Trying to get an angle where he might be able to get both Marilyn and JFK in the frame, Ray moved higher up in the Garden … and suddenly the moment arrived.
“It had been a noisy place, everybody all ‘rah rah rah,’” Ray recalls. “Then boom, on comes this light. There was no sound — no sound. It was like outer space.” Marilyn was on the stage, taking off her white fur to reveal that scandalous dress underneath. “It was skin-colored and it was really tight. She didn’t wear anything underneath it, it was all sewn on, and those Swarovski crystals were sparkling. And she used this long pause…. Then finally, she comes out with ‘Happy Biiiiirthday’ — she starts the whole breathy thing — and everybody just went into a swoon. I was praying [that I could get the shot] because I had to guess at the exposure. It was a very long lens, which I had no tripod for, so I had to rest it on a pipe railing and try not to breathe.”
Above: Bill Ray’s most iconic photograph, and one of the most famous pictures ever taken of Marilyn Monroe, as she serenades JFK at the Garden.
(see more — LIFE Photographers Look Back)