New York Stories: Marilyn at the Circus

This somewhat inelegant shot of Marilyn on a pink elephant, taken by Arthur Fellig (aka ‘Weegee’) backstage during the Ringling Brothers circus at Madison Square Garden in March 1955 is featured in New York Stories: Vintage Postwar Photographs, on display at the Keith de Lellis Gallery on East 57th Street until March 27. (Some more of Weegee’s photos from the evening are posted below.)

Bill Ray, Marilyn’s ‘Mr President’ Photographer, Has Died

LIFE magazine photographer Bill Ray, who got the scoop of a lifetime when he captured Marilyn’s singing ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President’ at Madison Square Garden in 1962, has died aged 83, the New York Post reports.

Born in Shelby, Nebraska, Bill joined the Omaha Camera Club aged eleven and built a professional darkroom in his family home. At seventeen, he got his first newspaper job in Lincoln; and in 1957, after excelling in a photographic workshop in Hannibal, Missouri, he moved to New York to work for LIFE. During the 1960s, he worked extensively in Paris and Hollywood.

Bill and his wife of 62 years, Marlys Ray, lived in an apartment overlooking Central Park in Manhattan. He died of a heart attack on January 8, 2020.

“‘It had been a noisy night, a very ‘rah rah rah’ kind of atmosphere. Then boom, on comes this spotlight. There was no sound. No sound at all. It was like we were in outer space. [Marilyn’s dress] was skin-colored, and it was skin-tight. It was sewn on, covered with brilliant crystals. There was this long, long pause … and finally, she comes out with this unbelievably breathy, ‘Happy biiiiirthday to youuuu,’ and everybody just went into a swoon. I was praying [that I could get the shot] because I had to guess at the exposure. It was a very long lens, and I had no tripod, so I had to rest the lens itself on the railing, and tried very, very hard not to breathe … If you got a picture from the front, everybody else would have it on the front page the next day and it wouldn’t be good for LIFE. You always needed something different. I had this idea that if I got way up I could shoot over Marilyn’s shoulder and have Kennedy in the picture. There was one slightly before that’s a little blurry because of the 300 mm lens. Shortly thereafter the lights went out and she disappeared, and the next thing I knew JFK was up on the stage. If I’d been luckier, there would have been a tiny bit of light that would have spilled onto Kennedy, who was over her shoulder between the podium and her head. ”

Bill Ray

Backstory: Marilyn on Madison, 1962

Writing for the Worcester Telegram today, Liz Smith explores the backstory behind a fan photo taken as Marilyn left John F. Kennedy’s birthday gala at Madison Square Garden. There’s just one problem – the photo isn’t included! I’ve found a file photo which seems similar, but will update this post if the real one is identified.

“Sometimes people write in ‘correcting’ us with nothing more than their opinion. And then there are people who have a story to tell. Such as Stephen William Stern. He took a fabulous shot of Marilyn Monroe, the night she sang for President Kennedy. Here is Stephen’s tale:

‘I always knew where she lived and I was always a Marilyn fan ever since I saw Love Nest in 1951. I thought she was fabulous and I felt she was the most interesting of the stars at the time.

‘All these autograph collectors always knew who was in town and where they were staying. Some people would tell me things and some wouldn’t, but I always read the gossip columns, so I was aware of this event where she was supposed to sing for the president’s birthday.

‘I went to 444 E. 57th, her building. The sun was still up when Marilyn came back from rehearsals for the show. She was dressed in slacks and a blouse, if I remember correctly. I waited there for what seemed a long time for her to change and come back out.

Earlier the same day, Marilyn was spotted outside her apartment building. (Screencap from footage by James Haspiel)

‘There were several people then that were trying to get photographs and autographs. When she came out and made it through the lobby, it was a mad scramble for us to get a picture on her way to the limo. Some people succeeded, I guess. But she was in a hurry and as soon as she got into the limousine, they just took off!

‘Some of my friends and I jumped into a cab and made it to 50th Street between 8th and 9th where there was this big metal door on the side of the old Madison Square Garden. We made our way inside only to have the police notice us, so we flew up the stairs.

