Written by Silver Technicolor
If one picks up any magazine or newspaper from 1952 to 1954, articles about Joe and Marilyn are rife with rumours. The murky waters of columnist reports and dubious headlines can make truth-seeking difficult, but they can reveal surprising details while also painting a bigger picture. Pinpointing when Marilyn and Joe first met is a challenge in itself. Many biographers settled on a blind date organised on March 8th 1952. However, a press clipping from February 25th place them at Tallyho restaurant. As both Marilyn and Joe maintained the first meeting happened at Villa Nova followed by several dinners that week, we can only assume this was a subsequent date, placing their first encounter around February 20.
Those sightings didn’t take long to evolve into gossip-filled columns suggesting marriage or highlighting major trouble in paradise. Some may be fabricated, but there was a part of the truth to those hiccups.
As early as summer 1952, Joe’s frustration with Marilyn’s movie commitments was weighing heavily on their relationship. In Jock Carroll’s account of his time photographing Marilyn on the Niagara film set, he remembers Marilyn vainly trying to explain to Joe that she wouldn’t be able to visit him due to a schedule change. Around the same time, Joe would apologise in a letter after hurting Marilyn’s feelings, presumably in a spat provoked by his temperamental nature: “It annoys me no end to think that I have ‘bit’ your feelings […] all I ask is you forgive me.” (Letter to Marilyn, July 1952).
Marilyn’s legendary tardiness also appears to have been a source of conflict as demonstrated by an engraved compact clock gifted to her by Joe. This lifelong issue with punctuality would affect many of her personal and professional relationships. It sadly wouldn’t disappear during their marriage as shown in her 1954 promise to him: “I know it’s lousy of me to be so late so often and I promise to try a million times harder. I promise.”
The tension created by the physical distance was also heightened by external pressures. In June 1952, Dorothy Arnold – Joe’s ex-wife – had launched a very public lawsuit, citing alleged ‘inappropriate conversations’ between Marilyn and Joe while on outings with Joe Jr (“doll” and “beautiful legs” aren’t shocking terms by today’s standards, but they were enough to create a fuss at the time). Dorothy hoped to obtain full custody of Joe Jr and additional alimony. During this time Marilyn was asked to speak of Joe and Joe Jr, two topics she adamantly refused to discuss: “Joe’s wife has already named me in a legal action. It’s completely unfair to everybody”… “I don’t want to turn my personal life into publicity. I know Joe wouldn’t like it. It’s not right.” (Carroll, Falling for Marilyn)
This very delicate situation pushed Joe and Marilyn’s relationship almost to a point of no return. While Summer ‘52 was filled with reports of Joe introducing Marilyn to his family and friends with rumours of an imminent wedding, October columns saw Marilyn declaring the couple were now nothing more than “good friends”. A day before the lawsuit hearing, every article reported the union to be almost over, including Marilyn:
Whether the relationship was truly in trouble or not, it was an incredibly shrewd move from Marilyn to distance herself so publicly in order to help Joe keep his parental rights. He succeeded and the lawsuit was dismissed (Joe would later file his own suit to be granted more time with his son). The following interviews with Marilyn had her confirm she was still very much “stuck on Joe”, indicating this was more of a tactical diversion rather than real trouble.
1952 concluded with the couple in a much steadier and secure place, with Marilyn keeping ascending the Hollywood ladder and Joe surprising her at her apartment with a Christmas tree and champagne. Marilyn would tell Sidney Skolsky: “It’s the first time in my life anyone ever gave me a Christmas tree. I was so happy I cried.” The couple would also make a very rare joint appearance at the Cocoanut Grove for the New Year’s party:
By the start of 1953, it seemed the relationship was stronger than ever and wedding rumours filled the columns once again, ad nauseam. While away in Ensenada to celebrate Marilyn’s upcoming birthday, the tragic drowning of Joe’s brother called him back to San Francisco in a hurry. Joe was crushed by the loss of Mike DiMaggio – 46 years later he would name Michael’s son in his own will – while Marilyn tried her best to comfort him. This blow was followed by another unexpected period of grief as Marilyn learnt of the death of guardian and mother-figure Grace Goodard in September 1953. Soon the studio troubles would follow and force Marilyn at a crossroad in her career.
Nevertheless, the tragic events of 1953 shaped and reinforced a bond between Joe and Marilyn which outlived their rocky start and occasional spats.
