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Before Taylor and Travis, there was Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio

Before Taylor and Travis, there was Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio

طوبیٰ Tooba 55 years ago 0 5

There were no social media sites to chronicle their every move, no midgame television shots inside packed luxury suites, no cable news shows to chew over the potential political implications of their relationship. But nearly 75 years before the connection between pop music icon Taylor Swift and NFL star Travis Kelce became a public obsession, Americans were similarly infatuated with the growing romance of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio.

Monroe, a movie star and international sex symbol, started dating DiMaggio in 1952, just after he retired as one of the most famous baseball players of all time. They would wed two years later in San Francisco. The marriage lasted just nine months, but the two provided something of a prototype for a booming bond between a mega-celebrity and a sports sensation.

“Times have changed, for sure, but the impact of a movie star and a sports star (Marilyn/Joe) and a music star and a sports star (Taylor/Travis) will always have the capacity to fascinate the public,” wrote Michelle Vogel, a film historian and author of “Marilyn Monroe: Her Films, Her Life,” in an email exchange. She noted that the Monroe-DiMaggio union was dubbed “The Marriage of the Century.”

Swift’s appearances at Kelce’s Kansas City Chiefs games this season supercharged interest in the team and their relationship, starting when she was shown on national television Sept. 24 at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium during a game against the Chicago Bears. Although she is scheduled to perform at a concert in Tokyo the night before the Chiefs’ Super Bowl LVIII matchup with the San Francisco 49ers, her fans have calculated that she could make the game.

Unlike Swift, Monroe never got to see her significant other compete in a game that counted, but she did watch him play in an old-timers benefit game at Yankee Stadium in 1952, when he served as player-manager. It was DiMaggio’s first appearance in his No. 5 uniform since he retired; he grounded out and flied out in two at-bats.

“The introduction of DiMaggio, who retired only after last season, rocked the massive stadium,” The Washington Post wrote at the time. A few days later, Monroe told the Los Angeles Times that she had seen the game during her trip out East.

“I took time out for a side trip to New York and last Saturday saw Joe play for the first time,” she said. The Times described the actress as “happy” to watch him perform in person.

It’s hard to imagine an American couple that could have generated more interest in the early 1950s. DiMaggio, a center fielder known as the Yankee Clipper, remains a folk hero. His 56-game hitting streak in 1941 is one of the most iconic records in sports, and he was the face of a New York Yankees dynasty that began with a World Series title in 1936, his rookie season. He was already a media sensation that year, with an appearance on the cover of Time magazine. In his 13-year career, DiMaggio won three MVP awards and played on an astounding nine World Series championship teams. (He missed three years of his prime to serve in World War II.)

The year DiMaggio began dating Monroe, Ernest Hemingway immortalized him in his novel “The Old Man and the Sea,” with the old man saying: “I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing. They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand.” In the 1960s, Simon & Garfunkel highlighted him in their hit song “Mrs. Robinson”: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

Monroe, the most famous actress in the world at her peak, also has long held a central place in American culture. Artist Andy Warhol created his classic silk-screened image of her in 1964, “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn,” which sold for more than $195 million at Christie’s in 2022. The U.S. Postal Service put her on a first-class stamp in 1995, and it became the best-selling one of the year.

“What American male wouldn’t sell his soul to the devil to duplicate the exacta that Jolting Joe accomplished — play center field for the Yankees and marry the sexiest woman on the planet?” asked Larry Schwartz in an ESPN appreciation.

In other words, few celebrity-sports couples could match the impact of a DiMaggio-Monroe pairing.

‘It was a perfect match’

The genesis of the DiMaggio-Monroe romance was a photo shoot she did with Philadelphia Athletics outfielder Gus Zernial, according to PBS’s “American Experience.”

“How come I never get to pose with beautiful girls like that?” DiMaggio joked with Zernial at an exhibition game after seeing the photos. Zernial connected DiMaggio to the press agent who set it up, which led to a date between DiMaggio and Monroe.

Maury Allen recounted in the book “Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?” that Monroe drove him home and, on the way, told DiMaggio, “I’m sorry I don’t know anything about baseball,” to which he replied: “That’s all right. I don’t know much about movies.”

They soon became the idealized couple — the 6-foot-2 dashing ex-ballplayer and the beautiful, glamorous movie star. DiMaggio’s teammate, Jerry Coleman, seemed to capture America’s take on the romance when he said: “I don’t think it was a surprise at all. The greatest woman in the world and the greatest guy in the world — it was a perfect match.”

Today, Swift, who was named Time’s Person of the Year for 2023, is arguably as renowned as Monroe. Kelce is a star in America’s most popular sport (as DiMaggio had been in his day, when baseball reigned), and last month he broke Jerry Rice’s NFL record for postseason catches. But he’s not the mythic figure that DiMaggio was.

These star couplings also began at different stages of life. Swift and Kelce are 34 and at the peak of their professions. At the beginning of their courtship, DiMaggio was 37 and had just finished his baseball career; Monroe was 25 and in her prime.

“Monroe was on the rise to stardom,” wrote Vogel, the biographer. “There was an age difference and a career difference. DiMaggio, on the way out. Monroe, on the way up.”

