The Story Behind Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ Iconic Look

The Story Behind Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ Iconic Look featured image
Getty Images / Alfred Eisenstaedt / Contributor

Celebrity hairstylists know that their relationships with their star muses can lead to a timeless look that lasts far beyond their own legacy. Think of Chris Appleton and J. LO at the Superbowl, Serge Normant’s elegant bouffant on Julia Roberts at the 2001 Oscars, or Neal Farinah’s high pony on Beyoncé for the 2015 Met Gala. For Marilyn Monroe, the most important member of her 1960’s glam squad was none other than the famed Mr. Kenneth, the O.G. celebrity stylist.

In the new book Kenneth: Shear Elegance, author Giuseppe Longo, who worked for more than a decade at Mr. Kenneth’s salon, chronicles the life and talents of famed hairdresser Kenneth Battelle. In it he revisits an iconic Marilyn look: The infamous “Happy Birthday” performance at Madison Square Garden for President John F. Kennedy’s birthday. 

In the following excerpts from the book, Longo reveals how the stylist was smack dab in the middle of a notorious love triangle, which also factored into his styling his “really good friend’s” hair that night. Now, more than 50 years later, the rumors of JFK and Marilyn’s dalliances remain strong, but as Longo tells it, the president wasn’t the only man caught between Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Mr. Kenneth was also very good friends with his other client, Jackie O, and was the man responsible for her tousled bouffant in 1961.  

USA. New York City. US actress Marilyn MONROE and Kenneth Battelle, her hairdresser. 1961. |
Photo Courtesy of Schiffer Publishing

On the night of the performance, May 19, 1962, Mr. Kenneth made his way to Monroe’s 57th Street apartment to comb and shape her platinum hair into a “dramatic cascading swoop on the right side of her face.” As the story goes, “once her hair was styled, her makeup pale and shimmery, her dress and jewels radiant, Marilyn stepped from her car in front of Madison Square Garden—at the time it had been on 8th Avenue between 49th Street and 50th Street—to a frenzy of fans and paparazzi.”

“‘Marilyn did not want me backstage with her,’ Kenneth recalled. ‘She said she was fearful of publicity. I don’t know what she had in mind, but since I was doing both Marilyn and Mrs. Kennedy at the same time, I imagine it was about that.’”

Dressed in a mesh, nude Jean Louis gown adorned with strategically placed rhinestones (the dress was originally sketched by Bob Mackie for Marlene Dietrich), Monroe’s look left little to the imagination. Prior to going on, Longo notes she ran around backstage so she could sound breathless for her “Happy Birthday” serenade.

Ironically, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy did not attend the event that night and Monroe went on to make history. According to Mr. Kenneth, the end result wasn’t what he’d originally planned, but the unforgettable hairdo fit the theme of the night: “’She looked gorgeous. Funnily enough, if you see pictures of her that night when she’s getting into her car at her apartment and arriving at Madison Square Garden, that’s my hairdo. There was a union hairdresser there who recombed and teased her hair more. I preferred it beforehand, but when you’re at a huge place like Madison Square Garden, you need huge hair.’”

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