Why Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ dress fetched a record £3.8 million at auction


The famous dress worn by Marilyn Monroe when she sang “happy birthday Mr President” to John F. Kennedy has sold for a world-record price at auction, fetching $4.8 million (£3.87 million).

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One of the defining dresses of 20th century fashion, the sheer tulle design, scattered with tiny, glimmering crystals, was worn by Monroe on 19th May 1962 as she performed for President Kennedy ahead of his 40th birthday.

It was an instant sensation and paved the way for ‘naked’ dresses, which still spark a furore when worn by the likes of Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé today. 

It was bought by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum for a total surpassing the previous most expensive dress sold at auction, Monroe’s white dress from The Seven Year Itch which went for $4.6 million (£3.7 million) in 2011.


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Marilyn Monroe singing 'Happy Birthday' to JFK

Marilyn Monroe singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to JFK Credit: Rex

Edward Meyer, vice president of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, told the Press Association: “We believe this is the most iconic piece of pop culture that there is.

“In the 20th century I cannot think of one single item that tells the story of the 1960s as well as this. It’s a new world record for a dress.”

The auction had long been planned as part of the year that would have seen Monroe celebrating her 90th birthday but this dress was a “last minute addition” from a collector in New York who initially purchased the gown at Christie’s historic Monroe auction in 1999 for $1.26 million. 

“It’s the most historic, important piece of Marilyn Monroe that could ever be offered – it’s like the Holy Grail,” Darren Julien, President and CEO of Julien’s Auctions, tells The Telegraph.

marilyn monroe happy birthday

Monroe with Robert Kennedy and John F Kennedy after her performance.  Credit: Cecil Stoughton/Getty

“Since then Monroe prices have skyrocketed, so in my opinion our estimate of $2-3 million is actually quite low,” Julien said before the auction. “You never know at the end of a day with an auction. You could put  this on display in a museum and people would flock to see it which is what has happened here.

“We’ve had more than 2000 visitors a day wanting to see the dress since it’s been on display in our gallery here for the past few days.”

Cher wearing a dress by Bob Mackie who created the orginal sketch for Marilyn's 'naked' dress

Cher wearing a dress by Bob Mackie who created the orginal sketch for Marilyn’s ‘naked’ dress

Julien believes that out of all the Marilyn memorabilia, this dress has particular resonance. “The dress is part of our political history but it’s also Hollywood, glamour, fashion. The dress is a work of art in its own right,” he explains.

“When she walked out onto the stage and took off her fur coat, everyone thought that she was naked and you can hear the gasps in the audience,” he laughs. “Marilyn called it ‘skin and beans’ – she wanted the shock factor and was ahead of her time.”

Marilyn Monroe's 'Happy Birthday' dress to be soldWatch | Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Happy Birthday’ dress to be sold 01:36

The dress cost $12,000 when it was designed by Bob Mackie, who was working at the time in Academy-award winning costume designer Jean Louis’s atelier. But whilst it still the dress has added poignancy because it was worn for one of the last public appearances Monroe made before her death in August 1962, it also represents the very beginnings of Bob Mackie’s career.

“Bob was just  21 years old when he drew the sketch for the dress for  Jean Louis, it was his first job out of college,” says Julien of the designer who went on to create dazzling looks for the likes of Cher, Grace Jones, Kylie Minogue and Madonna. “Bob is here in LA for the auction. He is part of its history too, which lots of people are surprised to hear.”

The beaded dress Marilyn Monroe wore in 'Some Like It Hot' in 1959 is also up for auction.

The beaded dress Marilyn Monroe wore in ‘Some Like It Hot’ in 1959 is also up for auction. Credit: AF Archive

As well as the ‘Happy Birthday’ dress, the auction also saw the beaded cocktail dress which Monroe donned in ‘Some Like It Hot’ go under the hammer, with a buyer snapping it up for $375,000 (£302,000).

The delicate black design was said to be so tight that the star had to be lifted on and off the piano which she sat on to perform during filming. “It’s one of the most important dresses of her career,” emphasises Julien. 

Other lots included a 1947 Revlon lipstick with smudges around the rim that was discovered in a secret compartment of one of Monroe’s evening bags and some of her favourite costume jewellery pieces.

“She actually had very few fine jewellery pieces of her own. For her it was all about the costume jewellery, but obviously when she wore it, it had that wow factor,” Martin Nolan, executive director of Julien’s told The Telegraph earlier this year

One of Marilyn's necklaces which is also up for auction

One of Marilyn’s necklaces which is also up for auction Credit: Julien’s auctions

A whole section of the auction comes from the personal collection of Lee Strasberg, the Hollywood actor and Marilyn’s acting teacher, who along with his wife Paula, was Monroe’s closest confidante and was left all of her personal effects in her will.

“These are items that have never before been seen by the public and which were in Marilyn’s possession when she passed away. I think it’s really interesting for people to see these items for the first time. It’s like they’re buying them from Marilyn,” says Julien. 

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