This week marks the 52nd anniversary of Marilyn’s fabled performance of ‘Happy Birthday Mr President.’ So many stories have been told about that evening, many of them untrue – as noted on the (unofficial) Our Marilyn Monroe Facebook page yesterday:
“52 years ago today Marilyn Monroe made history by singing Happy Birthday to President John F Kennedy.
This is one of the biggest factors that make people believe they had a passionate relationship. In reality, they met on a few occasions, only one being in private where they supposedly shared one night together. This was the same meeting where JFK asked Marilyn to perform this iconic rendition of Happy Birthday.
Little did either of them know what scandal it would cause years later to those ignorant enough to believe Marilyn and he were in a full blown affair and also believing that Kennedy and his family were the reasons for her untimely death. It’s unfortunate that these are the only things people see in Marilyn.”
In today’s Daily Mail, Laura Collins reports on an upcoming TV special about Marilyn’s final months, in which journalist Daphne Barak interviews former make-up artist Marie Irvine about her memories of the event.
Her presence is documented with a receipt, typed upon Irvine’s headed paper, and a note possibly written by Marilyn in the schedule, or ‘diary’ kept by her secretary.
“Entries in Marilyn’s meticulously kept diary, seen by Daphne Barak, show just how significant this performance was to the star.
Throughout the document her neat schedule is printed by her secretary. The only entry which merits a hand written note from Marilyn herself is May 19 ‘For Birthday Ball.’
Poignantly she seems to have harbored uncertain hopes that she might spend some time with the President.
In contrast with her otherwise rigid schedule the date of her return flight from New York is left vague: ‘May 20th? May 21st?’ she wrote.”
No information about when or by whom this documentary will be broadcast is supplied. Daphne Barak is a controversial media figure, having drawn criticism for her ‘exploitative’ documentaries about Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse, among others (see here.)
Marie Irvine was previously interviewed by author Keith Badman for his 2010 book, The Final Years of Marilyn Monroe. Her recollections are interesting, and seem genuine enough. However, her association with Daphne Barak may prove unfortunate.
Furthermore, the Mail‘s Laura Collins describes Marie Irvine as Marilyn’s ‘confidante’, which may be a stretch. Marilyn was kind and considerate towards all who worked for her. However, she was also a very private person who had only a few close friends.
Regrettably, the article also frames Marie Irvine’s memories within the more lurid context of the long-standing (and largely uncorroborated) rumours about Marilyn’s relationships with John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert – quoting an interview given by Kennedy aide George Smathers to Anthony Summers, author of Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, almost thirty years ago.
However, Marie Irvine’s story, if genuine, is an interesting one – beginning with her first meeting with Marilyn.
“Marie had first met Marilyn as one of photographer Richard Avedon’s favorite make-up artists.
Born and raised in the tiny town of Pawling, New York, Marie had first arrived in the city with the intention of becoming a secretary. But she found the work boring and isolating and soon took a job as a treatment girl at Elizabeth Arden’s ‘Fifth Avenue Red Door Salon.’
She said, ‘I was so young and ignorant I wasn’t even scared.’ She soon became Arden’s confidante and was the last make-up artist trained by the great woman herself.
Her new position brought sudden glamour to her life. She was regularly on the set of shoots for magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, which is how she came to know Richard Avedon who asked for her services again and again.
Marriage and the birth of her daughter meant Marie had to leave her job with Arden but, she remembered, ‘the photographers kept demanding my services.’
It was how her friendship with Marilyn blossomed.
She explained, ‘I received a call from Richard Avedon. He said that he was shooting a special project for Life magazine with Marilyn Monroe. It was called The Look Alike project.
‘Marilyn would be dressed and made up as different legendary actresses. He told me that Marilyn was between movies.
‘She was living in New York with her husband Arthur Miller and she agreed to do the project whenever she had time.’
Recalling the first time she set eyes on Marilyn, Marie said, ‘How can I forget?! We were waiting at Richard’s studio. I was a bit nervous. She came covered with a big coat, so not to be recognised in the elevator.
‘When she entered, she took off her coat. I was taken by her smile – such perfect white teeth. Her hair was so light, her skin was perfect. She just looked at me and giggled.’
Ultimately that project took three months. Over that time Marie came to know Marilyn who was, she recalled, very much in love with her husband Arthur Miller at that time.
Marie said, ‘We could shoot it only when Marilyn felt like it. Sometimes it was in the middle of the night with a short notice. One time it was such a short notice, that I couldn’t find a baby sitter so Marilyn said, “Bring your baby to the set.”
‘I did. Marilyn was playing with her. She posed for photos with her. That is how my daughter has photos with Marilyn Monroe, taken by Richard Avedon. By that time we became friendly. You know, it was only Richard, his helpers, Marilyn and me.
‘So it was like a family atmosphere. She told me how much she wanted a baby. I heard she had lost one. She said she was trying to have a baby.’
At times Marilyn would produce bottles of champagne – sometimes half-drunk and recorked, ‘Can you imagine?’ ’ Marie laughed. ‘We could never figure out how she managed to put the cork back and keep the champagne bubbly.’
