joe dimaggio and marilyn monroe -- 4/13/15

Today's selection -- from Masters of the Games by Joseph Epstein. Joe DiMaggio was one of the most famous men ever to play baseball for the New York Yankees, second perhaps only to Babe Ruth himself. In 1954, he married the most famous Hollywood actress in the world -- Marilyn Monroe:

"In his bachelor days, [biographer Richard Ben] Cramer tells us, DiMaggio was happy to dance between the sheets with any woman who was ready and willing; and, fame being a great aphrodisiac, more than a few were. ...

"That Joe was not much of a husband also appears on [Cramer's] bill of complaint. What he was was a husband on the Sicilian model. He married his first wife, an actress named Dorothy Arnold, in 1939, in a wedding in San Francisco that required police crowd control. They had a son, Joe Jr. Conflict did not take long to get under way. The new Mrs. DiMaggio wanted both her marriage and a career in the movies. Joe did not see much point in the latter. Something had to give, and soon enough the marriage did.

"In the middle of this marriage, DiMaggio had his 56-game hitting streak, still unsurpassed in the majors, which ran from May 15 to July 17, 1941, when it was stopped in Cleveland by a negligible pitcher named Al Smith. (The next day he began a streak that lasted for an additional fifteen games.) Once under way, the streak put him in the headlines every day, taking people's mind off the war in Europe. His teammate Lefty Gomez said, 'He seemed like a figure, a hero, that the whole country could root for.' And they did, except at home; in 1944 his wife sued for divorce, charging mental cruelty. Translation: indifference.

"DiMaggio's second marriage, to Marilyn Monroe, has been more exhaustively chronicled than the relationship between Romeo and Juliet. When they first met, she, sweet ditz, was perhaps the only person in the country who had never heard of him. He had been out of the majors for a few years, and their courtship put him back in the headlines. 'They are folk heroes, Marilyn and Joe,' wrote the sports columnist Jimmy Cannon, 'a whole country's pets.' They were the best athlete and the sexiest girl, the king and queen of the prom, with the whole nation as high school. They married in 1954, when she was twenty-seven, he thirty-nine. They had only their fame in common.

"The marriage was unrelieved hell. She thought he did not care enough about her career; he was jealous and discouraged by her willingness to play the national bimbo. On their honeymoon in Japan, she went off to entertain the troops in Korea. Lots of other men were always sniffing around. She was rumored to wear no underwear, and then, in the famous photograph of her skirt blowing up while she stood on an air grate for the movie The Seven-Year Itch, she showed the entire world that this was not so. Joe was on the set the day the scene was shot. Cramer quotes the director Billy Wilder, who recalls 'the look of death' on his face. Murder may have been more like it. He roughed her up that night, and three weeks later she filed for divorce. The marriage lasted nine months. ...

"Although a lousy husband, ... DiMaggio proved an excellent ex-husband to Marilyn Monroe. He looked after her as best he could, coming to her aid whenever needed. This was fairly often, for she needed a lot of looking after, not least when she landed in Payne Whitney for mental problems and he bailed her out. He always despised Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford for pimping her, and the Kennedy brothers, John and Bobby, for treating her like a whore. Cramer reports that Joe and Marilyn planned to remarry, and when she was found dead in her apartment in 1962 an unfinished letter to him lay beside her body. He went to his own grave believing they -- 'the f**king Kennedys,' a friend reported him calling them -- had killed her.

"Nowhere did DiMaggio seem so gallant, or so tragic, as in the aftermath of Marilyn Monroe's death, when he stepped in to take care he details of the funeral, seeing that it was conducted in dignified privacy and arranging that fresh roses be sent to her crypt every two weeks 'forever.' At the time, I remarked on the impressiveness of this Saul Bellow who knew Arthur Miller, who was Monroe's husband after her divorce from DiMaggio. According to Bellow, Miller had said DiMaggio used to beat her up fairly regularly. 'You know,' he added, 'brutality is often the other side of sentimentality.'


Joseph Epstein


Masters of the Games: Essays and Stories on Sport


Rowman & Littlefield Publishers


Copyright 2015 by Joseph Epstein


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