Joe and Marilyn
JOE DIMAGGIO HAD BEEN THINKING about Marilyn Monroe since the early spring of 1951, when he first saw her picture in the gossip column of a local San Francisco newspaper. Later, having retired after a thirteen-year baseball career as the star center fielder for the New York Yankees, he spotted her picture again, this time on the sports page of the same paper. Several major-league ball clubs had set up spring training camps in California, and to publicize their arrival, they asked a number of film studios to send over their most attractive young starlets to pose for press shots with the ballplayers. Twentieth Century–Fox dispatched Marilyn Monroe, whose recent ascent of the proverbial Hollywood success ladder had been characterized as nothing short of meteoric. Wearing high heels, tight white shorts, and a form-fitting blouse, she was handed a bat and told to assume her approximation of a batting stance, while Joe Dobson, the power-hitting left fielder, wrapped a muscular arm around her from behind in a feigned effort to improve her swing. Rounding out the photo, off to the side, was pitcher Gus Zernial, a bemused smile spread across his face.
The newspaper shot of Marilyn Monroe gripping a baseball bat evidently served to reignite Joe DiMaggio’s imagination. Hoping to meet the actress, he telephoned Zernial, an acquaintance, who replied that he had no idea how to contact Monroe. He could tell DiMaggio only that she’d been “warm and giggly”—and, “yes, of course,” beautiful as “all hell,” a “real looker.”
Following up on his Zernial inquiry, DiMaggio now called George Solotaire, a well-connected New York City ticket broker and one of Joe’s most trusted cronies. During DiMaggio’s final years with the Yankees, he and “Gentleman George” had shared a suite at the Elysée, 60 East Fifty-Fourth Street, known to insiders as the “Easy Lay Hotel.” About to join Joe in San Francisco for a long-planned two-week trip to Hawaii, Solotaire suggested that the person most likely to know Marilyn well enough to effect an introduction would be a chap named David March. A high-strung, fast-talking Hollywood publicist (and sometime talent agent), March had at one time lived in New York, where one of his hangouts had been Toots Shor’s, the Midtown Manhattan tavern popular among sportswriters and professional athletes; it was there that March had befriended both Solotaire and DiMaggio.
As March later recalled the sequence of events, he received a telephone call one evening from Solotaire in his office suite overlooking Sunset Boulevard. “Do you happen to know Marilyn Monroe?” asked the caller. “She’s an old personal friend of mine,” replied March. “Well then, Joe DiMaggio would like to meet her,” said Solotaire. And March said, “I think I can help.”
A few days later, March reached the actress at the Beverly Carlton Hotel in Los Angeles, where she was staying. “Marilyn,” he said, “there’s a nice guy I’d like you to meet.” “Are there any nice guys left?” she inquired. To which he said, “The guy is Joe DiMaggio.”
At first Marilyn said nothing. And then, “Who’s Joe DiMaggio?”
March couldn’t quite believe what he’d just heard. Was there anyone—man, woman, or child—who didn’t know the name Joe DiMaggio? The Yankee Clipper. Joltin’ Joe. The epitome of grace and style. Baseball’s greatest living legend. The ballplayer who led the Yankees to nine World Series championships. Three-time winner of the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award. Thirteen times an all-star, holder of a fifty-six-consecutive-game hitting streak, a record that would very likely stand until the end of time.
“Marilyn, you must be kidding,” said March. “You’ve never heard of Joe DiMaggio? He’s the greatest baseball player since Babe Ruth.” And she asked, “Who’s Babe Ruth?”
Marilyn consented to meet DiMaggio on the condition that David March join them and bring a date of his own along. “I’d be honored,” said the publicist. He made a seven o’clock dinner reservation for Saturday, March 15, at the Villa Nova, a trendy Italian restaurant across the street from his office. The Villa Nova’s dark wall paneling, cozy cherrywood booths, simple décor, and subdued lighting made it, according to March, an ideal spot for a dinner rendezvous between Joe and Marilyn. “The joint,” as he put it, “drips with romance.”
