Hanging On To Fame
Dinner with DiMaggio: Memories of an American Hero
By Dr. Rock Positano and John Positano
A Book Review by Pam Munter
You might have noticed that heroes are in short supply these days. In this cynical age of instant and ubiquitous digital revelations, the pedestal has become a quaint artifact. The reality is, we know too much to enshrine so easily as we did in an earlier era. These days, many of the heroes from the last century have come under intense scrutiny, reputations incrementally evaporating with each tell-all tome.
One of the most notable casualties has been Joe DiMaggio, the legendary New York Yankee center fielder who played his last game in 1951. The latest is likely an unintentional assault: Dinner with DiMaggio: Memories of An American Hero by Dr. Rock Positano and John Positano. The first author is a doctor of podiatry who met and befriended DiMaggio in 1990, during Joltin’ Joe’s final decade when the doctor successfully treated him for a chronic foot injury. He has written an absorbing account of an idiosyncratic life with a tightly wrapped icon.
Positano provides this highly personal view mostly through extensive conversations where, according to the author, DiMaggio’s acknowledged abuses, tantrums and sense of entitlement are earned by his prowess on the diamond and his exalted status as a folk hero. Readers might find the protagonist unpalatable at times but, like the proverbial train wreck, you can’t look away.
Less forgivable and a bit surprising is the author’s wholesale acceptance of what has been fed him by DiMaggio. Positano declares that the famous divorce from another icon, Marilyn Monroe, came because she couldn’t produce children (numerous sources blame his jealousy, domestic violence and his need to control); Positano alleges DiMaggio excluded the Kennedys from her funeral because he thought one of them had arranged her death (other sources quote DiMaggio as believing it to be a suicide); he alleges Joe’s participation in the lucrative memorabilia shows started the movement from sport to commerce (Joe’s participation was actually engineered by his long-time business manager and was hardly the first celebrity to earn significant profits), etc. There are numerous examples of inaccuracies, all apparently echoing DiMaggio’s unchallenged point of view.
The verbatim transcript-like versions of conversations between the two men provide the most fascinating nexus in this book. Though Positano had an active podiatry practice and was married with two young children, he allowed DiMaggio to dominate his life, apparently without hesitation. Like other famous men of his generation, most notably Frank Sinatra with whom Joe had a falling out over Monroe, DiMaggio was happiest when hanging out with male cronies and acolytes. Women were for bedding, not discussion. After reading many breathless, idolatry-filled male bonding scenes, the reader could easily surmise DiMaggio didn’t have much of a life at all, and certainly one lacking in emotional intimacy. Writer Gay Talese articulated Joe’s emotional disconnect with others in his lauded 1966 essay, “The Silent Season of a Hero.” He alleged Joe was private to the point of emotional isolation and referred to him as “a male Garbo.” And in a biography written in 2011, Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil, Jerome Charyn went so far as to say that DiMaggio was an “idiot savant,” brilliant on the baseball diamond but lost outside it. “Joe really couldn’t function away from baseball…That was his language; that was his beauty; that was his grace.”
Positano’s emotional blinders exclude much discussion of any contrast between the public and the private man. He’s in love with the glamour and power of his proximate position, the one he terms DiMaggio’s “date.” He repeatedly details stories about Joe walking into crowded restaurants, which quickly go silent with reverence. He’s in a permanent state of awe, confusing charisma with authenticity. Positano basks in the vicarious status.
But it was never a relationship between equals. He writes, “The downside to his way of life was that he expected others to behave as he did. Though I sometimes bore the brunt of his disapproval, he made every effort to instruct me on the DiMaggio rules of engagement.” He characterizes his idol’s attitudes toward him as “judgmental…uncompromising and irrational.” In fact, Positano resembles an abused spouse, taking one for The Clipper. There are no apologies or explanations from Joe, only rationalizations from Positano. He admires Joe’s fastidiousness, his urgent need to maintain the immaculately manufactured image and the writer is proactively complicit, never creating a scene, seldom complaining, never questioning. “One wrong move and you were out,” he explains.
Since DiMaggio insisted Positano accompany him in the evenings and often on weekends, we can’t help wondering about the writer’s family, not to mention his professional obligations. The men are seemingly eating out nearly every night, offering a culinary tour of the best Italian restaurants in the boroughs during the 1990s. He tells us, “Hanging out with a legend could be complicated, but there were plenty of benefits.”
He relishes every detail of their life together. We know how Joe liked his coffee (half Sanka, half hot water, no cream), his pasta (no garlic) and his shirts laundered (no starch, boxed), as if these details would confirm his value as an amanuensis to a legend.
DiMaggio never trusted anyone completely or for long so few knew much about the private persona. Positano learned early not to ask questions and to avoid eye contact. One afternoon, he surreptitiously watched Joe, studying him, as the two of them caught a Yankees game in owner George Steinbrenner’s private box. During the game, the stadium played a celebratory video of DiMaggio’s years with the team. Not only was DiMaggio himself transfixed, but Positano cooed, “I felt like a parochial school kid hanging out with Jesus Christ in the hallway.”
The star-struck fawning becomes tedious after the first 50 pages or so. More intrusive, however, is his habitual writerly tic of using each other’s first names in nearly every piece of dialogue. Positano states he made notes after every meeting, an odd habit given his persistent concern about being a trustworthy, “stand-up guy” in Joe’s life. Even so, it’s hard to imagine the wide-ranging, detailed and extensive interactions of 20 years ago were anything but reconstructed. One could consider him a biased if occasionally “unreliable narrator.”
There is a second author with the same last name. He doesn’t appear anywhere in the book. Apparently, he’s an attorney, perhaps to vet the manuscript for possible litigation. But the DiMaggio estate has nothing to fear. This loose, anecdotal account of a bizarre relationship will offend no one. Even Joe might have liked it, if this pathologically private man would ever be able to forgive the betrayal.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram. She’s a retired clinical psychologist and former performer. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Better After 50, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore, Nixes Mate, Scarlet Leaf Review, Cold Creek Review, Communicators League, I Come From The World, Switchback, The Legendary and others.