Roger Kahn is a fine writer and a meticulous reporter, as readers of such excellent books as The Boys of Summer and Good Enough to Dream can attest. While he has written mostly about sports, particularly baseball, he has also handled non-sports subjects with skill and intelligence. One of his books, The Passionate People, is an impressive sociological study of Jews in America, and a magazine article he wrote some years ago on the poet Robert Frost is a small classic.
Now, in Joe & Marilyn: A Memory of Love ( William Morrow, $16.95), Kahn attempts to combine his interest in society as a whole with his knowledge of baseball and the men who play it. He retells the story of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe as a sort of pop tragedy of America at midcentury, when their love affair blossomed. DiMaggio was the best baseball player of his time, better than Ted Williams, better than Stan Musial. Monroe was the most glamorous and most publicized movie star of her era, the "love goddess" of the 1950s. Their affair and their subsequent marriage, in January 1954, created a sensation. So did the breakup of the marriage, less than a year later.
There were pronounced differences between the two of them. DiMaggio was reserved, aloof, jealous of his privacy. Monroe was splashy, outgoing, almost always provocatively on display. Both came from modest backgrounds, but Joe grew up in a strong, close-knit, caring family, while Marilyn, who was possibly illegitimate, spent much of her childhood in and out of foster homes. Both were strong-willed, with driving ambitions and minds of their own. After their divorce, Monroe married again. DiMaggio did not, and although the termination of the marriage appeared to be as much his doing as hers, he remained in love with her, at a distance, and after her death was her chief mourner.
Rich material for a book, or a soap opera, and into it Kahn attempts to weave a background from that era: the Depression of the 1930s, Hitler's rise, World War II, racial and ethnic antagonisms, social and financial imbalances. Sometimes it works. For those unfamiliar with DiMaggio's early unpopularity in New York City (he was booed unmercifully in the late 1930s), Kahn's evocation of the harsh economic atmosphere of the day and how it contributed to DiMaggio's utter defeat in his dispute over salary demands with the adamant Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert is an eye-opener.
More often, though, the historical and sociological matter feels forced, a self-conscious attempt to give depth to an essentially shallow story. Despite Kahn's efforts to make DiMaggio and Monroe modern versions of the star-crossed Romeo and Juliet, they both sound more like echoes of Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. Higgins, you may recall, desired nothing more than to live exactly as he liked and do precisely what he wanted. So too, in marriage, were DiMaggio and Monroe. Such a union between self-centered people was bound to end almost as soon as it began. Tragedy is made of sterner stuff.
To build up the story, Kahn dug deep to unearth details, but only two of his nine long chapters deal directly with Joe and Marilyn together. The other seven are about their separate lives; the longest chapter of all concerns DiMaggio and his first wife, Dorothy Arnold, mother of his only child. Much of the information about the famous love affair is back-fence talk, the sly, sometimes unsavory stories that in the 1950s were told in bars and locker rooms rather than in print. As though to justify this approach, Kahn writes: "Simply to dismiss gossip is elitist and, worse than that, blockheaded. No less a figure than Robert Frost once turned to me during an afternoon of rich and mostly abstract talk at his cabin in Ripton, Vt., and asked if I liked gossip. He bore in with a look that said he expected to hear the truth. 'Yes,' I answered, wondering about his response. 'So do I,' Frost said, 'but most people have a hard time admitting it.' "
Gossip, according to the dictionary, is a rumor or report of an intimate nature. Kahn's book is basically gossip. If you're curious about what Monroe wore under her dress or how DiMaggio was as a lover, this is the book for you. If you're looking for Kahn writing the way he did in The Boys of Summer or Good Enough to Dream, wait till the next time he comes to bat.