- Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life by Richard Ben Cramer
Simon and Schuster, 560 pp, £20.00, April 2001, ISBN 0 684 85391 4
In the closing stages of Richard Ben Cramer’s biography of Joe DiMaggio there is an exchange between the baseball legend and a man called Cappy Harada for whom DiMaggio had done a bit of business. The episode is undated in the book, but took place some time before the San Francisco earthquake of 1989, at which time DiMaggio was 74. Cappy showed up at the bank that Joe used as a personal office and where he spent a lot of his time. He had bought Joe a brand new Cadillac and now dropped the keys into Joe’s hand.
‘What is it?
‘It’s your brand new Cadillac! I got it parked for you, right outside.’
Joe looked from the keys to Cappy without sitting up, without a smile, without moving his head an extra inch. Joe said: ‘Did you fill it up with gas?’
If there was a door guarding Joe DiMaggio’s imperfections, Cramer has, by this stage in the book, not only opened it, but smashed it off its hinges and taken it out the back to be carted away. And this is one of the milder examples of DiMaggio’s instinctive cheapness. Cramer’s DiMaggio also has an easy sense of entitlement and a love of money. He is a mean, ungrateful man and a terrible husband and father. But he was also a surpassingly great baseball player for the New York Yankees – a man of peerless grace and, in the American sense, class. Besides, he married Marilyn Monroe. This is a book about a hero, but the hero comes off like a schmuck. Some people who write letters to newspapers or call radio sports shows or post comments on Amazon.com say they are upset at Cramer’s treatment of DiMaggio, but you can’t blame him for what he found.
Cramer isn’t someone you’d want picking through the debris of your life. His last book, What It Takes, about the 1988 Presidential election, challenged the boundaries of bookbinding technology with its massiveness. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his reporting in the Middle East. Five years of research and writing went into this biography and the reader can be confident that Cramer has not made anything up. Not even the most hair-raising stories, like this one.
At the baggage carousel at Miami airport in the mid-1990s, DiMaggio was recognised by a woman who worked for the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue, which sold hundreds of photoportraits of him, carrying his autograph. Unfortunately for her, DiMaggio was furious at Hammacher Schlemmer. Through a series of deals the catalogue was making far more money than Joe thought they should have been.
‘Oh, Mr DiMaggio! You can’t imagine what a thrill it’s been to be working with you! I mean Hammacher works with a lot of very –’
That was just Joe’s opener.
‘Fuckin’ cunt! Gives you the right to come up to me? Get the fuck away from me! You’re too fuckin’ ugly to talk to me in public.’
Cramer tells these stories straight and unsanctimoniously. He does not catalogue DiMaggio’s misdeeds just to run up the score against him.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.