Here’s to You, Joe DiMaggio, Where Have You Gone?

November 25 would be Joe DiMaggio’s ninety-seventh birthday. Such occasions are often celebrated with newspaper columns and commemorative events, but, strange as it may seem, in Jerome Charyn’s biography of the famous baseball player, DiMaggio’s birth is barely mentioned. Instead, in  Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil, from Yale University Press’s Icons of America Series, Charyn focuses his attentions on the birth of the Jolter, the Slugger, the Yankee Clipper—the player who was “the first saint of baseball when baseball itself was a religion.”

The particular language Charyn uses is not incidental. DiMaggio lived a life defined by religious devotion—from his fans, for his sport, and for Marilyn Monroe, whom he would have married twice had she not died days before their second wedding, and to whose grave he sent half a dozen red roses three times a week until the day he died.

That day was March 8, 1999, when, amidst what the New York Times appropriately called “a national vigil” for the former Yankees player, DiMaggio’s health failed him. Yet in some ways, Charyn suggests, just as DiMaggio was not born until he took to the outfield, the Yankee Clipper America loved had already died long before 1999, with the his baseball career and with the love of his life.

In the opening lines of the biography, Charyn quotes Paul Simon, whose song “Mrs. Robinson” had famously asked “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” in 1967, more than thirty years before the baseball legend would be laid to rest. DiMaggio’s later years were defined by Mr. Coffee commercials and memorabilia sales that seemed like minutiae in comparison to the huge figure he had cut on the field and in the press, for whom his legendary 56-game streak and his dates with Monroe were predictably front-page news.

While recent DiMaggio biographies have portrayed him as cruel or violent, intent on exposing the deeply flawed man behind the legend, for Charyn, DiMaggio is a tragic figure but not a villain. Though he yelled at Monroe and eventually beat her, DiMaggio was also the man who obtained her release from the psychiatric ward she was sent to after her break-up with Arthur Miller. He followed her, waiting for her outside of Frank Sinatra’s compound, but Charyn sees him not as a stalker, but as “a quiet cavalier,” watching over her in a place where she was being knocked around by Sinatra and the Kennedys.

In Charyn’s portrayal, DiMaggio’s triumph and his tragedy were inexorably linked: he was a great player, but “an idiot savant” who had no language beyond baseball, a devoted lover, but one who couldn’t understand that Monroe would never give up the films and the fame to sit in front of the TV with him.  Charyn tells his story with a novelistic elegance that captures the magic of the DiMaggio legend, of a character who has obtained an “almost fictional” status in American culture, a kind of real superhero whose grace on the field could never be matched by his life off of it.

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