Joe, you’ve never heard such cheering!Marilyn’s (alleged) words to Joe after performing in Korea, 1954
The argument that Joe was jealous to witness Marilyn stealing the limelight as his own star was descending is a popular one – but a fallacy. It has always been maintained by Joe’s friends, teammates and various people throughout his life that he abhorred being in the spotlight, most especially for anything other than baseball: “Fame irritated DiMaggio. He is one of the loneliest men I’ve ever met and usually he moved through crowds. The flattery most men enjoy embarrasses him. I’ve spent most of my adult life in the newspaper business. Joe DiMaggio is the shyest public man I met.” (Jimmy Cannon, Newsday Oct 5 1954)
The fact that he would suddenly become envious of his wife’s extreme fame is preposterous. Joe’s discontent seems to have stemmed from the consequences of that fame and the amount of time Marilyn was away from the demands of her public life. Like any actress, Marilyn was a subject and participant in the Hollywood star machine. While being committed to her relationship with Joe, columnists would often jubilate in her confessing she was “still keeping her eyes open and not ignoring other men”. This game of cat and mouse with the press completely foreign to Joe reinforced his contempt for such tactics, and Marilyn’s willingness to play along. As Sam Shaw would later put it, “one can fairly imagine he suffered in silence”.
Often cited as a cause of tension were the “risqué” outfits Marilyn would flaunt at events. In contrast Marilyn would dress fairly conservatively in private: “I’m the only girl Joe ever has known, I guess, who runs around in blue jeans and without make-up. He never criticizes me, but I’m sure he likes a girl to dress conservatively.” (The San Francisco Examiner, Dec 6 1953). This apparent contradiction between the jean-wearing outdoors-y girl and the overtly sexual public persona was perhaps too much for Joe to comprehend. Ironically, as she tried to build a more serious persona to seek dramatic recognition later on, her public outfits became less and less suggestive.
Since we couldn’t give each other up, marriage was the only solution to our problem.Marilyn (My Story, 1974)
However incomprehensible the logic of the above quote may be today, it would have been very shocking to live with a partner out of wedlock in the 1950s. The sheer obsession of the columns claiming Joe and Marilyn had married in secret only support this. Society and morals were such that when Marilyn flew to New York to see Joe on weekends, they would rent two rooms on the same floor, for appearances sake. In addition to promising eternal love, marriage was considered the only acceptable solution to the desire to share one’s life with a significant other.
Their attempt (and failure) of making this wedding a fairly private affair is a window to the extreme strain their public life would put on their marriage. Marilyn’s press agent Lois Weber Smith would later recall: “For a while, when they were married, Marilyn had the idea she could have both lives, the private and the public. She deceived herself in that. She couldn’t keep them separate. The press wouldn’t allow it. They were both too big, too famous, too much a part of America to just disappear when they weren’t working.”
This was a shared delusion, as Joe reflected in a 1954 True Magazine: “I suppose I’ve tried to avoid the spotlight off the ball field. Like any other guy with a job, I liked a private life when the day’s work was done. This was seldom possible. Since I’ve been married to Marilyn I’ve led a normal, quiet life. Of course, I’m out of baseball now, and that makes a difference.”
Rather ironically, he admits in the same interview the couple soon had to give up any city date nights as Marilyn’s fame became inescapable.
Joe’s retirement had meant a welcome respite from media pressure but Marilyn’s stratospheric ascent very much kept the spotlight shining on them, in spite of their wishes for a private relationship.
Their rarely-mentioned two week getaway honeymoon in Idyllwild that began just after their wedding vows was a sample of a life in the shadows: “Joe and I took long walks in the snow… [we] talked a lot. We really got to know each other”. The crazed reception they received for their official honeymoon to Japan soon brought them back to the reality they should expect for the years to come. The feeling of living in a fishbowl became impossible to ignore.
One has to wonder how neither Marilyn or Joe could foresee the inevitable obstacles ahead. Would Marilyn have children and go back to work? Would the studios even want her back? Would she travel back and forth from San Francisco whenever she worked on a project? But would she cope being away from her children?
All those questions were asked but answers differed, often vague and never quite final. The geographical distance they both couldn’t seem to close while dating started to fuel new arguments in their new married life.
