Today marks the 48th anniversary of the fateful night when Marilyn Monroe cooed "Happy Birthday" to then-President John F. Kennedy. And we've got a look at rare photographs from the occasion.
Text by LIFE.com and photos by Bill Ray/Courtesy of LIFE.com. Visit LIFE.com to see more.
On May 19, 1962, screen goddess Marilyn Monroe — literally sewn into a sparkling, jaw-droppingly sheer dress — sauntered onto the stage of New York's Madison Square Garden and, with one breathless performance, forever linked sex and politics in the American consciousness. For the 15,000 spectators there that night, including LIFE photographer Bill Ray, Marilyn's "Happy Birthday" to President John F. Kennedy amplified the buzz about an affair between the two. But beyond the titillation, the moment Ray captured in this, his most iconic shot, went on to play a major role in both Marilyn's and JFK's biographies, coming as it did near the end of their short lives. As the 48th anniversary of that legendary birthday party approaches, Ray sits down with LIFE.com to share his photos from that night, most of which have never been seen, and to tell the story of how he overcame countless obstacles — the cavernous setting, tricky lighting, and security "goons" eager to keep the press at bay — to get The Shot.
"I can now retire from politics after having had 'Happy Birthday' sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way," Kennedy joked in his closing remarks. That birthday serenade would turn out to be one of Marilyn Monroe's last public appearances: Less than three months later, she was dead of an apparent barbiturate overdose.
The Marilyn moment tends to eclipse everything that happened before it. But there were many stars on the bill. At some point Ray made his way backstage, where he captured a contemplative Ella Fitzgerald waiting to go on — and looking much more elegant than her surroundings, Ray says. "All of the Garden was old, and the dressing rooms back then were really tacky."
Democratic Party bigwigs and their wives sat with the President, but there was one person conspicuously absent: First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Many believe she was well aware of the chatter about her husband and Marilyn Monroe, and that she skipped the party to spare herself humiliation. "People in Washington were always saying there was something going on — that there was even a Polaroid of Marilyn and Jack in the bathtub performing interesting acts, that Peter Lawford was kind of a go-between, and so on," Ray says. "All this was yak yak yak. Nobody really knew. But I knew for sure I was trying to get a picture of the two of them together that night." Pictured: President Kennedy and the elites in their box, on the first level facing center stage.