The True Story of Marilyn and Joe

This is the true story of Marilyn and Joe DiMaggio’s relationship. For so many years I’ve read and researched Marilyn’s life and through the many, many misconceptions therein, this one seems to go undissected. In an age where we’ve seen hashtags like #MeToo and #IBelieveHer why are we still reluctant to face the reality of this toxic relationship that Marilyn found herself in?

People deem it to be a good thing, a “safe” thing when someone is always there for you, however, this can be a classic trait in abusive relationships. Throughout Marilyn’s relationship with Joe, I’ve noticed this a lot. Whatever was going on in either of their lives;

Joe was always there.

Marilyn and Joe – Meeting & Early Relationship

When Marilyn and Joe DiMaggio met in late 1951, she was just 25 on the verge of becoming one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, while he had, at 37, just retired from baseball. The two were keen to escape their pasts with biographer Donald Spoto noting that they were “both shy but attractive teenagers, reserved with the opposite sex but clearly appreciative of the stares and compliments.”

One of the takeaways from that first meeting was that Marilyn knew nothing about sports and Joe had zero interest in moviemaking. Whilst people who had previously dated Joe commented that he was “cool and uncomfortable”, Marilyn was attracted to his quiet manner later saying;

“I was surprised to be so crazy about Joe. I expected a flashy New York sports type, and instead I met this reserved guy who didn’t make a pass at me straight away. I had dinner with him almost every night for two weeks. He treated me like something special. Joe is a very decent man, and he makes other people feel decent too.”

People have written about how Joe was “obsessed” with Marilyn, “madly in love” or “overprotective” of her, how the two were “soulmates”. However, from the very beginning of the relationship, Joe exhibited classic signs of manipulation, narcissism, controlling behaviour, jealousy and even physical abuse.

Whether he was telling her who to trust, who she should see, how she should handle her affairs or how she should dress – all of which he did do – it seems Joe was systematically trying to control Marilyn and every aspect of her life. If things weren’t to his liking, as was the case when the nude calendar scandal broke, Joe called less, letting Marilyn know he was unhappy with her. Throughout their relationship Joe pushed for Marilyn to quit her job and become a housewife – something her first husband wanted her to do also, which led to their eventual divorce – she consistently told him she wasn’t ready, but still, Joe persisted. He didn’t seem to care if his actions affected Marilyn herself or her job. Once he took an instant dislike to Natasha Lytess, as she did him, he refused to let her speak to Marilyn on the phone. The situation between the pair left Marilyn in the impossible situation of peacemaker. This often left her in tears as witnessed by William Travilla during the filming of Monkey Business in 1952.

1953 to Marriage

The start of 1953 brought a pact between the two: Marilyn would wear less revealing clothes so as not to upset Joe publicly, and Joe would try harder to get along with Natasha. Hardly relationship goals huh? Some people would still argue that their love was so great that they could overcome anything, yet there were still warning signs. While filming River of No Return, Marilyn’s makeup artist, Allan “Whitey” Snyder, recalled a journey to set by train where he said, “Here are the Canadian Rockies, Marilyn. If you’re really in love with Joe, why don’t you get out of the movie business? The two of you could move up here, build yourselves a beautiful house, settle down and have kids.” Her reply? She said sadly, ” Whitey, I know all that but I can’t do that – I just can’t.” While filming River of No Return Marilyn had little or no time to herself, Joe having travelled up to Canada following ridiculous rumours of a romance between Marilyn and her co-star Robert Mitchum.

Joe was always there.

“Joe could be very hard to get along with – surly and withdrawn – and he was awfully jealous. Marilyn liked to invite a few people for coffee or a drink at the end of the day, but when Joe was around the mood was dark. He hated the movies and everything to do with them.”

Allan ‘Whitey’ Snyder speaking of filming River of No Return

By late 1953 Joe had asked Marilyn to marry him and she had said yes. On January 14th, 1954 the two married in a very public affair held in City Hall, San Francisco. Interestingly, Marilyn vowed on the day to ‘love, honour and cherish’ Joe – leaving out the vow to ‘obey’. It was Joe who was adamant she shouldn’t report to work on the movie ‘Pink Tights’ lest she be viewed scantily clad or without virtue. The following day the two left on their honeymoon with Joe’s good friend Frank ‘Lefty’ O’Doul and wife in tow. At the airport, the press noticed Marilyn had her thumb strapped in a brace. Over the years it has been speculated that her thumb was slammed in a door, or suitcase – either way, it’s believed the injury was inflicted by Joe. On the day Marilyn excused it away as an accident as she awkwardly informed them, “I just bumped it. I have a witness. Joe was there. He heard it crack.”

