A story has come out recently about the alleged “true” reason why Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy in such a breathy, sexy manner. According to Joan Copeland, the younger sister of playwright Arthur Miller, Monroe’s former husband, Monroe was so late to go on stage that night that she missed her cue. Watching her ‘running around trying to find a door,’ Copeland noticed that Monroe was out of breath and anxious, and consequently was unable to sing properly.
This story is completly and utterly false. Marilyn Monroe had every intention of signing the song exactly the way she sang it: Sexy, breathy, sultry. She planned it, she rehearsed it, and she sang it the way she intended to…and President Kennedy knew it was coming.
Marilyn considered her appearance at the gala to be extremely important. “I was honored when they asked me to appear at the President’s birthday rally,” she told Richard Meryman of Life Magazine in her final interview. She was meticulous about this appearance, and she valued it enough to spend $12,000.00 on a dress that she’d asked Oscar winning designer Jean Luis to create for her.
“I want you to design a truly historical dress, a dazzling dress that’s one of a kind,” she said to him, “A dress that only Marilyn Monroe could wear.”
It’s documented in at least two books that Marilyn planned and rehearsed the song she was to sing for her performance, and she sang it to President Kennedy exactly the way she’d rehearsed it. She also rehearsed the song at Madison Square Garden the morning of the performance.
|Marilyn rehearses “Happy Birthday Mr. President” at Madison Square Garden.|
In her book, Marilyn and Me, Susan Strasberg writes about Marilyn rehearsing the song.
Mother was a wreck when she got home from the rehearsal at Marilyn’s apartment. “It keeps getting sexier and sexier. If she doesn’t stop, it will be a parody. Richard Adler was crazed (Richard had written the special lyrics for the song), he made Peter Lawford call the president, who just laughed and said, ‘Great.'”
“What did you say?” I asked. “Mom, why didn’t you tell her the truth?”
She looked chastised. “She didn’t want to hear it. She’s determined to do it sexy,” she told us. “‘How else can I top everybody else?’ There’s nothing anyone can tell her about this, except maybe your father, but he won’t because it’s not important enough to him. They’ll probably blame me…Mabye they’ll love it.”
Marilyn had worn out three pianists rehearsing for this song. She’d sung it in the bathtub, on the plane, night and day.
That evening I went to Madison Square Garden with my date. Mom and Delos were with Marilyn and Arthur Miller’s father, who she adored. I watched from a nearby seat.
She was high when she came onstage. All that held her up was the skintight dress she was sewn into, and her courage. The crowd roared when she made her entrance. She glittered in her sequins. The strange thing was that she glittered more when she was simply dressed, just being herself. She gave them what they wanted, she stole the show, and the attention was a shot in the arm, as intoxicating as a drug, but I hurt for her. From what she’d told em, each time she caricatured herself, she chipped a piece out of her own dream.
Eunice Murray, Marilyn’s final housekeeper, also writes in her book, Marilyn: The Last Months, about Marilyn rehearsing for the JFK birthday gala. Page 102:
While the dress was being fitted, she began to sing “Happy Birthday” just the way, she said, she was going to sing it at the party. She almost let the secret slip when she got to the phrase, “Happy birthday, dear Mr. Pr___.” She broke off abruptly laughing. “I didn’t say anything,” she told Jean Louis. “You didn’t hear a thing.”
Marilyn worked very hard to make her singing as special as the dress. She rehearsed with a tape recorder on her living room floor and before intimate friends for days. Everyone has sung “Happy Birthday.” Who would need to rehears a song like that, one might wonder.
But anyone who remembers Marilyn’s rendition of the song knows it was uniquely Monroe.
Marilyn’s own natural manner was different. She had a very intimate, personal way of singing, as if it were only to one person, and no one else. Always slightly behind the beat, her voice was sultry, bedroomy, and quite in keeping with a dress that just fell in a heap of fluff and brilliants when she took it off.
But singing in a sultry voice in your own bathroom is quite different from getting up before thousands of people and TV cameras in Madison Square Garden and singing like that to the President of the United States. Marilyn was so nervous at the prospect that she almost didn’t make it to New York.
Peter Lawford introduced Marilyn. An expectant murmur ran through the hall, decorated festively with red, white and blue balloons and bunting. The spotlight awaited her. But no Marilyn appeared in the halo of light.
Peter played it straight, pretended to be concerned. Where was she? Still no Marilyn. The spotlight played around searchingly. People snickered. He once more introduced her.
Finally she appeared, sparkling back at the spotlights. Peter introduced her as “the late Marilyn Monroe” to the delight of the crowd. How apt! Everyone knew Marilyn could never be on time.
She was worth waiting for, however. A bit unsteady, Marilyn took one deep breath, thought, “Here goes,” and launched into her song, making every movement of her torso suggestively warm, cooing out the words with memorable intimacy. The five-foot birthday cake being rolled out with forty-five candles blazing was bedimmed by her dazzling delivery. She may have been nervous, but she was completely, uniquely Marilyn – America’s glittering sex symbol.
In closing, Marilyn was at Madison Square Garden in plenty of time for her performance, and it had been planned all along that she would close the show, and her lateness would be a running joke throughout the program. Marilyn was not late for her performance, she did not have a problem finding the correct door for the stage, and she was not out of breath when she sang Happy Birthday to President Kennedy. She was America’s sex symbol, and she delivered the performance that she’d planned and rehearsed.