthday” song to JFK. She continued to sing with modified lyrics from a song called “Thanks for the Memory,” and then she concluded, “Everybody! Happy birthday!” At this point the orchestra took up the melody to the happy birthday song. The crowd sang in unison as an absolutely enormous cake was brought forward on the shoulders of two men.
President JFK was brought to the stage to a standing ovation. As he was addressing members of his own political party at a fundraising rally, he joked around, and the audience laughed.
Can you imagine something like this happening in 2020? President Donald Trump’s birthday is on June 14th. Could you imagine Lady Gaga, for example, singing the “Happy Birthday” song to President Trump at a Republican political fundraiser in a stadium as massive as Madison Square Garden as a giant birthday cake is brought forward? The spectacle is one that can be imagined, but the artist – not so much.
Incidentally, the birthday song was declared by a federal judge to be in the public domain in 2016. No royalties need to be paid for its use any longer.