"I was standing right behind Marilyn, completely invisible, when she sang 'Happy birthday, Mr. President,' " the director told a friend

By Sam Gillette
November 13, 2019 09:38 AM
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Director Mike Nichols, late husband of Diane Sawyer, was never too far from celebrities — including, according to a new book, once watching Marilyn Monroe in dishabille during a particularly memorable moment with President John F. Kennedy.

In Life isn't everything: Mike Nichols, as remembered by 150 of his closest friends, a new oral history of the filmmaker behind The GraduateCarnal Knowledge, Working Girl and other hits, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd remembers when Nichols saw Monroe croon “happy birthday” to Kennedy … while she wasn’t wearing underwear.

“When Marilyn sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Jack Kennedy in the famous dress she had to be sewn into, the sequined Jean Louis gown, Mike was there that night,” Dowd told authors Ash Carter and Sam Kashner. “He told me, ‘I was standing right behind Marilyn, completely invisible, when she sang “Happy birthday, Mr. President,” and, indeed, the corny thing happened. Her dress split for my benefit, and there was Marilyn, and, yes, indeed, she didn’t wear any underwear.’ “

Monroe’s dress, designed by Jean Louis, reportedly had an 18-inch slit in the back and was covered in 4,000 rhinestones.

Dowd’s anecdote about her performance is just one of many poignant and sometimes playful reflections on Nichols, who died in 2014 at 83.

Featuring interviews with his friends and former colleagues like Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman and Dustin Hoffman, the book explores both Nichols’ triumphs and struggles as well as other colorful scenes from his A-list life.

RELATED: What to Know About Marilyn Monroe’s Alleged Affairs with JFK and RFK

From left: Robert F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy in 1962
Cecil Stoughton/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Marilyn Monroe (center), in the dress she wore to sing for President John F. Kennedy, pictured with President Kennedy's brother-in-law Steve Smith (left)

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Monroe’s appearance one May night in 1962, at a fundraiser in celebration of President Kennedy’s birthday, is iconic for a number of reasons. When the actress sang at Madison Square Garden, it encouraged rumors that she was having an affair with the commander-in-chief. President Kennedy’s brother Robert F. Kennedy, then the attorney general, was in attendance as well. Some believed that Monroe was also having an affair with him.

The birthday celebration became even more weighted when Monroe died of a barbiturate overdose a few months later, on Aug. 5, 1962. She was 36.

“What happened to Marilyn Monroe is one of the great mysteries of the 20th century,” her biographer James Spada told PEOPLE in 2012, ahead of the 50th anniversary of Monroe’s death.

Monroe’s second husband, baseball great Joe DiMaggio, blamed the Kennedys for her death, according to Dr. Rock Positano, who along with brother John Positano wrote the 2017 biography Dinner with DiMaggio: Memories of an American Hero. A number of others shared the same theory.

RELATED: Kylie Jenner Recreates One of Marilyn Monroe’s Most Iconic Looks for Fourth Halloween Costume

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Spada didn’t believe there was any proof that the Kennedys were responsible for Monroe’s death. But he said “it was pretty clear that Marilyn had had sexual relations with both Bobby and Jack.”

(President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963; brother Robert was assassinated five years later.)

A rare photo taken after her Madison Square Garden performance during a party at the home of movie executive Arthur Krim is reportedly the only known image of either Kennedy with Monroe. The image has only added to the mystery surrounding Monroe’s connection to them.

“[I]t was Marilyn who was the hit of the evening,” read TIME’s 1962 recap of the event. “Kennedy plainly meant it when he said, ‘I can now retire from politics after having had Happy Birthday sung to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.’ “

Life isn’t everything is on sale now.

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