It’s 3:00 a.m. on the morning of August 6, 1962. Norma Jeane Mortenson’s housekeeper is trying to raise her boss, but the bedroom door is locked. Panicking, the maid calls Mortenson’s psychiatrist who rushes to the scene. The doctor then breaks into Mortenson’s room only to find her dead. Mortenson is of course much better known as Marilyn Monroe – and her death will have a devastating impact on another American legend: Joe DiMaggio.
Before we delve deeper into the tragic love story of Monroe and DiMaggio, let’s find out a little more about the lives of these two American icons. First up, Joe DiMaggio, who was born in 1914 in the small fishing community of Martinez in California – about a 40-minute drive north-east of San Francisco.
DiMaggio was the second youngest of nine children. His parents, Giuseppe and Rosalie, had arrived in America from Sicily in 1898 and settled in California. Giuseppe worked as a fisherman and subsequently relocated the family while Joe was still just a baby. The DiMaggios moved to North Beach – a neighbourhood close to the San Francisco waterfront that was popular with families of Italian heritage.
Giuseppe had hoped that all five of his sons would become fishermen too, but a different future was in store for Joe. The early signs weren’t promising, though. DiMaggio, in fact, never finished school, taking a series of dead-end jobs instead. But a life of drudgery was not to be his fate. After a spell as a semi-pro baseball player, DiMaggio got his first break in the professional game with the San Francisco Seals in 1932.
Just four year later, DiMaggio was playing for the New York Yankees – the side with which he would shoot to fame. And the Californian started at Yankee Stadium as he meant to go on, hitting 29 home runs in 138 games in his first season. That was a franchise record for a rookie, and it stood until Aaron Judge eclipsed the feat in 2017. An illustrious career followed, and DiMaggio retired a towering baseball legend in 1951.
Monroe, meanwhile, was charting her own unlikely path to stardom. As we’ve already seen, Marilyn Monroe’s birth name was Norma Jeane Mortenson. She was born in 1926 in Los Angeles and was the third child of her mother, Gladys Pearl Baker. The identity of her father remains a mystery to this day, though. Unfortunately, Baker ill-prepared to raise another child, so Monroe was fostered by the Bolenders and lived with the couple in Hawthorne, California until she was six.
Then, in 1933, Monroe went to live with her mother in Hollywood. Just months later, however, Baker had a mental breakdown and was committed to hospital. Subsequently, Monroe lived with a series of foster families and at one point spent time in an orphanage. Unhappily, the future star rarely saw her mother over the years.
Monroe’s troubled childhood – which included sexual abuse – left her shy and lacking in confidence. However, later in life she admitted that she’d had an ambition to act from the age of five. That was all still to come at this stage, though; for now, Monroe was only just starting to make her way in the world. And perhaps desperate for stability, the 16-year-old Monroe married 21-year-old James Dougherty in 1942.
But the marriage was short-lived. In 1945, Monroe went against Dougherty’s wishes and signed with the Blue Book Model Agency. Dougherty and Monroe divorced shortly afterwards in 1946, and Monroe became a successful pin-up model. Then, after a series of minor acting roles, her big break in the movies came when she was signed by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1951.
By 1953, Monroe was one of Hollywood’s top stars, propelled to fame by the smoldering sexuality that she was able to project from the silver screen. Now at the peak of her fame, Monroe married again in 1954. And this time her husband was perhaps one of the only Americans who was as famous as her at the time: Joe DiMaggio.
Like Monroe, DiMaggio had already been married and divorced. He’d wed another actress, Dorothy Arnold, in 1939. They’d had a son, Joseph, but the couple then parted in 1944. So Monroe and DiMaggio were both free agents. And it was DiMaggio who made the first approach to Monroe in 1952.
Sensing an opportunity for romance, DiMaggio contacted Monroe’s agent to arrange a date between him and the Hollywood star. But according to Anthony Summers in his 1985 biography Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Monroe’s initial response was less than lukewarm. Apparently, she didn’t think that DiMaggio was her type.
In fact, Summers quoted Monroe as having said, “I don’t care to meet him. I don’t like men in loud clothes, with checkered suits and big muscles and pink ties. I get nervous.” It hardly seemed like an auspicious start to a new relationship, then. But despite Monroe’s reservations, the date went ahead.
And it seems that the dinner date worked out much better than Monroe anticipated. DiMaggio and Monroe quickly became entangled in a romantic relationship, and the two wed in January 1954. But perhaps Monroe should have put more trust in her first impression of DiMaggio; you see, the pair split just nine months after they married.
Monroe and DiMaggio were, in fact, disastrously incompatible. DiMaggio, from a traditional Sicilian background, wanted Monroe to be a housewife. Monroe had no intention of fulfilling his fantasy, though, and wanted an outgoing partner who could join her in the Hollywood social whirl. But this was a role that DiMaggio had no taste for whatsoever. Meanwhile, the baseball player had difficulty coping with Monroe’s status as a sex symbol too.
With trouble brewing in the relationship, things really came to a head in September 1954. Monroe was making one of her classic movies, The Seven Year Itch, when the film’s publicists decided it would be a good idea to stage a photo shoot on New York City’s Lexington Avenue. For the subsequent shoot, Monroe famously stood above a subway ventilation grating, as the hot air blew her skirt up and exposed her underwear. But while the image certainly gained the desired publicity, DiMaggio was furious.
Following the photo shoot, the couple are said to have had a screaming row. And the very next month, Monroe started divorce proceedings. But even after they’d split, DiMaggio seems to have still been deeply in love with Monroe. Indeed, over the years the pair were certainly no strangers to each other’s company. So much so, in fact, rumors were rife that they might even re-marry.
What is certainly true, though, is that DiMaggio was devastated when Monroe died of an overdose in 1962. Indeed, the baseball star’s grief was plain to see at Monroe’s funeral. And shortly after Monroe had been laid to rest, DiMaggio ordered that six red roses be delivered to her grave three times each week.
It seems that this simple act was DiMaggio’s way of dealing with the loss of the Hollywood icon. Such was the baseball star’s despair, in fact, he continued to have flowers brought to Monroe’s crypt three time a week for the next 20 years. And although it’s unclear why DiMaggio eventually stopped the deliveries, the roses stood as an enduring symbol of his love for two decades.
Perhaps DiMaggio had finally come to terms with Monroe’s death, although it seems that he was more or less grief-stricken for the rest of his life. In private, the former Yankee would still talk of Monroe; apparently he maintained that she’d been killed and that he knew the killers. But DiMaggio could never bring himself to speak about the Hollywood star in public. DiMaggio died in 1999 aged 84, but Monroe stayed on his mind until the very end. Indeed, attorney Morris Engleberg reported that DiMaggio’s last words were, “I’ll finally get to see Marilyn.”