“Joe and Marilyn”, by Roger Kahn.
I picked this book off the sale rack for 50 cents. The second book in a 2 for $1 sale. I didn’t want to have the cashier make change for a $1. I wasn’t expecting much.
It is a great book from the start. The Clipper is reclusive but polite, defensive but uninhibited with his friends; a lady hound but one who wants to be a one woman man.
It’s a sad story about an impossible love between two impossible people.
Joe and Marilyn are two people to whom it would be difficult to remain married by the most tolerant of us. Marilyn was a depressive. She was unceasingly flirtatious, even when married. She had mental illness in her gene pool, and it became manifest. DiMaggio had a thing for pretty showgirls, liked to spend every night socializing with the boys, was unskilled in the ways of friendship. He moodily and silently moved only within a sphere of trusted family and friends. Neither one of them was a day at the beach.
Joe’s father, Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio, emigrated from Western Sicily, near Palermo, where only 1 in 10 natives could read. He took a ship to New York and a train to the San Francisco area in 1898, travelling 7,300 miles alone. Giuseppe got a job, learned to read and write, saved enough money to send for his wife Rosalee & daughter Nellie in 1903, and raised 9 kids in a two room cottage. In the DiMaggio family, the Father was all powerful and the Mother called the shots within the home.
Joe was #8 in the birth order, 3 years younger than his predecessor, Vince, and 3 years older than baby Dominic.
The DiMaggios came from a long line of fisherman and Giuseppe continued in that line. He bought a boat and pressed his sons into service. One of them did not cooperate. Joe had no interest in fishing. No interest in Fishing. No interest in school either. He was a drop out. Had Baseball not come to Joe so easily, his family would have been shocked had he ever amounted to anything.
Young Joe D. lived in a world bounded by neighborhood, family and friends. He trusted the familiar. He inherited his father’s skepticism. He was hyper vigilant about being cheated. After all, uneducated Dagos could be an easy mark for the unscrupulous.
Joe took a defensive edge with him to New York. Writers got one chance to prove they were trustworthy. The first time they misquoted him they went on the permanent shit list.
He arrived in New York City reserved, insulated, yet stable. He came from a supportive family that stuck together. And he certainly was arrogant about his baseball prowess.
He was the opposite of Marilyn.
She was born to a Mother that didn’t want to raise her. Mom suffered from mental and emotional challenges. Soon after birth, Norma Jean was in the care of her Grandmother. The Grandmother, also with emotional challenges, soon delegated care of Madeline into a foster home, for which Marilyn’s mother paid a monthly fee of $25. Marilyn stayed in this fairly stable environment until she was 9, at which time she began to live in a succession of foster homes where she was groped, perhaps assaulted, and denied the benevolent love of a Mom & Dad. She married her neighbor to get out of foster care when she was 16 and he was 21. She was soon left behind when her husband joined the Merchant Marines. Soon, an independent, young & beautiful Marilyn began to work around Los Angeles as a calendar and photographic model, ultimately gaining an entrée into a series of film studios and contracts.
Kahn recounts that Marilyn was loose, rumored to be a prostitute and posed nude to pay her rent. She denied sex to studio executives who were obnoxiously forward, but gave it freely to execs who treated her like a friend. Kahn sources say that Marilyn not only had the greatest bottom in Hollywood, but was also the most able at performing fellatio. I kid you not.
Joe and Marilyn came from very different places, yes.
Joe was guarded and touched by arrogance. He was strongly motivated by money, just like his contemporary, Ted Williams.
Marilyn was possessed with a desire to be rich and famous and acclaimed and was determined to use her sexuality to accomplish these things.
Joe had a wife before marrying Marilyn. Dorothy Arnold and Joe DiMaggio met on the set of Manhattan Merry-Go-Round. She was delighted to become famous by marrying the most famous ballplayer in America. Although Joe & Dorothy fell in love at first sight, it was doomed. “He wanted to live in San Francisco. She preferred Los Angeles or New York. He wanted a hausfrau, but picked a woman who had rejected domestic life for show business. He wanted a pliant pinup. Instead he found someone with strong ideas of her own.” This would all resurface with Marilyn.
After giving us Joe and Marilyn’s childhood backgrounds, the author describes their ascendant careers, recapping the MVP awards he won, the pictures she made, the affairs in which they indulged. His hitting streak. Her seduction of America. Her studio contracts. His contract holdouts.
Kahn takes us quickly through their courtship, a teeter totter of fixation by Joe, and resistance by Marilyn. Resistance to marrying again, that is. There was zero resistance to immediate sex with the Slugger.
The marriage lasted just 9 months, exploding along with DiMaggio’s temper on a Manhattan Street where MM was filming the “7th Year Itch”, at the very moment they recorded that iconic scene in which a subway wind blows Marilyn’s skirt up to her navel.
The divorce was only a matter of time.
Through it all, he loved her.
He could not tolerate her public sexuality. But he cared for her deeply, taking control of her funeral plans upon her death in 1962.
As I said, It’s a sad story about an impossible love between two impossible people.
I hope you find the time read this book. Kahn gives a view of Joe untainted by fan ardor. The reader will find Joe to be both selfish and honorable. The reader will find Marilyn to be a lost cause.
On the subject of money, Kahn recounts Joe’s remarkable holdout of 1938. Only 23 years old and with 2 seasons under his belt, Joe demanded a salary increase from $15,000 to $40,000. He had the stats to back up the request. But he did not have the cooperation of his feudal lord, Colonel Rupert. One of the delicious tidbits of that holdout is that although DiMaggio was ridiculed & criticized publicly by Ruppert, the Colonel turned down an offer of $150,000 cash from the Browns for Joe. Ruppert was determined that if Joe wouldn’t sign, would not play anywhere.
9 years after The Colonel turned down $150,000 for Joe, Ed Barrow acted similarly, turning down a straight trade with the Nats of Joe for Mickey Vernon, who had just won the AL batting title with a .353 average. Barrow and Rupert both knew how critical Joe was to their financial success.
Should have known it would be good when I saw the author was Roger Kahn. When I was 15, two books made me love Baseball history. One was Ball Four, the other was Kahn’s Boys of Summer, a book I not only read, but re-read, and savored.
Through Kahn’s telling, Joe’s legend stands tall off the playing field as well as on it. “As no young ballplayer before him, he had elected to challenge the Yankees and with them the full feudal power of organized baseball.”
I love that about Joe. Marvin Miller would love that.
Many years after he lost the salary battle, Joe reflected silently about how the men who once had all the power now complained that their players had too much power. And in Kahn’s memory, silent Joe wore a grim look that said “The Bastards did it to themselves.”
It is 1939. DiMaggio is betting .408 on Sept. 8. He comes down with an eye inflammation. A man of his times, Joe refuses to take time off. His average plummets 27 points. He posts a .381 B.A., highest of his career. But if not for an allergy that led to an inflammation….who knows?
Ineluctable. Sonorous. Protean. Hoydenish. These are the words of Kahn that sent me to the dictionary. A good book should do that at least 4 times.
Thanks for the inspiring read, Roger.