Fifty Years of ‘Happy Birthday’

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of Marilyn’s ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ performance for John F. Kennedy. Cultural historian Martin Kemp writes about the event for Oxford University Press.

“In a glittering faux-nude dress tighter than her own skin and enveloped in a soft fur wrap, that most desirable of female bodies shuffles with exaggerated mini-steps towards the podium, like a penguin on speed. Her floss hair has long given up any pretence to organic life. She is unwrapped by Lawford and ups the sexual ante with mute lip squirming directed at the microphone, which she holds tenderly like a living member. Everything is comically kitsch yet irresistibly powerful.

‘Happy Birthday to you…’ The little girl’s voice haltingly rings out, quietening the raucous auditorium — a ghostly and troubling echo of a past innocence. The reality is a deadly cocktail of her own desperate desirability and the blood-sucking exploitation of the society that made her. A monstrous tiered cake, flaming with the requisite number of candles like a funeral pyre, is borne in on a stretcher, shoulder-high. Her death was to arrive at the age of 36 in a little over two month’s time.”

When Monroe Met Callas

Victor Helou, now 80 and living in Florida, photographed the meeting of two of the last century’s most celebrated women – Marilyn Monroe and Maria Callas – backstage at Madison Square Garden in 1962:

‘In 1962, 31 people were chosen to perform a medley of broadway tunes for President John F. Kennedy’s birthday in New York and Helou snagged a spot. This would be the night Helou brushed elbows with Hollywood A-listers.

Helou’s collection of notes from the night he photographed Marilyn Monroe secured a spot in history. Helou’s book, entitled Happy Birthday Mr. President, is a complete recount of his experience and observation during the days leading up to and the night of the event at Madison Square Garden.

Helou shares his insight about the evening he spent at Madison Square Garden and grins at the memories. After dropping the names of all the stars he ran into that night, he said, “I was very fortunate to be there.”

Helou’s goal at the moment is to sell the rights to all of his work, from his book to the negatives of Marilyn Monroe he has safely tucked in a safety deposit box.

“I’m old enough now that I don’t need to keep working,” he said. “I’m ready to auction it all off, if anyone wants to make a bid.”’

More details about Mr Helou’s book, Happy Birthday Mr. President, over here

‘Looking at the Camera’

"Happy Birthday Mr. President". 10x10. Acrylic on Panel. Mixed Media

New art from Elizabeth Grammaticas:

“We know Marilyn Monroe as bright, bold, and omnipresent.   As a result, the images of Marilyn I find most interesting are the quiet illusive ones, often on poorly preserved materials.  For me with Marilyn, less is more and my most recent pieces have this in mind.”

"Look at the Camera". Marker and Gouache on Paper. 12 x 16

Marilyn’s ‘Breathless’ Singing No Fluke

Following Joan Copeland‘s recent – and rather silly – claim that Marilyn’s ‘breathless’ rendition of ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ was due to her getting lost on the way to the stage, Scott Fortner takes an behind-the-scenes look at the legendary performance, with testimony from Susan Strasberg and Eunice Murray, over at his MM Collection Blog.

“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.”

 

Lost in Madison Square Garden

Joan Copeland, the actress sister of Arthur Miller, claims that Marilyn’s breathless rendition of ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ was not intentional, but due to her late arrival, reports the Daily Mail.

This is a funny story, but Marilyn was not late. She was backstage for the entire concert. Peter Lawford introduced her as ‘the late Marilyn Monroe’ as a joke. And the sexiness of her vocal was entirely deliberate!

Copeland says she attended the gala. Now 89, she recently performed a one-woman show in New York. But Arthur Miller’s father, Isadore, was Monroe’s escort, and he accompanied her to a party afterwards.

Lady Gaga’s Birthday Serenade

Lady Gaga helped celebrate the ten-year anniversary of former president Bill Clinton’s Foundation and his 65th birthday at the ‘Decade of Difference’ concert last night at the Hollywood Bowl. The singer took the stage for three songs, plus a Marilyn Monroe-esque ‘Happy Birthday’.

