May 19, 1962: When Marilyn met Maria


No it’s not a new film in production— although it very well could be. It was May 19, 1962 when family, friends and fans gathered at New York City’s Madison Square Garden to wish President John F. Kennedy happy birthday.

Among celebrities who participated— like Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Durante, Harry Belafonte and Jack Benny, there were two who stood out in the crowd— and backstage, Maria Callas and Marilyn Monroe.

In a night and day contrast, Monroe sang what is now an infamously sex kitten-esque version of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” immediately after Callas sang “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” from Bizet’s Carmen for an endearing crowd of more than 15,000 audience members.

Monroe was the talk of the evening with her cotton candy blonde bouffant by her hair stylist Kenneth and wearing a Jean Louis nude-colored soufflé chiffon gown embroidered with 2,500 rhinestones (rumored so tight she had to be sewn into the dress…with no undergarments). The original cost of the dress in 1962 was $12,000. In 1999, the dress fetched over $1.26 million at a New York auction.

According to Maria Callas: An Intimate Biography, Callas left the birthday celebration and against her better judgement, attended an after party at the Manhattan home of Arthur Krim, head of United Artists and a close confidant of the President, where Monroe, the President and other VIP celebrities were in attendance.

Uncomfortable that Monroe was the center of attention, she turned to her guest of the evening, Costas Gratsos, and suggested that he organize their departure. At this very time when Callas was left alone and Gratsos was sent to gather coats and begin their good byes, President Kennedy caught sight of her standing alone and told Time Magazine correspondent William Walton “Go talk to Callas. No one’s talking to her. She’s pouting.”