Joe was always there.

Upon their arrival in Tokyo, Joe ordered Marilyn not to leave the hotel unless to attend baseball games with him. According to Lefty, she adhered to this but was not happy about it. Then came her invitation to sing for the troops in Korea, something which Joe was vehemently opposed to. Marilyn decided to go anyway – a decision which left Joe “surly”. If it hadn’t been already, the marriage was doomed from the time they returned in February 1954 as Marilyn stated to friend Sidney Skolsky that she was going to marry Arthur Miller.

Throughout the filming of There’s No Business Like Showbusiness Marilyn’s behaviour on set was questionable. She was groggy, moody and weepy and according to Natasha Lytess Marilyn told her “You don’t know how unhappy I am.” Lytess also remarked on how Marilyn would call her late into the night during this period, “when DiMaggio was being so filthy to her, when he beat her. She couldn’t stand being treated that way.” A very public moment, witnessed by many, was during the filming of ‘Heat Wave’, attended by Joe and his friend George Solotaire. Marilyn ran to embrace Joe who pushed her away and eventually stormed out. Marilyn laughed it off claiming he didn’t want to get makeup on his suit but the incident very clearly had an effect on her as, after being recalled to film, a heavily perspiring Marilyn who had suddenly forgotten her steps and lines, slipped and fell.

It was during this period also that Marilyn was pictured visiting Marlon Brando on-set of the movie Desireé. There are clearly bruises on her arm where it appears someone has grabbed her. 20th Century Fox makeup artist Bunny Gardel noted during this time that Marilyn “bruises easily”. This would not be the first time she had bruises on her arms with Marilyn telling writer Rita Garrison Malloy, “I bite myself in my sleep.” The writer herself deemed this to be “a gag” and it seems highly unlikely, if not only due to the awkwardness of the positioning but the fact the bruise also resembles the fingers of someone’s hand,

The marriage was floundering. If the chasm forming between the two wasn’t enough to do it, the rumours of a romance between Marilyn and singing coach Hal Schaefer were. Joe fumed over the alleged affair and Schaefer turned up half-dead having been warned against working with Marilyn. However the two professed innocence, Joe was insanely jealous of their closeness and –

Joe was always there.

Then came September 13th, 1954. The night that ended their relationship. Marilyn was in New York filming The Seven Year Itch. Positioned outside the Trans-Lux theatre on Lexington and 52nd Street Marilyn prepared to film a scene where she stands over a subway grate and lets the air coming up from the grate cool her down. Her skirt was to billow in the air thus creating a titillating scene. Crowds began to form behind barriers. Photographers and fans all together vying for a glimpse of Marilyn. The scene was getting rowdier and rowdier as the audience begged for more, and this was when Joe – having gotten a call from columnist/friend Walter Winchell the day previous and flying across country – arrived to see the “spectacle”. Billy Wilder recalled a “look of death” on his face. He left almost immediately and went back to their hotel awaiting Marilyn’s return. Shouting and screaming could be heard from their room that night and the following morning Gladys Whitten, Marilyn’s hairdresser on the movie, said “Joe was very, very mad with her and he beat her up a little bit. There were bruises on her shoulders but we covered them with makeup.” Two weeks later, back in Los Angeles, Marilyn filed for divorce.

“I was sitting on the bed with her mink around me and Marilyn started to get undressed. She forgot I was sitting there and she was taking off her blouse. . . Her back was black and blue – I couldn’t believe it. . . She didn’t know what to say and she wasn’t a liar so she just said ‘Yes.’”

Amy Greene, wife of Milton Greene & Marilyn’s friend

Joe left Los Angeles for business when they first returned home so it wasn’t until Octover 2nd that he learned Marilyn had filed for divorce. He moved his belongings into the den downstairs and appeared aloof. However, the next night a dreadful fight could be heard by the neighbours and Marilyn was seen pacing the street for hours. She hired Jerry Geisler to handle the divorce and on October 5th signed a testament stating she had, through no fault of her own, suffered “grevious mental suffering and aguish” at the hands of Joe DiMaggio. October 6th saw her appear on the lawn of 508 North Palm Drive to announce to the press that she and Joe were to separate.

“Your honour my husband would get in moods where he wouldn’t speak to me for 5 to 7 days at a time – sometimes longer, 10 days. I would ask him what was wrong. He wouldn’t answer or he would say “Stop nagging me!” I was permitted to have visitors no more than three times in the nine months we were married. On one occasion, it was when I was sick. Then he did allow someone to come and see me.”