It is one of the reasons Marie doesn’t believe Marilyn had a drinking problem. If she did, she asked, ‘Would she have any unfinished bottles at home?’
At the time, Marie recalled, Marilyn and Miller ‘were so in love.’
‘Sometimes he would accompany her to the studio and watch her being made up and photographed. Other times he would show up at the end to pick her up and take her home.’
Marilyn’s home, as Marie remembered it, was a very ‘feminine’ space. She said, ‘After the divorce from Miller she stayed at the same home and didn’t change anything. It was all in grey and light beige colors…like her hair.
‘She had a small white piano and there was a coffee table she had borrowed from a friend in France. It was a mirror and the chairs reflected in it. She wanted to buy this table so much but her friend wouldn’t sell it. So one day she told me, “You know what? I will copy the table.” And so she did.’”
Irvine’s association with Avedon was previously reported in a 2011 article by Charlotte Bentley for Teen Vogue:
“My grandmother, Marie Irvine, was a makeup artist for New York’s elite… Along her journey, she even managed to become Marilyn Monroe’s go-to makeup girl in New York; she worked with the actress for Richard Avedon’s famed ‘Fabled Enchantresses’ shoot and even sewed her into the skintight nude gown she wore when singing ‘Happy Birthday, Mister President’ to John F. Kennedy (her last public appearance).There’s a Polaroid of my mother as a baby, sitting on Marilyn’s lap that’s proudly displayed in my living room.”
In her interview with Daphne Barak, Marie Irvine also discussed the Kennedy gala, which took place on May 19th, 1962:
“‘She always called me herself, without any secretaries. She said she was coming to perform for President Kennedy’s birthday…Of course I read about the upcoming big birthday, and that Marilyn was supposed to be one of the stars attending, but it was exciting to be a small part of all that.’
The day itself didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts. Marie recalled, ‘I arrived to Marilyn’s home early in the morning as she asked. Nobody opened the door. I kept knocking. After an hour the door opened. Marilyn was standing there so apologetic.
‘She said she arrived on a late flight from LA and fell asleep. She felt so bad for me waiting that she went and squeezed fresh orange juice for me, and then went back to sleep.’
‘I was sort of putting her make up on for half a day, in between of her being on the phone because she was so upset. She said that (20th Century) Fox was threatening to suspend her from the movie, “Something’s Got to Give,” if she went to New York to perform at the president’s birthday.
‘She kept saying, “I don’t understand why I agreed to perform for John (Kennedy) before I signed the contract with Fox. It was in my contract that I needed to be in New York for John’s birthday.’
Marie said, ‘She was fired (by Fox) afterwards.’
Throughout the day, Marie said, ‘She kept practicing on her little piano, with a coach singing, “Happy Birthday. Mr Presidennnt.” She took a break when Nicky came and did her hair or, when I put more make up on. But the rest of the time she kept practicing. She wanted to be perfect. I heard this song so many times that day.
‘And then came the dress…designed by Oscar winning designer Jean Louis. It was layers and layers of material. Each one was see-through but all together, you didn’t see anything. It fitted perfectly to her body.’
The dress in nude-coloured mesh and marquisette, embellished with 2,500 rhinestones. It was so form hugging that Marilyn had to be sewn into it.
Surprisingly, Marie revealed, despite her starring role in the evening, Marilyn bought five tickets – at $1000 a head- to the gala event. It was the only way to guarantee an invite to the private supper afterwards, and an indication of just how insecure the star was in her own charms.
On the night itself she cut a solitary figure – accompanied by only her then father-in-law Arthur Miller’s father.
Marie said, ‘Well Marilyn was a loner. That is why she was so many hours on the phone. She would call people during the night.’
Moments after Marilyn left to head to the venue Marie noticed that she had forgotten the drop earrings that completed her look that night.
She said, ‘Marilyn didn’t like lots of jewelry, but this time the earrings were part of the whole look. So I grabbed a cab and rushed to Madison Square Garden. Go only knows how I convinced the security to let me inside but I made it in.
‘Backstage I saw several stars lining up waiting for their turn to perform. Only Marilyn had a dressing room, no-one else!
‘I remember Harry Belafonte standing outside her dressing room. I walked in. Marilyn was along. She turned, looked at the earrings and smiled. She said, “I knew you would come.”
‘That was the last time I saw her. She died several weeks afterwards.’
And however lonely a figure Marilyn evidently cut in the months across which Marie knew her, the make-up artist cannot believe that she committed suicide.
‘No way,’ she said. ‘I think she might have been confused, disoriented? Maybe she forgot how many pills she took.’
It is clear that the years have done nothing to diminish Marie’s memory or affection for the star she knew all those years ago and for whom being ‘sexy’ came effortlessly, though so much else in her life caused such anxiety.
‘Putting make up on her was easy because she had this perfect skin. She did use false eye-lashes that I used to curl and prepare ahead. But she never talked about a sexy look.
‘She was just “it” – naturally sexy.’”
Thanks to Laura Saxby, Lola Ramone and April VeVea