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Richard Ben Cramer's Joe DiMaggio biography takes an unflinching look at a 'Hero's Life'
Fall from grace
(CNN) -- Joe DiMaggio seemed the most graceful of superstars, immortalized as much for his cool urbanity and elegant demeanor as for his loping precision on the baseball diamond. He never threw to the wrong base, the old-timers said, never faltered in the clutch. He was a winner. He was class.
When he left the game, to hear them tell the story, something was lost. Money took over. Sports became dirty and uncouth; heck, society became dirty and uncouth. "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" famously sang Simon and Garfunkel. "Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you."
DiMaggio, who had transcended baseball in his playing days, became representative of what a hero should be. And he remained that hero until his death in March 1999.
But the heroic Joe DiMaggio wasn't the real Joe DiMaggio, says Richard Ben Cramer, author of the new biography, "Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life." The heroic Joe DiMaggio was a creation of myth-making sportswriters, public-relations men and DiMaggio himself; the real DiMaggio, the fallable, sometimes graceless man -- a man who held terrible grudges, who watched over his money like a miserly banker and treated his women with disdain or desperation -- that DiMaggio was carefully hidden from public view.
"We gave him the hero's life," says Cramer in a recent telephone interview from a book tour stop in Philadelphia, his voice tinged with a rich, cigar-flavored growl. "And he wrapped himself in it for 65 years."
It was as much the hero-manufacturing machinery that attracted Cramer as DiMaggio himself, he says. Biographies had been written about Joe the ballplayer or Joe the icon, but little had been published about Joe the man. And the life of that man parallels the rise of the celebrity culture, Cramer observes.
"You can almost trace, in the period of DiMaggio's career, the making of the American hero machine," he says.
In 1935, he notes, The Associated Press invented the WirePhoto, pictures that could be transmitted anywhere. DiMaggio made his major league debut a year later, and his exploits could now be seen coast to coast in all their high-flying glory. Also in 1936, Life magazine appeared, "so ... Joe's form and figure landed in a million living rooms in a way that had never happened before," says Cramer.
The '30s was also the beginning of regular play-by-play radio broadcasts, extending baseball's real-time reach to millions; and when the infant medium of television first broadcast a World Series in 1947, Joe DiMaggio and his New York Yankees were on center stage. "Then, when he added the spotlight of Marilyn's (Monroe) Hollywood to his own aura, Joe was a supernova," says Cramer.
Just a man
Supernovas, of course, are exploding stars. Though DiMaggio's star never blew up on him during his life -- to the end, he was a celebrity, "the greatest living ballplayer," as he demanded to be introduced -- Cramer's determined chronicling has produced a less-glorious portrait of the Yankee Clipper than DiMaggio's admirers would like. In fact, though most critics have praised Cramer's writing and research, they have faulted him for pushing DiMaggio off his pedestal. "(Cramer) relentlessly, pulverizingly tells us that the man wasn't worthy of the legend built up around him," wrote Salon's Allen Barra in a review headlined "Joe Cruel."
Cramer shrugs off the criticism.
"I think among older fans there's a sense that I'm somehow messing with their own memories, which was never my intent," he says. "I hope the book achieves giving Joe his size and his importance -- celebrating his talent. ... I can understand their annoyance. But to me the life of DiMaggio was always more interesting than the myth."
Cramer paints that life in bold, brawny prose. He seemingly interviewed everyone who ever came into contact with DiMaggio -- from his childhood buddies in San Francisco, to his baseball teammates, to the beauty queens Joe took out on dates, to casual bystanders who once saw Joe in a restaurant -- and then molded their stories into a story rippling with energy and detail.
The picture that emerges is not always pretty. DiMaggio was distant from his son, who lived an aimless life and died of a drug overdose six months after his father; he accepted cash and favors from organized-crime kingpins; and he rarely did anything for free, even if the price was merely his friendship. His marriage to Marilyn Monroe was a tragedy waiting to happen, the coupling of an insular, wary man to an insecure, spotlight-craving sex goddess, and Cramer describes it fearlessly.
The writing and research took five years, and Cramer was nearing the finish when DiMaggio died -- prompting many of his sources to come forth with new admissions.
"It was a joy and a problem," he says. "Anybody who ever met him remembered him. It was like talking to people about where they were when Kennedy was shot, the time they met DiMaggio."
The rest is silence
Cramer, who won a Pulitzer Prize while with the Philadelphia Inquirer, wasn't unfamiliar with exhaustive research. For "What It Takes," his 1992 book on the 1988 presidential campaign, he followed six candidates back and forth across the country. He recounted the experience as "the Bataan Death March of reporting" and thought (hoped?) the biography of an octogenarian former baseball player wouldn't be as difficult.
However, the interviewing took him on another intracontinental voyage, from DiMaggio's birthplace of San Francisco to his baseball home of New York to Marilyn's Hollywood to his retirement in Florida. "I was rocketed around like a billiard ball," Cramer laughs.
But the one person Cramer couldn't talk to was DiMaggio himself. He tried, but DiMaggio rebuffed Cramer's every attempt.
"I knew I wasn't walking into a bed of roses," Cramer says. "I called Gay Talese, who had done the greatest magazine story on DiMaggio in 1966 for Esquire. He told me how difficult Joe could be. And I also called David Halberstam, who wrote so beautifully about Joe in 'Summer of '49.' Halberstam told me his interview with Joe was the worst interview of his professional life."
Then there was Morris Engelberg, the lawyer who managed DiMaggio's affairs in the baseball player's twilight years. Engelberg not only didn't agree to an interview, he threatened Cramer with legal action when the author accused him of taking advantage of DiMaggio. The final chapters of "Joe DiMaggio" are a grim story of lawyers and sharpies, all out to make a buck off the failing star.
'A hell of a run'
Cramer doesn't regret not meeting DiMaggio for the book. "I think it benefited the book as a story," he says. "It allowed me to write his story as a story."
But personally? "I would have loved the opportunity," says the longtime baseball fan. "Just to sit around to hear DiMaggio talk for a few nights. I miss it now. There were times during the five years when he just made me miserable. But I wish he were around now to roar his disapproval."
And despite uncovering all those warts and wrinkles, Cramer still has a great deal of respect for his subject.
"I ended up with genuine admiration for his size and his grit -- that determination that held on to the hero's life for 65 years in a country that usually chews up and spits out its heroes," he says. "It was a hell of a run. There's never going to be another life like Joe's."
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