At a luncheon when the Reagan presidency was in flower, an editor who was holding forth on American heroes asked if I'd take on a tough one.
"The Yankee Clipper," the editor said. "Jolting Joe. Did you know Marilyn used to call him 'Joe the Slugger' in that breathy, bedroom voice of hers. There's sarcasm there, don't you think, and doesn't that say a lot?"
Some of the biography the editor wanted would describe high deeds at Yankee Stadium, as Baseball Joe captured New York. Some would describe his life and hard times with Marilyn Monroe.
Eventually, Sports Illustrated decided to excerpt this book I had not yet agreed to write and offered me access to all the Joe and Marilyn files at all the Time Inc. publications--the research behind several hundred magazine articles. There it was, an offer I could not refuse.
A year later, starting the writing, I began with a summation of DiMaggio as he appeared in the fullness of years:
"Still formidable in his eighth decade, he is patient with a public that does not want him to grow old. His manner is practiced, courteous, even smooth. Certainly he will sign an autograph. He is flattered that you asked. Yes, the pennant race this season looks exciting and no, he certainly would not count out the New York Yankees. How is his golf? Well, it's not as good as he'd like it to be, but he has some fun.
"The geniality--it is the solemn geniality of a solemn figure--appears innate, but it is something Joe DiMaggio has cultivated, nurtured and developed for half a century. It surrounds him, pleasing his idolaters and concealing by its large expanse the complex, sometimes brooding man within.
"DiMaggio is comfortable with these circumstances. He wants his admiring public. He enjoys being fussed over, and who can blame him for that? But he wants a distance from the public, a deep greenbelt of privacy, and who can blame him for that either? His has been a thrilling life, but it also has been lonely and jolted by tragedy.
"When someone approaches to ask about Marilyn Monroe, the geniality dissolves. He rises and says in measured icy tones, 'Stop right there.' The words fall like a black curtain in front of him.
"They were ardent lovers, wonderful friends and perfectly wretched as husband and wife. And, of course, their affection, play, their shouted bickerings and private lusts were foreclosed beyond redemption when she took her life one August night in 1962.
"After that he wept and said, 'I love you,' and kissed her corpse as it lay in an open coffin.
"What really can he, can anyone, say about that?
"He tried to love her well.
"Somehow he failed."
He Was Always a Cut Above
The Joe DiMaggio I remember was charming and conflicted, vital and suspicious, vigorous and besieged by arthritis and peppered lightly with paranoia.
He wanted to be famous and he wanted to be left alone. He married the bounciest and most restless blond movie star of an era and then expected her to settle down in a quiet corner of San Francisco, at 2150 Beach St., for a life of ironing shirts and scrambling eggs. It amazed some of Marilyn's friends that her marriage to DiMaggio lasted as long as it did--nine months.
Although there was plenty of substance in his 84 years, and remarkable energy in the man, his life finally emerges, at least to me, as most of all a triumph of style. Joe DiMaggio knew how to play the public and the press, as few prominent figures before or since. (The young Charles Lindbergh and John Kennedy of the Camelot Kennedys were cut from some of this same cloth of gold.)
Mark Reese, the son of the Dodger captain and shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, remembers charming visits to the Hall of Fame with his father. A plane ride from Kentucky to Binghamton, N.Y. The drive up to Cooperstown. The room overlooking Lake Glimmerglass.
"Dad always took the bed by the window," Mark said. "He'd earned it."
Unlike the other Hall of Famers, DiMaggio did not arrive by rented car. He chose to come by chartered helicopter.
"Why is that?" Mark Reese asked his father one summer.
"Son," Pee Wee Reese said, "you have to understand. There are Hall of Famers. And then there is Joe DiMaggio."
DiMaggio's major league career, though distinguished, was relatively brief. He played for only 13 seasons. By contrast, Willie Mays played for 22, Hank Aaron for 23, Ty Cobb for 24.
DiMaggio was a strong right-handed power hitter, but he could not hit a baseball as far as two of his approximate contemporaries, Hank Greenberg and Jimmy Foxx. Nor could he match their numbers. Greenberg and Foxx each had a 58-home run season. DiMaggio never hit more than 46. DiMaggio's lifetime home run total, 361, is respectable, but bettered by Duke Snider, Frank Howard, Norm Cash and more than a score of other mortals who did not ride in choppers.