Marilyn speaking to Judge Orlando H. Rhodes at a hearing for her divorce in Santa Monica Court

You might think after their divorce that there was no contact between the two, but no. Joe was still hopeful of a reconciliation, but he was also still jealous and possessive, controlling and abusive. Which is why the Wrong Door Raid happened the following month, which is such an event it would need an article of its own! You can find out more about that here (scroll to October 21st, 1955 – halfway down the page).

The next time we saw Marilyn and Joe together was the premiere of The Seven Year Itch on June 1st, 1955, Marilyn’s 29th birthday. In the photos arriving at the theatre, the two look happy. When asked about a reconciliation Marilyn said “We’re just good friends. We do not plan to remarry. That’s all I care to say.” Later that evening Joe took Marilyn to Toot’s Shor for a surprise birthday party but they ended up rowing and Marilyn left early with her friend, photographer Sam Shaw. By now people knew of the situation. Friends like Lois Weber and Rupert Allan later told how Marilyn was afraid of Joe, physically afraid. That he’d struck her in a jealous rage, beaten her and abused her.

Though it seems that during her marriage to Arthur Miller, Joe was not around as much, if at all, he certainly kept Marilyn in his thoughts. By 1961, Marilyn had divorced Miller and was in a bad way on all fronts. Her addiction to prescription medication was worse than ever – she overdosed on the set of The Misfits the year prior – and she was seeing a psychiatrist up to seven days a week.

Yet perhaps Joe didn’t know this, for when she called on him in March of 1961 to help her get out of Payne Whitney, a hospital where she had (without prior knowledge) been committed by her New York psychiatrist Dr Marianne Kris, it was Joe who allegedly got her out, threatening the nurses to let her out before he tore the building down “brick by brick”. In actual fact, Joe made a call to Kris and persuaded her to have Marilyn released. It wasn’t even Joe who picked her up – it was Dr Kris and Ralph Roberts. Still, Marilyn fans laud this as being the act of a soulmate, her saviour. Joe would help her.

Joe was always there.

Nurses in Payne Whitney later said if Marilyn had just stayed longer they could have helped her. Got her off the medication… I guess we’ll never know. What we do know is that from this moment Joe was well and truly back in Marilyn’s life. He visited her every day of her stay in Columbia-Presbyterian that March and then she flew out to Florida to spend time relaxing with him there.

Joe was always there.

Joe remained there over the course of the last year of Marilyn’s life. Even when he wasn’t physically with her, the two remained in constant contact. When Marilyn was buying her final home in Brentwood, Joe was the one who loaned her the $5,000 to make the down-payment. He did, however, claim it back from her estate after her death.

When Marilyn died, it was Joe who claimed her – lest her body be left unclaimed until her sister Berniece arrived the following day. It was Joe, alongside Inez Melson, who stepped in to help arrange the funeral until Berniece got there. It was Joe who insisted that no “Hollywood” friends could attend – thus denying some of Marilyn’s closest friends the chance to say goodbye. No expense was spared and floral arrangements abounded, however, few know Marilyn paid for her own funeral, which was reclaimed from her estate after her death. Joe was there as Whitey applied her makeup. Joe was there through the night, and before her casket was closed Joe leaned over and kissed her saying “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

Joe was always there.

Interestingly, after Joe’s death in 1999, there was an auction of his belongings. In those belongings was a list of “rules” – something he kept to remind himself how to behave with Marilyn. They are pictured below and I’ve transcribed them here for you.

  • Don’t ever be critical
  • Forget ego and pride
  • Talk from the heart
  • Be warm, affectionate and love
  • Don’t be a ??
  • Be patient – no matter what
  • No jealousy

Remember this is not your wife

She is a fine girl and remember how unhappy you made her

Happiness is what you strive for – for HER

Don’t talk about her business or her friends

Be friendly towards her friends

Don’t forget how lonesome and unhappy you are – especially without her

Joe DiMaggio never remarried and for twenty years had a dozen red roses delivered to Marilyn’s grave three times weekly. So romantic right? The actions of a soulmate? Or the actions of a guilty man?

“[Marilyn was] marvellous to work with, very easy to direct and terrifically ambitious to do better. And bright, really bright. She may not have an education, but she was just naturally bright. But always being trampled on by bums. I don’t think anyone ever treated her on her own level. To most men, she was something that they were a little bit ashamed of – even Joe DiMaggio.”

Director Henry Hathaway recalling working with Marilyn on the set of Niagara during the summer of 1952.

This article would not have been possible without the help of my friends April VeVea and Fraser Penney who provided sources, documentation and a sounding board when I needed it. Also used for source material books by Donald Spoto & Michelle Morgan.