Book Review: Second Best Thing by James L. Swanson

Second Best Thing: Marilyn, JFK and A Night to Remember

by James L. Swanson

Amazon Publishing, 2020, 45 pages

It’s hard to know what the story is when you don’t know the full story. Despite how much has been written about Marilyn Monroe and President John F. Kennedy, there are still many hidden details. In James L. Swanson’s new book, Second Best Thing: Marilyn, JFK, and a Night to Remember, he explores the work of Cecil W. Stoughton, White House photographer during Kennedy’s presidency. Swanson focuses on Kennedy’s 45th birthday party in Madison Square Garden and an exclusive gathering at Arthur and Mathilde Krim’s town house after the party.

Attended by thousands of people, VIPs and special guest Marilyn Monroe, the Madison Square Garden event was intended to be a fundraiser to pay off campaign debt from Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. The event is most famous for Marilyn Monroe’s breathless rendition of Happy Birthday, while wearing crystals and rhinestones on her near-sheer dress. Her desire for the young president was displayed for the world to see. As Swanson notes, it is a good thing the president’s wife Jackie was not in attendance.

Rumors of an affair had plagued Kennedy and Monroe during this era, but no one had a photograph of the two together. While leafing through Stoughton’s collection, up for auction at Bonham’s Madison Avenue Gallery, Swanson discovers an extraordinary picture from the town house party. There is a picture of Bobby Kennedy with Monroe. Monroe appears to be speaking. President Kennedy is turned away from the camera. His ear is closest to Monroe, as if listening to what she is saying.

It is a rare photo, and one that begs for more questions. The author notes that many people whispered that Monroe joined Kennedy back at his hotel after the party, but there is no evidence that it occurred. Instead, other photos suggest an epic event at the town house that included luminaries such as Shirley MacLaine, Jimmy Durante, Harry Belafonte, and Diahann Carroll. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Maria Callas, Elaine May, and Mike Nichols were also in attendance.

The structure of the story leads readers to wonder what else they don’t know about the relationship between President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. Bobby Kennedy’s presence in the photo also lends an air of mystery. After all, many people also believe that the younger Kennedy had an affair with Monroe. The movie star had only three months more to live after this photo was taken. President Kennedy would be assassinated a year later. The photo becomes a poignant moment in the passage of time.

Part of the fun in studying history is putting puzzle pieces together. Swanson is looking for anyone who might have more information about the town house party, the guest list and other details from that evening. Second Best Thing is a delightful meditation about time, people, and the importance of historians.