‘I looked down to the stage and realized that we had missed Marilyn. She must have just gone off because there’s the president on the stage and I had no interest in the president. I was there for one reason and that was to see Marilyn!

‘We all got up then and went down the regular stairs to the main level where I saw her in the lobby in the distance. I think she was talking to Milton Berle. I hesitated to take a picture because I didn’t want to call attention to myself, so we went out to 49th Street.

‘She came out and got into the limousine and they started moving. It was a busy Saturday night in New York and around 8th Avenue, the limousine stopped. I ran up to the window. Marilyn seemed to be trying to open the window. She wanted her picture taken, but the chauffeur had locked the window. I said to myself, There she is! And she was looking fabulous, so I angled the camera and took the shot.'”

Marie Irvine Remembers Marilyn

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 with journalist Daphne Barak

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.

Marilyn relaxing during her ‘Fabled Enchantresses’ photo shoot with Richard Avedon, 1958
The Millers, by Avedon

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.”
Marilyn rehearsing at Madison Square Garden

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.’”

Marilyn leaving the gala for an after-show party

Thanks to Laura Saxby, Lola Ramone and April VeVea

Shirley MacLaine: The Understudy

Actress Shirley MacLaine was honoured by the Kennedy Center this week for her ‘exemplary lifetime achievement in the performing arts.’ She began her career on Broadway as understudy to Carol Haney in The Pajama Game, and made her screen debut in Hitchock’s The Trouble With Harry (1955.)

Among MacLaine’s most famous films are Some Came Running, The Apartment, Sweet Charity and Terms of Endearment. Recently she reached a new audience with her role in TV’s Downton Abbey.

In They Knew Marilyn Monroe, Les Harding notes that ‘after Marilyn’s death, MacLaine took over several projects which had been earmarked for her.’ And in recent years, MacLaine has shared some surprising (to say the least) anecdotes about MM.

In 2011, MacLaine claimed that Marilyn attended a preview of The Apartment nude under her fur coat, although photos from the event appear to show her wearing a dress. MacLaine has also claimed to have ‘shared’ Yves Montand – Marilyn’s Let’s Make Love co-star who accompanied her to the screening – with Monroe, implying that she also had an affair with him.

In her 2012 book, I’m Over All That, MacLaine added fuel to the fire of the MM-JFK rumour mill:

“I never had any proof that the Kennedy brothers had intimate relations with Marilyn Monroe, but it wouldn’t be beyond the realm of probability. Once at Arthur and Mathilde Krim’s house in New York, I joined an impressive gathering of movie stars and politicians. Marilyn was there. I saw her go into a private room with Jack. They stayed awhile, until he came out another door. Immediately, Bobby entered the room and stayed until the song that Jimmy Durante was singing was over. I have a picture of that night on my Wall of Life. Of course, the Kennedy brothers and Marilyn could have been talking about world affairs and comparing notes, but most of us thought it was the other kind of affairs they were interested in.”

This appears to be a reference to the party held after Kennedy’s birthday gala on May 18, 1962, which Shirley also attended. In a recent interview – broadcast on CNN – she talks about the gala itself, claiming that Marilyn refused to go onstage and Shirley was asked to stand in for her.

Of course, Marilyn was prone to stage fright – and given her unreliable reputation, it wouldn’t be surprising if a last-minute replacement was considered. However, Marilyn had already defied orders from Twentieth Century-Fox to perform at the gala. In fact, her later dismissal from Something’s Got to Give was partly related to this matter.

Also, Marilyn’s appearance at the very end of the gala was pre-planned. Peter Lawford introduced her as ‘the late Marilyn Monroe’ as a pun on her reputation for unpunctuality. Throughout the evening, her appearance was announced, only for her not to appear. In fact, she performed on schedule.

Interestingly, the sole occasion when Monroe and MacLaine were allegedly photographed together – on Dean Martin’s yacht in 1961 – has been disputed by Shirley herself. Upon writing to MacLaine, a member of Everlasting Star was told that she was not in the photo. It has also been suggested that the mystery woman is French cabaret star Zizi Jeanmaire.

