Bill Ray, a Life magazine photographer who depicted celebrities, political leaders and international conflicts, once climbed a catwalk to portray Marilyn Monroe as she crooned "Happy Birthday" to President John F. Kennedy.

During his 15 years with the magazine, the Nebraska native photographed a young Elvis Presley and an aging Frank Lloyd Wright. He traveled around the world on an almost unlimited expense account, spending months on photographic essays.

What may be Ray's most recognizable image was not published until more than 20 years after he took it. On May 19, 1962, dozens of celebrities gathered at New York's Madison Square Garden to celebrate JFK's 45th birthday. (The first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, whom Ray often photographed before and after the birthday party, did not attend.)

The Secret Service herded the photographers behind a rope, giving all of them the same view of the stage. But Ray knew his editors would demand an angle no one else would have.

He slipped away and went backstage, scaling the catwalks and girders until he was high above the stage. "It seemed that I climbed forever," he said.

Ray watched from above as Monroe took off a fur stole to reveal a backless, skintight dress covered in sparkling crystals. Then Monroe began to sing a slow, breathy version of "Happy Birthday," looking directly at Kennedy.

"Everybody just went into a swoon," Ray told Life.com in 2014.

His photo showing Monroe from behind, her left hand extended at her side, was not published until it appeared in a special issue of Life in the 1980s. Since then, it has been widely shown, with individual prints selling for four figures.

A year after the JFK birthday party, Ray moved to Hollywood for Life and officially joined the magazine's staff in 1964. He often visited movie sets, photographing such film stars as Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Marlon Brando.

William Robert Ray was born Feb. 16, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, and grew up in Shelby, Nebraska, where his father ran a lumberyard. His mother was an artist who encouraged her three sons' aesthetic pursuits. One of Ray's brothers became an artist, and another became a news photographer.

By the time he was 11, Ray was developing photographs in a darkroom. He joined a camera club in Omaha, 90 miles away, persuading his mother to drive him to meetings.

While still in high school, he walked into the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper with his photos and was offered a job on the spot. He joined the paper immediately after his high school graduation in 1953. He later worked for newspapers in Chicago and Minneapolis and worked as a freelancer in New York.

Discussing his career with John Loengard for the 1998 book "Life Photographers: What They Saw," Ray said he kept his cameras at the ready and maintained a constant curiosity about the world around him.

"I think you're always snooping," he said. "There's nothing wrong with snooping, is there?"

Ray died Jan. 9 at age 83.

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