Clinton admitted, “I got nervous when Gaga said she was planning to have a Marilyn moment. I thought, my God, I get Lady Gaga and I will have a heart attack celebrating my 65th birthday.” Rather gracelessly, Gaga quipped,”I’m having my first real Marilyn moment. I always wanted to have one, and I was hoping that it didn’t involve pills and a strand of pearls.”

But Gaga is only the latest in a long line of Monroe impersonators – Madonna, to whom Gaga is often compared, sang ‘Happy Inauguration’ to Clinton, MM-style, via Saturday Night Live in 1993.

Merchandising and ‘Mister President’ Movie Plans

The New York Times reports this week on ABG’s plans to broaden Marilyn’s appeal after acquiring licensing rights from her estate earlier this year.  “This summer, the group consolidated those rights with several photographic portfolios, including Bruno Bernard’s, along with rights to products like a Marilyn Monroe line of Nova Wines, lingerie by Dreamwear and merchandise by the skateboard company Alien Workshop.”

MM fans may recall (with mixed emotions) that ABG head Jamie Salter spoke earlier this year of plans to ‘reanimate’ Marilyn’s image onscreen. I was reminded of his comment when I read this (slightly alarming) snippet on IndieWire:

Roland Emmerich, whose Shakespeare-subverting drama Anonymous will hit theaters October 28, is planning another trip down history lane, but this time not as far back and not any time soon. The director is planning to make Happy Birthday Mr. President – “The title will tell you everything” – but says digital technology is not yet where it needs to be for him to make it the way he wants, i.e. with digitally manipulated and aged actors. Does this mean Marilyn Monroe will actually be the one singing the famous song to John F. Kennedy on his birthday? We’ll have to wait and see; “I think we have to wait another five years,” says Emmerich. For now, we can watch the real deal, or enjoy Michelle Williams channeling Monroe.’

Of course, I’m just speculating here and Emmerich’s movie plans may have nothing to do with Marilyn, or the ‘reanimation’ rumours. But the title seems to imply that they might, not to mention the need to wait (for improved technology?)

Given that the Monroe-Kennedy association is so contentious, I can only hope that any film on the subject would be done with respect for the truth.

Marilyn in the Blogosphere

May 19 marked the 49th anniversary of Marilyn’s ‘Happy Birthday’ performance for President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden, as Garrison Keillor noted in his Writers’ Almanac. (Unfortunately, while he reports on the event well, he has added three spurious quotes attributed to MM via the internet. )

Given all the confusion out there, it was refreshing to find a sound, intelligent analysis of some verified Monroe quotes from Jason Cuthbert over at MadeMan.

And talking of the eternal rumour mill, Lady Gaga – who really should know better – tweeted yesterday that ‘Government Hooker’, a track from her new album, Born This Way,  “was inspired by Marilyn Monroe + political mistresses. I wonder what they were privy to + what they affected.”

An Actress Prepares, a recreation of Marilyn’s last interview by Irina Diva, is coming to the New End Theatre in Hampstead, London, playing from June 14-July 10.

The Seven Year Itch is one of Marilyn’s most enduringly popular films, yet for some reason it is rarely included in cinema revivals (Some Like it Hot, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Misfits are all frequently shown.) So I was glad to hear of a recent outdoor screening via the San Diego Reader.

Over at Pop Matters, Oscar-watcher Matt Mazur challenges the Academy in Best Actress Rewind: 1959. Contending that Elizabeth Taylor deserved to win for Suddenly Last Summer, he also states that Marilyn should have been nominated for Some Like it Hot. (Actually, Marilyn won a Golden Globe. Simone Signoret won the Oscar that year for Room at the Top, while Marilyn was filming Let’s Make Love with her husband, Yves Montand.)