We just can’t seem to fit the schedules together.Marilyn when asked about Joe not being with her for the start of The Seven Year Itch
Dominic DiMaggio gives an extremely rare insight into Joe’s side: “[Marilyn] was a nice-looking person, but I didn’t approve of her thinking. Her career was first. Joe could not condone the things that Marilyn had to do. Joe wanted a wife he could raise children with. She could not do that. When they separated, I wrote to them that it was important for them to stay together, to try to make it work, that the whole world looked upon their marriage as the ideal. I know Marilyn accepted the letter and read it to Joe, but it did not help. Joe had wanted that relationship to work. He held on to it for the rest of his life.”
While Joe perceived his public life as a job he was finally retiring from, Marilyn saw pleasure in the attention. This career had been a ticket out of poverty for Joe, but for Marilyn it was a validation, a chance to feel the love she had been deprived of. The couple’s 12-year age gap entrenched this conflict of expectations. The failure of Joe’s first marriage had been the result of the increasing pressure of his career and being away from home. His eagerness to correct this the second time around by starting a quiet family life clashed with Marilyn’s growing popularity and demands of stardom. She would confess in her 1962 final interview that “fame isn’t where I live”, but in 1954 it was impossible for her to dissociate it from her private life.
A 1954 apology note written by Marilyn and recovered from Joe’s wallet decades later highlights the couple’s struggles to communicate effectively during their marriage. While Joe and Marilyn may have been able to date in the shadows for several years, their marriage precipitated them to a public catastrophe, scrambling to keep the relationship airborne with neither agreeing on the destination.
It came to a crashing end in September 1954.
I hope this isn’t for your private collection, to be shown in stag shows.Marilyn to director Billy Wilder during the multiple retakes of the iconic skirt blowing up
Hollywood was hardly a place anyone outside of show business would encourage their girlfriends or daughters to be. The seedy reputation of Tinseltown for its use and abuse of young women who came to “make it” was strongly established and Joe’s disgust for the industry was not an unpopular sentiment.
For his contempt of Hollywood, Joe enjoyed going to the movies and even appeared in one (Manhattan Merry-Go-Round, 1937). While having conceded he had seen Marilyn’s films, Joe had always admitted to steering clear of Marilyn’s film sets. It is as though he was struggling to witness how the magic was being created. His reported discontent the few times he was on set attest of this, all the while the press kept questioning why he was so disinterested in Marilyn’s work… It seems even Joe knew he was a ticking bomb who needed to keep away.
On September 15th 1954, convinced by columnist and friend Walter Winchell, Joe watched the scene of Marilyn’s skirt being blown up. The pictures taken on that evening don’t seem to show an enraged DiMaggio. However, the hype and catcalling cannot be reproduced by still images, except for those few men with lurid looks. It seems that after numerous retakes of what ended up being a publicity stunt for the studio, Joe walked off the set with Marilyn looking on. It is easy to look back on this event today and believe only a stereotypical conservative macho and insecure man would feel this rage. But perhaps it is underestimating the misogynist culture and proprietarian attitude married men were endorsing and encouraging, all the while whistling at a wife just doing her job.
Why Joe was brought to the set by Winchell or where he went after he stormed off remains unknown. According to some he walked back to the hotel but others say he was seen drinking at Toots Shor. Many accounts and conflicting details have emerged from that infamous night and the subsequent argument between Joe and Marilyn. Some have reported seeing bruises on Marilyn’s back the next day, others have retracted their claims since.
As in every case where such incidents occur, it is extremely difficult to know what happened behind closed doors. The majority of witnesses near their hotel room agreed on hearing shouting and crying. While one can assume the argument could have degenerated into a physical altercation, Marilyn never publicly stated she had been physically abused. Regardless of what happened that evening, it brought their marriage to an end.
Joe admitted he still loved me but my being a movie star was too much for him to take any longer. He became impossible to live with. I guess at the time there was nothing to do but to get divorced.“Marilyn to George Barris in 1962
Just like in her decision to wed, divorce was seen as the only viable solution to solve the problems they were facing. Marilyn’s stand-in Irene Crosby would confide during the divorce announcement: “they were just a couple of shy people in the camera’s eye. Even on set Marilyn is always quiet and shy. Joe, when he came in, was the same.” (News Digest Tempo & Quick, October 1954)
For Joe and Marilyn’s sensitive and private nature, life in the lens had firmly wedged itself between them. On October 6th 1954, Marilyn’s heartbreak was displayed for the world to see.