In Joe & Marilyn, published in 1986, author Roger Kahn, probably best known for his book The Boys of Summer, announces early on that he is convinced Marilyn had mental problems, was depressed, and killed herself. That is his opinion, and he is entitled to it, but such a sweeping, un-nuanced statement leaves out any other possible interpretations. And it also keeps his hero, Joe DiMaggio, at a safe distance.
“They were exquisite lovers, wonderful friends, but perfectly wretched as husband-and-wife.”
Maybe the simple approach, at least as applied to DiMaggio, is the correct one. Joe was and still is a national hero, but he also seems to have been a fairly uncomplicated personality. Others might use the term rigid. But he was a product of his Sicilian background and the times he lived in. His main talents were applied to a sport that is about numbers and winning and losing. The complex emotional terrain of Hollywood was something he had no true understanding of and unconcealed disdain for. So how and why was he drawn to showgirls, and especially the ultimate movie star? That is a question that Kahn and others leave unanswered. Maybe Joe was more complex than he let on, even to Marilyn. Or maybe he always needed to play the hero, on and off the field, and Marilyn was often a damsel in distress.
|Joe visits Marilyn while she is filming River of No Return|
Kahn’s interest and sympathy is clearly more invested in Joe, and he spends a great many chapters detailing his amazing career with the New York Yankees, up to his retirement in 1951. Joe’s first wife was showgirl and sometime actress Dorothy Arnold, who he married in 1939. But Joe wasn’t around for much of the marriage and Dorothy moved to Reno to file for divorce three years later. Like his relationship with Marilyn, it was up and down, apart and together. Joe got Dorothy to relent, and they got back together for a few more years, but she was back in Reno in 1944 and this time it was final. Even after the divorce, Joe didn’t give up on the possibility of getting back with Dorothy — that is, until he began seeing Marilyn in 1952.
“As Lady Macbeth instructs us in high school English classes, raw ambition is unattractive and somewhat frightening. So shrewd young women with their eyes on stardom learn to conceal the drive behind the smiles and charm that are part of the acting craft.”
Kahn is talking in that quote about Dorothy. It’s a fairly sexist statement, but it does shed light on the obstacles that Marilyn also faced as she tried to pursue her own dreams of stardom, which conflicted with her other dreams of marriage and motherhood.
“She played dumb-blonde roles in musicals, speaking in a breathy staccato voice that seems affected now. It projected beguiling sex in the 1950s to a country that had not yet invented the R-rated Hollywood movie.”
When Kahn does write about Marilyn, he focuses mainly on her sex life prior to Joe, claiming that she only “slept around” in Hollywood with someone she felt really valued her. If she was expected to put out, she refused. He alleges she lost her first Fox contract for refusing to submit to Darryl Zanuck’s demands, and her Columbia contract for refusing the same with boss Harry Cohn. Maybe she just wasn’t attracted to either of them. She did have a (possibly sexual) relationship with elderly Fox board chairman Joe Schenck, who helped her get the Columbia contract. “I used to go to dinner at Schenck’s house. That was important because after Fox let me go, I was not eating so good on my own. He was always nice and friendly and open and warm to me, but I was not Schenck’s girl [bedmate], not ever. He was genuinely fond of me as a person.”
|A relaxed Marilyn and Joe|
One of the most interesting stories Kahn tells about DiMaggio directly parallels Marilyn’s struggles with her studio, and may tell more about why they could relate to one another than their obvious animal magnetism. In 1938, during his third season with the Yankees, DiMaggio demanded a raise, from $15,000 to an unprecedented $40,000 a year, which would have made him the highest paid baseball player at that time. He was the Yankees’ biggest star (as Marilyn was later Fox’s) and believed he deserved to be compensated accordingly. But Yankee president Colonel Jacob Ruppert (like Fox chairman Zanuck) insisted that $25,000 was more than enough. The tussle lasted weeks, even into the starting season, and there was plenty of (bad) press for the slugger as a result. DiMaggio finally had to accept Ruppert’s figure, and his fans turned against him temporarily for his stubbornness and perceived greed.
The majority of Joe & Marilyn treats them each separately, as entities on their way to one another. There is precious little about their two-year romance prior to their wedding, and understandably, not too much about their short, nine-month marriage. Kahn includes an oft-told tale about their wedding night: “Although they had been lovers for many months and reporters knew it, someone interviewed the room clerk who had checked them in, probably paying for the information. Yes the clerk said, DiMaggio had asked for a double bed. Anything else? He had also wanted to know if the room came with a television set. Another impudent joke. Who in the world, on his wedding night with Marilyn Monroe, wants to watch television? Joseph Paul DiMaggio, the almost perfect knight. (She would later complain seriously and sometimes angrily that he spent much too much of their time together fixated before a television set, not enough tending to her sexual needs.)”
|Checks and houndstooth, in color|
Soon after they became husband and wife Marilyn went back to work and Joe entertained himself with sports, and friends. They don’t seem to have spent much time together. “They settled briefly in his San Francisco house. Marilyn insisted she was having a wonderful time learning Italian cooking. In fact, there wasn’t much for her to do. Joe’s sister Marie ran the household. She’d been running it for years. DiMaggio lapsed into his familiar routine, playing golf and spending evening hours with male friends.”
Possibly the most interesting aspect of their relationship is how their friendship endured, even deepened, after their divorce, but this is not the book for anyone interested about that aspect of their lives. Marilyn and Joe may not have been destined for marital success, but they did seem to have been meant to be in each other’s lives. But for stories about Joe’s enduring passion and Marilyn’s continued respect and dependence on the former Yankee other sources will need to be consulted.
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