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Abbotsford woman describes New York the night Marilyn sang to JFK

Infamous pop cultural event took place 60 years ago, months before Marilyn died
Actor and singer, Marilyn Monroe, performs at a Democratic Party fund-raising dinner and birthday salute to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. (Cecil Stoughton/ White House Photographs, courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

The time was May 1962.

Politically, it was the middle of an era of big change. The United States was conducting atmospheric nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean, and the first US satellite to reach the moon had been launched from Cape Canaveral. The Cuban Missile Crisis was just months away.

And in the world of entertainment, Moon River was all over the radio and The Beatles had just signed with EMI. West Side Story had just swept the Oscars, and Sophia Loren was the star of the moment, winning a whopping 22 international awards for her Italian-language role in the gritty film Two Women.

And it was on May 19 that the worlds of entertainment and politics mixed famously, that legendary night when Marilyn Monroe stepped on stage at Madison Square Gardens and sang a sultry Happy Birthday Mr. President to John F. Kennedy and 15,000 thrilled audience members.

Patricia Brooke, now 84, was one of those in the crowd. Now living in Abbotsford, she is sharing the story of how she found herself there almost 60 years ago.

That day was a hot one, Brooke says, but as she travelled the subway with her friend, the rain poured down and cooled the New York air. It was an hour-long ride, she said, and the temperature dropped nicely by the time they arrived.

When Marilyn stepped onto the stage, with her blonde hair swooped to the side and a fur stole around her neck, the crowd went wild.

Then she took off the fur, revealing the instantly famous shimmering, nude-coloured dress by Bob Mackie, and history was made.

“When she came out, they weren’t even expecting her, and there she was,” Brooke says. The program doesn’t list Marilyn as a performer, just the Happy Birthday song. The emcee announced her eventually as the “late Marilyn Monroe.”

“She was in a skin-tight dress, and everyone was screaming and yelling,” Brooke says. “It was just so much fun, she came out singing.”

She sang her breathy rendition of Happy Birthday, along with a few extra lines before the president’s birthday cake was wheeled into the centre of the Gardens. Brooke said she remembers her voice was lovely, and she was in tune.

“Thank you!” Kennedy said into the microphone. “I can now retire from politics after having had the Happy Birthday [song] sang to me in such a sweet, wholesome way.”

The next time the public saw the singer was in photographs from an after party, alongside Kennedy and his brother. Rumours swirled they were having an affair, and Monroe died in August that year. Kennedy was assassinated the following November.

It was quite by chance that Brooke ended up in the Gardens that night. She was working at a New York hospital in admitting. She was covering someone’s night shift when a drunken man arrived to check himself in. It hadn’t been his first time doing so, and as a man with money, he wanted a private room. None were available, so he paid for a shared room with two beds.

Brooke recalls he was carrying a watermelon, his friend. When no nurse was available to take him to his room, Brooke was told to take him. She tucked him in one bed, and the watermelon in another.

The man somehow remembered her good humour and kindness, and returned four or five days later to thank her. He explained he was a music promoter and gave her six tickets for the May 19 fundraiser birthday party. She managed to find two more people to go, and she has hung onto one unused ticket for years.

It’s just one of several highlights in Brooke’s life.

“I’ve also been to Buckingham Palace,” she said. “Those two things were ones that were unplanned and I took advantage of it.”

She has been down in caves and diamond mines, was part of a rock band in the 1980s as a singer, and has met many celebrities through her various careers.

She moved back to Canada in 1989, and to Abbotsford three years ago to be closer to her daughter.

“I’ve had many wonderful adventures,” she says.

READ MORE: Abbotsford’s Clayburn Village: A short history on B.C.’s first company town


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View of Madison Square Garden during a Democratic Party fund-raising dinner and birthday salute to President John F. Kennedy. New York City, New York. (Cecil Stoughton/ White House Photographs, courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

Jessica Peters

About the Author: Jessica Peters

I began my career in 1999, covering communities across the Fraser Valley ever since.
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