Aspiring actress Peggy Rabe, March’s date that evening, had met Monroe on a previous occasion during an informal gathering at actor Gene Kelly’s house and was looking forward to seeing her again. When she and David arrived at the restaurant, Joe was already sitting in a booth, waiting. The three of them ordered cocktails. Forty minutes later, they ordered a second round. Marilyn hadn’t yet arrived. Never a man of great patience, DiMaggio kept peeking at his watch. “I should’ve warned you, Joe,” said March. “The blonde Venus has never been on time for anything in her life.” He pointed out that she was presently in production on a film called Monkey Business, with Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers. “She probably got held up on the set. I’ll give her a ring.”
He called from a restaurant pay phone and found the actress in her hotel room.
“Marilyn, we’ve been waiting for you. Joe DiMaggio’s here. Remember? I told you Joe wanted to meet you.”
“Please, Dave,” she pleaded. “I’m very tired.”
“Marilyn, you can’t let me down,” said March. “We’re waiting for dinner. Joe DiMaggio’s a wonderful guy. You’ll like him.”
“But I’m not dressed,” she said. “I’m wearing my blue jeans.”
“Okay, so you’re in blue jeans. Come just as you are. You promised, Marilyn, remember?”
Reluctantly, wearily, Marilyn changed into a blue tailored suit and low-cut white blouse. She walked to her car and drove to the Villa Nova, making her entrance at eight thirty, an hour and a half late. Her date stood as she approached the table. “I’m glad to meet you,” he said.
Describing her initial encounter with Joe DiMaggio on that balmy Los Angeles night, Marilyn Monroe would state in her published memoir (as told to journalist and screenwriter Ben Hecht) that she had expected to meet a “loud, sporty fellow” with slicked-back hair and flashy clothes, a guy “with a New York line of patter” who talked a lot about things (and people) that didn’t in the least interest or concern her. Despite her earlier denial to David March, Marilyn admitted in her memoir that she’d actually heard of Joe DiMaggio but knew little about him beyond the obvious fact that he’d once been a major-league baseball player. As for baseball, she knew only that it was played with a bat, ball, and glove.
“When I met Joe that night,” she confessed, “my first thought was: ‘He’s different.’ ” She noticed his hair; it was sprinkled with gray. His fingernails were perfectly manicured. At thirty-seven, twelve years her senior, his six-foot-two-inch frame looked lean and capable. He wore a conservative gray suit and matching tie. “If I hadn’t been told he was some sort of ballplayer,” she remarked, “I would have guessed he was either a steel magnate or a congressman.”
For his part, DiMaggio seemed equally, if not more, impressed. The vision of Miss Monroe in the flesh surpassed even the fantasy he’d conjured from the newspaper images he’d seen of her. As the evening progressed, Marilyn noticed that her blind date barely touched his food. Nor did he speak. He did little more than smile and stare at her. At one point, she opened her blue eyes wide and exhaled breathlessly. Observing Joe’s reaction at that very moment, David March said later, “You could almost hear Mr. DiMaggio going to pieces.” It was an understandable reaction. Marilyn had reached her physical peak. Never again would she be as vital and high-spirited. In his quasi biography of Monroe, Norman Mailer would describe her at this time looking as though she’d been “fed on sexual candy.”
Other than DiMaggio’s polite opening line, the only audible verbal exchange between Joe and Marilyn took place when she noticed a blue polka dot located precisely in the middle of his gray tie knot.
Pointing at his tie, she asked him, “Did it take you long to fix it like that?”
He responded “no” by shaking his head.
Marilyn could readily see her dinner companion was not a man to waste words. “Acting mysterious and far away while in company was my own sort of specialty,” she noted. “I didn’t see how it was going to work on somebody who was being mysterious and far away himself.”
The actress would soon learn that DiMaggio’s silence while in the company of others was hardly an act—it was and had always been his natural state. It wasn’t that he had nothing to say, only that he chose not to say it. It wasn’t that he lacked self-confidence; on the contrary, he had almost too much of it. Thinking back on the evening, Marilyn would have to admit that if his remoteness somehow annoyed her, it also served to pique her interest.