But both couples were the subject of breathless media coverage. In the 1950s, that was mostly in newspapers, which began speculating about a DiMaggio-Monroe marriage soon after they started dating.

“Marilyn Monroe won’t be able to marry Joe DiMaggio right away, even if she wants to,” Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham observed in August 1952. “Starting this week, Monroe plunges into 50 poster sittings and 40 fan-magazine layouts. Every paper and periodical in the country is clamoring for more of Marilyn.”

That same month, the Sporting News reported that Monroe had met members of DiMaggio’s family in San Francisco. “But the blond beauty denied that she and Joe were contemplating marriage — at least in the immediate future,” the paper reported.

There are similarly questions of a pending engagement between Swift and Kelce. But unlike today, when some on the political right have framed the Swift-Kelce romance as a conspiracy that will end up with her endorsing President Biden, nobody in 1952 thought the DiMaggio-Monroe pairing was a plot to help Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. (Monroe did have left-wing politics.)

The coverage accelerated in January 1954, in the days leading up to the unannounced wedding. On Jan. 5, the Los Angeles Times reported that Monroe had been suspended by Twentieth Century Fox for failing to show up for work on her next movie, “Pink Tights.” The reporter speculated on the reasons for her absence, suggesting “it could be that she was having so much fun up north with Joe DiMaggio, the former Yankee baseball star, that she simply didn’t feel like coming back to work.”

The story cited a report from San Francisco that they planned to drive to Las Vegas to get married but quoted a close friend of DiMaggio’s who said he doubted it would happen “just yet.”

The next day, The Post ran a photo of the couple with an extended caption that read “Screen Actress Marilyn Monroe disappeared yesterday and rumors flew that she was off to marry her long-time friend, former baseball star Joe DiMaggio” and referenced a report that a Las Vegas hotel owner was making plans to host the wedding.

They wound up getting married at San Francisco City Hall on Jan. 14, with hundreds of reporters and photographers assembled outside because word of the wedding had leaked to the press. It was front-page news in papers across the country, including The Post, the New York Daily News, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times.

“MARILYN WEDS JOE IN FRISCO,” blared the Daily News headline above a photo of the two stars smiling cheek-to-cheek after leaving City Hall captioned, “DiMaggio Signs With a New Manager.”

“Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were married today in what was supposed to have been a quiet ceremony, but wasn’t,” the Associated Press reported, noting that 500 people had jammed the City Hall corridors. “They wanted a quiet wedding with no fanfare. Yet by the time they were married the crowd was so thick” that DiMaggio and two of his friends “had to elbow a pathway for Marilyn to the elevator.” It was the second marriage for both.

For their honeymoon, the couple went to Japan, where the frenzy continued.

“Thousands of howling, screaming Japanese stampeded through guards when the plane bearing DiMaggio and his movie star bride arrived here, February 1,” the Sporting News reported in a story from Tokyo. “The blond actress stepped down the ramp, but DiMaggio, seeing the clamoring crowd, whisked her back inside the plane.” Time later reported that Japanese crowds smashed doors, mobbed cars and fell in fish ponds to get a look at Monroe.

While on their honeymoon, Monroe agreed to a request from an American general to visit Korea to entertain troops stationed there. After she returned, she told DiMaggio: “It was so wonderful, Joe. You never heard such cheering,” Gay Talese wrote in Esquire that DiMaggio replied, “Yes, I have.” That was later seen as an early sign of his resentment of her status. After the famous scene of air blowing from a New York subway grate up her dress during filming of “The Seven Year Itch,” DiMaggio, who was on set, walked away angrily.

“The sexy starlet that DiMaggio desired got him hooked, but once he got his prize, he wanted his wife to give up her career and be a stay-at-home mother to a brood of children,” Vogel wrote. “Marilyn Monroe was not about to give up everything she had worked for to be Mrs. DiMaggio, the dutiful 1950s housewife.”

They divorced in October 1954, with Monroe citing mental cruelty. More than 70 reporters, photographers and newsreel cameramen were at a Santa Monica, Calif., courthouse to capture DiMaggio leaving in a car and a sobbing Monroe emerging 45 minutes later, when she whispered: “I’m sorry. I can’t say anything. I’m so sorry.”

“The bouncing beauty of the famed calendars had the look of a washed-out rag doll,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in the typically sexist style of the era.

She later wed playwright Arthur Miller, but that marriage also ended in divorce. When she was nearing an emotional collapse, DiMaggio helped her recuperate in Florida in 1961; he was working as a batting coach at Yankees training camp.

But in 1962, at 36, Monroe died of an overdose of barbiturates at her home in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times reported that DiMaggio flew there from San Francisco as soon as he heard the news.

“His face was lined and he appeared deeply saddened when he alighted from a United Air Lines plane,” the newspaper observed. DiMaggio took over the arrangements for her funeral, and for the next two decades sent roses to her crypt in Los Angeles three times a week.

Nobody can predict how the Swift-Kelce relationship will play out. But it’s a fair bet it won’t turn on mid-20th-century attitudes about a woman’s place.

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