It’s one of the most unforgettable, uncomfortable moments of 20th century pop culture: Marilyn Monroe serenading President John F. Kennedy as he turned 45 with a sultry, breathy rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” in May 1962. Considering that Monroe and Kennedy were widely rumored to have been lovers, this might have been some of the most brazenly inappropriate public flirting of all time.
Monroe’s gown from that evening—a skintight, flesh-colored, crystal-bedecked Jean Louis creation based on a Bob Mackie sketch—became an icon in its own right. And this week, the souffle gauze garment brought in a whopping $4.8 million at auction, far exceeding the $3 million guide price. Purchased on Thursday by the RIpley’s Believe It Or Not museum chain (presumably as a future exhibit), the clingy dress was the centerpiece of an extensive, three-day auction of Monroe’s possessions at Julien’s auction house in Beverly Hills. Also under the hammer were Monroe’s writings, paintings, makeup, kitchenware, and even her handwritten recipe for stuffing.
Tempting as that stuffing recipe might be, it is the birthday dress—into which Monroe reportedly had to be sewn—that is now a record holder, having brought in a higher auction price than any other gown in history. (Monroe has surpassed herself in this specific category: The second-most expensive gown was the one she wore in The Seven Year Itch. That nabbed $4.6 million in 2011.) Besides its familiarity, what makes the birthday dress special is its undercurrent of tragedy, as this was one of Monroe’s final public appearances before her death in August 1962, and Kennedy himself was assassinated the next year.