Her awareness was further heightened by the furtive glances of recognition that came from diners at neighboring tables. They were directed not at Marilyn but rather at Joe DiMaggio. It soon dawned on her that this man was not just an ordinary ballplayer—he was evidently an exceptional ballplayer, an idol, perhaps even a hero of sorts. And from all indications, his renown seemed to extend far beyond the male-dominated world of baseball.
Her growing sense of DiMaggio’s preeminence reached another plateau when Mickey Rooney sauntered over from the restaurant bar and pulled up a chair. In 1950 Rooney had offered Marilyn a brief role in one of his more forgettable films, The Fireball. The veteran actor, however, joined the dinner group not to see Monroe but to talk to DiMaggio. An avid baseball fan, Rooney wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to rub shoulders with one of the game’s most famous players. He wanted to hear all about outfielder Al Gionfriddo’s spectacular one-handed catch of Joe’s towering drive in game six of the 1947 World Series between the Yanks and the Brooklyn Dodgers, a catch that resulted in an uncharacteristic reaction on DiMaggio’s part. Rounding first and heading for second, the ever stoic Yankee Clipper had kicked the base path in a rare public display of anger and frustration. But that particular play was only the beginning. Undaunted by DiMaggio’s seeming reluctance to engage in conversation, Rooney chattered on for nearly an hour, recalling sundry highlights of the former center fielder’s illustrious career.
“Rooney wouldn’t go away,” said March. “I tried signaling him, but he didn’t take the hint. He just kept hanging around, talking baseball.”
Unable to disengage Rooney from the table, March began sharing his own recollections of the “good old days” at Toots Shor’s, when the great DiMaggio would show up after a game and practically be carried into the establishment on the shoulders of his many admirers. “He was a god!” exclaimed March. “A fucking god!”
March’s discourse on the ballplayer caught the attention of two other baseball enthusiasts at a nearby table, and they too came over to partake of the merriment. One of them knew exactly how many hits, homers, and runs batted in Joe had produced during each of his years with the Yankees. A walking, talking baseball encyclopedia, he reeled off a litany of statistics, none of which meant a thing to Monroe.
DiMaggio remained silent. His restraint was not lost on Marilyn. “Mr. DiMaggio,” she commented in her memoir, “didn’t try to impress me or anybody else. The other men talked and threw their personalities around. Mr. DiMaggio just sat there. Yet somehow he was the most exciting man at the table. The excitement was in his eyes. They were sharp and alert . . . I thought, ‘You learn to be silent . . . like that from having millions of people look at you with love and excitement while you stand alone getting ready to do something.’ ”
In Hollywood, Marilyn would assert, “the more important a man is, the more he talks. The better he is at his job, the more he brags. By these Hollywood standards of male greatness my dinner companion was Mr. Nobody. Yet I had never met any man in Hollywood who got so much respect and attention at a dinner table. Sitting next to Mr. DiMaggio was like sitting next to a peacock with its tail spread.”
Although Marilyn considered DiMaggio an intriguing figure, his aloof and standoffish manner confused her. Since her comment to him about his tie, they had said practically nothing to each other. She felt neglected and rebuffed. She wondered why he had wanted to meet her in the first place. Did he even know that she was an actress? And if he did know, did he care? As respectable and celebrated as he appeared to be, he had nevertheless made no effort to get to know her. Rationalizing the situation, she conjectured that DiMaggio was “the kind of egomaniac who would rather cut off an arm than express some curiosity about somebody else.”
Convinced that the evening had been a waste of everyone’s time, Marilyn ultimately decided to leave. It was nearly eleven o’clock. She said she’d had a hard day at the studio, and she was exhausted. She thanked David March, excused herself, and stood.
Joe DiMaggio also stood.
“May I see you to the door?” he asked.
He followed her through the restaurant to the front entrance, where he broke his silence again.
“I’ll walk you to your car,” he said.
Marilyn owned a white 1949 Ford convertible, which she’d parked a block from the restaurant. When they reached her car, DiMaggio had more to say.
“I’m not staying very far from here,” he said, “and I haven’t any transportation. Would you mind dropping me at my hotel?”
