From the prologue of The Long Vigil, author Jerome Charyn does not mince words, thoughts or ideas about Joe DiMaggio, The Yankee Great, versus Joe DiMaggio, a man with glaring foibles, weaknesses and crippling limitations. Having been witness to the Yankee Clipper in action when he played in Yankee Stadium, the writing is rich with Charyn's passion and enthusiasm for the game, its history and his own personal intrigue over the larger than life mystique of "The Jolter," as he calls him. But for all of Charyn's adulation of DiMaggio's dignified and elegant baseball prowess, he deems DiMaggio, the person, a "savant" - a man insecure in managing life off the baseball diamond and grossly inept in maintaining interpersonal relationships.
Charyn divides the book into two parts. Part One, "The Player," delves into the years DiMaggio spent as a New York Yankee, racking up accomplishments and setting records. However challenging and physically demanding, for those thirteen years it would seem that Joe DiMaggio felt most alive. In the second part of the book, "The Demon Lover," DiMaggio struggles with the perils of life after baseball, and the story shifts to DiMaggio's obsessive relationship with Marilyn Monroe, the great love of his life. The before and after of these two sections set up possible reasons why Joltin' Joe ultimately left the game and gradually disappeared inside himself and his mystique.
DiMaggio and Monroe were star-crossed lovers who were both private, shy and distrustful of the majority of people who populated their worlds. Charyn sets up a paradigm that shows how alike the two were - Monroe's self-worth came from the screen, DiMaggio's from the baseball field. Both were "fractured beauties," vulnerable and fragile creatures, who achieved great success, yet both were filled with anger and rage that were made manifest in different ways.
When Monroe would not give up her acting career to become the wife and mother DiMaggio wanted, their relationship soured. Monroe's rejection--and later, her tragic death--is the devastating blow from which DiMaggio never recovers. In Charyn's account, DiMaggio wanders through the next 37 years of his life, a broken misfit of a man - yet one who treasured Monroe's memory until he died.
After Monroe's death, money became the priority of DiMaggio's life. Some claimed that to Joe, baseball was "just a business" that fueled his need to keep making a profit off his name, via the greed and stinginess for which he became legendary. The author postulates (p. 75) that DiMaggio's focus on money was all about pride and his way to soothe his own "narrow world of perfection." DiMaggio always had a need to be heralded as "The Greatest Living Ballplayer," and he cultivated that legacy with the same fervor and intensity he gave to the game. The facts Charyn presents indicate that a quest for perfection is inherent in all phases and aspects of DiMaggio's life. And it would seem that the New York Yankees, which would come to define DiMaggio and give his life its sole sense of meaning and purpose, tapped into those roots of perfectionism before he ever took to the field at Yankee Stadium for the first time.
Charyn paints a picture of New York City, post-Babe Ruth and pre-DiMaggio: "There was an emptiness, a terrible void, that no one could fill." The author points up the proliferation of Italian-Americans crowding New York and most big-league cities at the time. From a business standpoint, the Yankees' franchise cleverly capitalized on those statistics to boost the appeal of DiMaggio and their fan base. A headline in The Sporting News even read, "Fans Expect Recruit From Coast to be Cobb, Ruth, Jackson In One." Imagine the pressure that placed on the rookie. If DiMaggio, by nature, was a perfectionist, then surely the expectations placed upon him (and even those he placed upon himself) only exacerbated his one-track focus, discipline and dedication to the art of the sport. It brought him the recognition he craved. However, did he ever really feel a sense of personal fulfillment? Charyn's account suggests that DiMaggio's lack of dominance and control outside of baseball only served to heighten his personal insecurities, making the remainder of his life anti-climactic.
Charyn (The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson) once again succeeds as a thorough and thought-provoking writer. The Long Vigil presents the many facets of the price DiMaggio paid for his success and the sad, tragic burden there was in living the life of Joe DiMaggio - on and off the field.
NOTE: In order to write this review, I received a copy of this book from Tribute Books.
Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil by Jerome Charyn
(Yale University Press, Hardcover, 9780300123289, 192pp.)
Publication Date: March 2011
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