Photo by Bernie Abramson


Phil Ramone 1934-2013

Marilyn rehearses at Madison Square Garden, 1962

Legendary music producer Phil Ramone, who arranged Marilyn’s iconic performance of ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’, died in New York on March 31st, aged 79.

Here is an excerpt from an interview he gave to the Chicago Sun-Times in 2010:

Q. You were the mastermind behind Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday Mr. President” moment for President Kennedy. What was that like?

A. An armory had been transformed into a massive theater for the president’s birthday celebration and I was handed the terrifying job of doing something with Marilyn Monroe’s appearance, which turned out to be the most fun I’d ever had. She was so sweet. She looked sensational. And I looked like a deer in headlights. She comes out and sings that song like it’s never been sung before or since, and all we have is some crummy 16mm film footage of it.

Q. So did you get to kiss Marilyn Monroe that night?

A. She gave me a big kiss on the cheek as she said thank you.”

Richard Adler 1921-2012

Marilyn rehearses with Richard Adler

Richard Adler, the Broadway composer and producer, has died aged 90, reports The Guardian. Best-known for hit musicals The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, Adler also produced the birthday gala for President John F. Kennedy in 1962.

In their 1992 book, Marilyn: The Last Take, Peter Brown and Patte Barham wrote that Adler first approached Marilyn at the Actors’ Studio in November 1961.

‘I told her I wanted her to sing Happy Birthday straight and clear-voiced,’ Adler recalled. In the spring of 1962, he sent Marilyn a recording of the song, with the message, ‘You should sing this precisely as I did. Full out. No baby-voiced breathlessness, please!’

As Marilyn flew to New York in May, Adler was besieged by angry messages protesting Monroe’s appearance at the President’s birthday. (Some were reportedly from leading members of the Democratic Party.)

Adler called Kennedy, who insisted, ‘It’ll be fine. Everybody’ll love it.’

With Adler and Jack Benny

Marilyn staged a private rehearsal in her apartment for Adler, accompanied by pianist Hank Jones. Monroe’s defiantly sexy rendition led to a ‘bitter row,’ according to her masseur, Ralph Roberts.

‘I went home certain we were headed for one of the most embarrassing disasters of all time,’ Adler admitted. In fact, he was a witness to history in the making.

One of the event’s co-organisers, Clive David, told Keith Badman, author of The Final Years of Marilyn Monroe, ‘As a gimmick, Richard Adler originally wanted Marilyn up on the top balcony with all the lights in the room surrounding her when she sang. But it never happened. Marilyn hated that idea.’

Of course, the show went ahead and Marilyn was a sensation. ‘It was like a mass seduction,’ Adler remembered. ‘With Marilyn whispering Happy Birthday and the crowd yelling and screaming for her, I realised then that the President was a better showman than I was.’

She concluded her brief, dazzling performance with an adaptation of ‘Thanks for the Memory,’ rewritten by Adler with the lines, ‘Thanks, Mr President/For all the things you’ve done, the battles that you won/The way you deal with US Steel, and our problems by the ton/We thank you so much…’

Bill Ray Exhibit in Lincoln, Nebraska

This iconic shot of Marilyn singing ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ to John F. Kennedy in 1962 is featured in ‘Bill Ray: A LIFEtime of Photographs’, a new retrospective at the Museum of Nebraska Art, reports Lincoln’s Journal-Star.

“‘It had been a noisy night, a very ‘rah rah rah’ kind of atmosphere,’ Bill Ray told ‘Then boom, on comes this spotlight. There was no sound. No sound at all. It was like we were in outer space.’ Marilyn was onstage, taking off a white fur to reveal that utterly gorgeous, scandalous dress underneath. ‘It was skin-colored, and it was skin-tight. It was sewn on, covered with brilliant crystals. There was this long, long pause … and finally, she comes out with this unbelievably breathy, ‘Happy biiiiirthday to youuuu,’ and everybody just went into a swoon. I was praying [that I could get the shot] because I had to guess at the exposure. It was a very long lens, and I had no tripod, so I had to rest the lens itself on the railing, and tried very, very hard not to breathe.'”

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.”

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.”