“Not at all,” said Marilyn, “as long as you don’t mind the mess.” Sliding into the car, DiMaggio noticed that the backseat was piled high with books, newspapers, film scripts, empty soda bottles, candy wrappers, half-eaten candy bars, and assorted articles of clothing. On top of the slag heap sat a camera and a tennis racquet. On top of the tennis racquet were five or six traffic tickets. When he later described the scene to George Solotaire, Joe said it looked like a bomb had gone off in the backseat.
“Where are you staying?” Marilyn asked.
“At the Knickerbocker. It’s on North Ivar.”
Marilyn drove for several minutes. Then, as she reported in her memoir, she “began to feel depressed.” For some difficult to define reason, she didn’t want Joe DiMaggio to step out of her car and out of her life forever, “which was going to happen” as soon as they reached his hotel.
DiMaggio must have experienced a similar sense of impending loss. As they approached the Knickerbocker, he said, “I don’t feel like turning in. Would you mind driving around a little while?”
“It’s a lovely night for a drive,” Marilyn answered.
They drove around for the next three hours, and for much of that time DiMaggio did something he’d almost never done before. He talked about himself. He opened up and didn’t stop. He told Marilyn about his days as a baseball player with the New York Yankees ball club. When he arrived in New York in 1936 as a twenty-one-year-old rookie, he wore a new business suit and visited the top of the recently completed Empire State Building, where, by chance, he met Fiorello La Guardia, the city’s renowned Italian American mayor. Tony Lazzeri, the veteran Yankees infielder, who also hailed from San Francisco, took the trouble to show DiMaggio around. Joe found New York intriguing, and he loved baseball; but in truth, the sport had served him primarily as a springboard, a means to an end, a way to avoid having to follow in his father’s footsteps as a commercial fisherman. As a young man, he had no particular ambitions. He didn’t know what he wanted to do in life; he knew only what he didn’t want to become.
His parents, Giuseppe and Rosalie, had come to America from Isola delle Femmine, a Sicilian island adjacent to Palermo in the Golfo di Carini, where the DiMaggios had been fishermen for generations. His father had arrived first and, after saving enough money, had sent for Rosalie. They settled in Martinez, a small fishing village twenty-five miles northeast of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was there, on November 25, 1914, that he Joe was born, the eighth of nine children. Less than a year later, Zio Pepe, as his father was known, packed his fishing boat with everything they owned and moved the family into a four-room ground-floor flat at 2047 Taylor Street, a three-story building on the slope of Russian Hill, in San Francisco. The rent on the apartment came to $25 per month.
Overlooking resplendent San Francisco Bay, North Beach (“a tiny town within a large city”) encompassed a quarter mile of row houses, bars, restaurants, and coffeehouses. Fisherman’s Wharf, with its endless stream of tourists and sightseers, stood at the bottom of the steep, ski-slope-like hill that led to the DiMaggio residence. Hundreds of small fishing vessels bobbed gently in the waters below. Seagulls wheeled above, swooping down for an occasional morsel of discarded food. In the early-morning hours, the old fishermen, most of them Italian immigrants like Giuseppe, could be seen standing in clusters, patching their nets and repairing their boats.
Zio Pepe, a short, robust man who spoke almost no English, rose at four o’clock in the morning six days a week to comb the Bay for crab. He worked hard not only because he had to but also because he believed you were supposed to. He expected his five sons, each of whom bore the middle name Paul (after the family’s patron saint), to do likewise. Money was sparse, but pride was plentiful in the DiMaggio household. Until he turned twelve, Joseph Paul DiMaggio wore hand-me-downs and earned his keep at the dinner table by toiling after school on Zio Pepe’s fishing boat. Two of his older brothers—Mike and Tom—had withdrawn from school to work with Dad on a full-time basis.
