Book Review: Joe DiMaggio, The Long Vigil By Jerome Charyn

Books, Hall Of Fame, Management, Media, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Players

Functioning in the insular world of self-mandated perfection not only in performance but in image made Joe DiMaggio into an icon and hero to millions.

The subject of song; the essence of manhood and historical context as he married Marilyn Monroe, he became the case study of aesthetic meeting substance and eventually was never being able to effectively meet to match the expectations of an adoring fan base.

Without the exposé-style and intentionally vicious tearing the face off of a legendary figure, Jerome Charyn presents the viable truth of an untouchable figure in Joe DiMaggio, The Long Vigil.

DiMaggio’s rabid—almost stifling—following stemmed from on-field performance and perception.

When his playing career was over, there was little for DiMaggio to do aside from maintain and cultivate that view—guarded with such historical ends and palatability—to make as much money as he possibly could.

So immersed in that countenance of a quiet man whose main lot in life was to be the best baseball player on the planet and one who would never sully his playing career by hanging on for a few years and extra dollars that the reluctance to fail extended to his life after baseball.

DiMaggio’s uncompromising on-field greatness led to a pursuit of trophies off the field; it was this desire for control that created the on-again/off-again romance with Monroe. He was a stalker; a shoulder to cry on; a conduit for Monroe to get her needs and wants fulfilled—power, fame and respect in the film industry.

She used him; he used her. His post-baseball life was that of a traveling sideshow, hungering for dollars and status while hopelessly and fruitlessly trying to corral that one thing he couldn’t tame—Marilyn Monroe.

Charyn objectively sifts through the Monroe-DiMaggio union while interweaving the DiMaggio playing career into the narrative as a means to explain how he and Monroe were drawn to one another and why it didn’t succeed.

The work is presented without the vitriol and feeding of controversy other DiMaggio biographies have cultivated.

The romance—stormy and short-lived when they were together—was such that she called him when Monroe needed his cachet to extricate her from self-created messes with Hollywood, politicians and her own demons of drugs, alcohol and mental instability; he needed her because she that which he could not bring under his spell long enough to contain her own growing legend.

DiMaggio’s near-pathological need to be the best player ever was transferred to off-field pursuits—Monroe was the most fantasized woman in the world, DiMaggio had to have her.

Without pretense and a clear underlying admiration and child-like love for what DiMaggio was, there’s no hint of disappointment in Charyn’s research and analysis; but a keen sense of relief that DiMaggio was neither the unassailable totem nor the cheap and miserable man who needed to accumulate money; the man who insisted upon the monicker of “Greatest Living Ballplayer” ; collector of baubles to memorialize him as something other than what he was.

While those lustful of the DiMaggio status will be shaken by Charyn’s book, it will not elicit the anger towards those that have sought to tear down the legend.

With every fly ball he chased down with loping strides and seeming ease, DiMaggio was also running from his humanity; it was as if by becoming this larger-than-life character, he could be immortal without the responsibility of being something other than what he was. With Monroe, he couldn’t hide from this reality that he couldn’t control everything that crossed his path.

Reduced to being the worshipper rather than the worshipped as he relentlessly insinuated himself into Monroe’s world, DiMaggio is humanized by Charyn while maintaining that aura of class, style and grace he carried in Yankees pinstripes.

DiMaggio’s existence following his baseball career can be viewed as pathetic. He had no desire to be a manager; a coach; a broadcaster (though he tried that for awhile); he worked for various companies and still some criticized him for shilling in an unseemly fashion. More was expected of him as a result of that invincibility and refusal to be anything other than the best for those who might never have seen him play before.

The mirror cracked.

Hangers-on, supplicants and public reverence prevented any and all abilities to assimilate to life after baseball. A decried relationship with longtime attorney Morris Engelberg is treated by Charyn as more than a leeching, moneymaking, control scheme from lawyer to client; Engelberg cared about DiMaggio and his legend despite his entreaties for DiMaggio to keep journals of his day that, when publicly revealed, showed a man who was notoriously petty and cheap; one who had little education and less to say about anyone and anything outside of his own self-involved realm.

DiMaggio’s unassailable skills, professionalism and desire extended from his playing career to his post-baseball life and he was never able to come to grips with an awkward clumsiness—even fear—that stemmed from absence of control.

Charyn’s biography shows the congruent yet divergent career arcs of two icons in American history. Monroe’s was on the upswing and she used DiMaggio as a means to her ends; DiMaggio, looking for a post-career diversion with another trophy.

Charyn’s portrayal is not so much a tearing the cover off of DiMaggio much as he was able to tear the cover off a baseball with his bat and catch up to it with his glove, but a way to make a symbol of the National Pastime into what he truly was and not who the myth-makers and sleaze merchants choose to present.

For those who were offended by the negatives in recent expository books regarding DiMaggio and those who look upon him as the consummate professional in uniform and polished entity who married the world’s most desired woman, this book is an evenhanded, well-written and even gentle presentation to understand that living up to a crafted plot is impossible and damaging to the individual who attempts it, thereby leaving an inevitably tragic end as DiMaggio’s life did—lonely and almost pitiful.

DiMaggio happened to be one of the best baseball players in the history of the sport and married Marilyn Monroe.

He was also flawed and sad regardless of those accomplishments.

He was a human being. No more; no less.


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