Marilyn Monroe, along with other celebrities such as Ella Fitzgerald, Jack Benny and Maria Callas, was asked to perform at Madison Square Garden in New York on the 19th of May 1962 (by Jean Dalrymple, the event’s producer). The event would be a birthday celebration for the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy as well as a Democratic fundraiser.

Marilyn accepted the invitation, paid $5,000 for her ticket (including a plus one) and began preparing.

She was told by Dalrymple to “wear something modest”. An amusing comment considering Marilyn was asked to do the same when meeting the Queen of England in 1956…

Marilyn meeting Queen Elizabeth II in 1956

Jean Louis was Marilyn’s choice of designer. He had designed her dresses for Ladies of the Chorus (1949), The Misfits (1961) and Something’s Got To Give (which Marilyn was filming at the time). He had also designed gowns for the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and Joan Crawford.

Marilyn had asked him to design a “historic” gown for the event. Ever the publicity queen Marilyn wanted to turn heads. Berniece Miracle, her half-sister, said, “Jean Louis sketched two possibilities. Both were. form-fitting. One was covered in sequins, the other rhinestones. One dipped to the waist, the other was décolleté.” Marilyn asked Berniece to choose, to which her sister replied, “Well honey, you know which side I think is your best.”

The dress was based on a sketch by legendary American fashion designer Bob Mackie when he was 21 years old and at his first job with Louis right out of school. 

Bob Mackie’s sketch
Sketch by Jean Louis, after the dress was designed and made.

Marilyn’s gown was a floor-length, strapless nude gown, covered in rhinestones. It had a scoop neckline and a low-cut back. Jean Louis said the fabric was a “nude, very thin material embroidered with rhinestones so she would shine in the spotlight. She wore nothing, absolutely nothing underneath it.”

The dress was so tight, even for Marilyn’s tiny frame, it required an eighteen-inch slit in the back so she could walk. It is not true that she had to be sewn into the dress.

The day before the event, Marilyn rehearsed in a much more comfortable green Pucci blouse and white capri pants. The performance was believed to be impromptu but this was not the case. She planned her seductive rendition of Happy Birthday, and the joke of being the “late Marilyn Monroe” was also intended due to her infamous tardiness.

On the big day, Marilyn had her hair coiffed by Kenneth Battelle (she also required his services the day before) for $150. She spent $125 on make-up by Marie Irvine of Elmhurst. The overall costs to attend the event, looking as amazing as she did, reached over $7,000 which would equate to over $66k with inflation in 2022.

Marilyn told Life magazine, “I was honoured when they asked me to appear at the President’s birthday rally. There was a hush over the whole place when I came on to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ — like if I had been wearing a slip, I would’ve thought my slip was showing or something. I thought ‘Oh my gosh, what if no sound comes out!'” Marilyn performed her piece and after the event, introduced her former father-in-law to the President. She never left Isidore’s side, accompanied by Pat Newcomb.

Marilyn with Maria Callas

Marilyn’s appearance at the fundraiser was a huge success. Sadly, because of Marilyn “breaching her contract” she was fired for attending the event, despite an agreement with the studio to attend the gala.

When Marilyn passed away in August 1962, many of Marilyn’s possessions and clothing items were inherited by Lee Strasberg, as per the wishes in her Will. The Will also stated that he was to distribute the items to her friends and colleagues “to whom I am devoted”. Inez Melson had kept a large number of items, likely because she wasn’t particularly fond of the Strasbergs.

Inez Melson had possession of the dress from 1962 but was required to give it to Anna Strasberg (Lee’s second wife) prior to 1999. Thank you Gary Vitacco-Robles for this information, as previously I wasn’t sure if it had gone straight to Anna via Lee or whether Inez had kept it.

In 1999, Christie’s sold the dress to Martin Zweig for $1.26million. In 2016 after Zweig’s death, the dress broke records by selling for $4.8million in favour of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! The dress, being so delicate, required temperature-controlled surroundings and required delicate handling.