Joe had other thoughts. He’d begun playing baseball at the local Boys’ Club. One day he made off with a broken oar from his father’s boat and fashioned it into a baseball bat. Baseball violated Zio Pepe’s “code of life,” his oft-proclaimed notion that financial independence and self-respect could be attained only by adhering to a strict work ethic. He became infuriated and called his son lagnuso, lazy, meschino, good-for-nothing. “You a bum!” he shouted in broken English. Rosalie DiMaggio calmed her husband by informing him that Joe had procured an after-school job working in an orange juice plant. In Joe’s eyes anything beat having to swab the deck of his father’s boat. It wasn’t the fishing itself or being out on the open water (unless it was very choppy) that bothered Joe; it was the stench of fish and crab entrails after the boat had been at sea. Cleaning up “that mess” nauseated Joe. Mike and Tom would watch with amusement as their younger brother leaned over the side of the boat and puked his guts out.
To help pay his share of the household expenses, Joe undertook several jobs, none for longer than six months. After leaving the orange juice plant, he went to work on the docks, followed by employment in a cannery and eventually at a warehouse, loading and unloading trucks. When all else failed, he resorted to hawking newspapers on street corners, at the same time perfecting his athletic skills by playing ball in the sandlot leagues of North Beach, not far from home.
Joe recalled the difficult days of the Great Depression when he and the rest of his family would sit in the Taylor Street kitchen under long strips of sticky yellow flypaper hanging from the ceiling to catch the flies and other insects that flew into the house. In the heat of summer, before the advent of the air conditioner, it was necessary to keep the windows and screen door open. “I felt as if I were stuck to the flypaper,” Joe told Marilyn. “I felt utterly doomed, like one of those poor insects. In 1929 I started high school, and I hated it with a passion. I don’t think I cracked a single book that year. I wanted to quit school—and all those crazy jobs—and start playing ball full-time. Zio Pepe didn’t go for it. Two of my brothers—Vincent, two years older than me, and Dominic, two years younger—had also developed an interest in baseball. The three of us shared a bedroom, and on weekends we would listen to the games on radio. It was our mother who finally went to bat for us. She confronted Zio Pepe and won the right for three of her sons to eventually become major-league baseball players.”
Rosalie DiMaggio appeared to be a well-bred lady, attired in plain, dark clothes, with her hair often fastened in a bun; she seemed to be an old-fashioned, old-world woman who would never question the opinions of her Sicilian fisherman husband. In reality she was much more sophisticated and open minded than Zio Pepe. “This is America,” she told him. “Everything is possible. Let the boys pursue their dreams. If they want to play baseball for a living, let them at least try.” She made this dramatic proclamation in Italian, her English being no better than her husband’s. And she made it, DiMaggio observed, at a time when Italian Americans were still all too commonly referred to as “guineas.”
In 1930, having completed the ninth grade, Joe dropped out of school and, two years later, signed on to play minor-league baseball with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. The following year he captured the attention of nearly every major-league scout by hitting safely in sixty-one straight games. His teammates called him “the Walloping Wop.” In 1934 the New York Yankees purchased DiMaggio from the Seals for $25,000 and five yet-to-be-named players. In 1936 he got three hits in his first major-league game and wound up the season with a .323 batting average. The Yankees topped the standings in the American League that season and went on to win the World Series. The owners of the ball club attributed the team’s success largely to the Iron Horse, first baseman Lou Gehrig, as well as to the efforts of their star rookie. Joe DiMaggio wasn’t just a phenomenon at the plate; he was equally adept in the field. Even if he had to say so himself, he possessed an uncanny instinct for the game, a sixth sense, which enabled him to make the most difficult play look easy. It was a skill shared by few. On the Yankees, only Gehrig, fast approaching the end of his career, and catcher Bill Dickey could be compared to DiMaggio.
Two of Joe’s brothers also wound up in the majors. Dom, known as the “little professor” because he wore glasses when he played, signed with the Boston Red Sox. Vince played in the National League for no fewer than five teams, including the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Giants. All three played the same position: center field.
The DiMaggio siblings garnered an abundance of publicity. They weren’t the only brothers playing major-league baseball at that time, but because there were three of them, all playing the same position and all doing well, the attention came in a variety of forms. Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons wrote that the saga of the DiMaggio family would make a “great movie,” and inquiries arrived at the Taylor Street homestead from a number of producers and film studios. There were countless articles in newspapers and magazines. There were dozens of requests for radio interviews, television having not yet arrived. Every Italian American group and organization in America invited the brothers to become honorary members. Grantland Rice, then the nation’s most famous sportswriter, got so caught up in the excitement that he penned a poem and ran it in his column: “Out the olive trail they go—Vincent, Dominic, and Joe . . . Who is it that steals the show? Vincent, Dominic, and Joe.”
But what most pleased the Yankee Clipper was that Zio Pepe soon became the baseball trio’s most ardent fan. He regaled the other North Beach fishermen with daily updates on their latest feats. He scanned the box scores in the newspaper every morning to see how his sons had performed the day before. He adorned his living room with photographs of his offspring in their respective team uniforms. For each son, he compiled a scrapbook of sports page items and articles clipped from the newspapers by his four daughters. He even traveled east one year to watch his boys play in person.
“He never fully understood the game,” Joe told Marilyn. “He showed up in a straw hat, then simply stood and cheered with the rest of the crowd. What he liked most were the hot dogs they served at Yankee Stadium, though he complained they were too expensive. The next time he came to the stadium, he said, he’d bring along his own food.”
The more DiMaggio spoke, the more Monroe liked him. He hadn’t told her everything about himself, but he’d told her enough. Two and a half hours had elapsed, and they were still driving around Hollywood and Beverly Hills in Marilyn’s car. Not yet done, Joe began speaking, in an almost boastful manner, about his relationships with women.
According to Marilyn’s memoir, he revealed that he “worried” whenever he went out with “a girl.” He didn’t mind going out once with her. It was the second time that made him uneasy. As for the third time, that eventuality seldom took place. He had a “loyal friend” named George Solotaire who “ran interference” for him and, when necessary, “pried the girl loose.”
“Is Mr. Solotaire in Hollywood with you?” Marilyn inquired.
“Yes,” said DiMaggio. “He’s staying with me at the Knickerbocker.”
“I’ll try not to make too much trouble when he starts prying me loose,” she said.
“I don’t think I will have use for Mr. Solotaire’s services this trip,” he replied.
They drove on without speaking for a while, but Marilyn didn’t mind. She had the feeling that “compliments from Mr. DiMaggio were going to be few and far between,” so she was “content” to sit in silence and enjoy the one he’d just paid her.
Several minutes later, he spoke up again.
“I saw your picture the other day,” he told her.
“Which movie was it?” she asked.
“It wasn’t a movie. It was a photograph of you on the sports page. You were holding a baseball bat.”
Marilyn remembered the photo session with Gus Zernial and Joe Dobson.
“I imagine you must have had your picture taken doing publicity shots like that a thousand times,” she said.
“Not quite,” Joe answered. “The best I ever got was Ethel Barrymore or General MacArthur. You’re prettier.”
“Two compliments in one sitting,” remarked Marilyn. “This must be my lucky night.”
“Here’s another compliment for you,” said DiMaggio. “I wouldn’t have waited at the Villa Nova as long as I did if I hadn’t really wanted to meet you. I kept thinking of that sports page photo. I figured you must like ballplayers.” Actually, Joe’s admission that he found Marilyln attractive had an odd effect on her. “I had read reams on reams of writing about my good looks, and scores of men had told me I was beautiful,” she said in her memoir. “But this was the first time my heart had jumped to hear it. I knew what that meant, and I began to mope. Something was starting between Mr. DiMaggio and me. It was always nice when it started, always exciting. But it always ended in dullness.”
It did not end in dullness that night. Marilyn returned to the Beverly Carlton and invited Joe to join her. He didn’t see George Solotaire again until the following morning when he took a cab back to the Knickerbocker Hotel. Solotaire was waiting for him.
“How’d it go?” he asked.
“Pretty damn well,” said DiMaggio.
Joe had known a lot of good-looking women but none more beautiful than Marilyn Monroe. He phoned her later that morning and in the afternoon sent her a bouquet of roses.
“You know,” he told Solotaire, “this is the first time I ever called up a girl the morning after. I had to ask her how she felt.”
Excerpted from Joe and Marilyn: Legends in Love
by C. David Heymann
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