Who Were You, Joe DiMaggio?

By Halberstam, David | Nieman Reports, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Who Were You, Joe DiMaggio?


Halberstam, David, Nieman Reports


He was an `icon of icons' about whom little was known.

In October 1965, Gay Talese, a young writer recently departed from the more confining pages of The New York Times, suggested to his editors at Esquire that the next piece he wanted to write was about Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio was by then the mythic baseball hero to two generations of Americans, a figure of epic proportions, albeit an almost completely unexamined one, and Talese wanted to do a portrait of DiMaggio some fourteen years after his last game. What happens, Talese wondered, to a great figure after the cheering stops, and what kind of man was DiMaggio anyway? He knew the legend but not the man, and DiMaggio had always been treated by writers as a legend rather than a man. Off he set for San Francisco, Fisherman's Wharf, and the DiMaggio family restaurant. It would turn out to be the perfect union of reporter, magazine, and subject matter at a critical time in the history of nonfiction journalism....

What came through in Talese's work was a kind of journalism verite, reporting profoundly influenced by cinema verite--the reporter as camera. American nonfiction journalism was changing at an accelerating rate in those days, and Esquire in the early sixties was very much the leader in the changes taking place, the magazine where young restless writers wanting to challenge these archaic professional formulas were coming together under the talented leadership of two exceptional editors, Harold Hayes and Clay Felker....

In addition the subject, DiMaggio, was perfect--because of the almost unique degree of difficulty he presented to the writer, for in truth he was a man who could not be reported on with any degree of accuracy under the old rules. The premise of what both Talese and Hayes were pushing at, and what would eventually be called the New Journalism, demanded a new journalistic realism, and at its best it stripped away the facade with which most celebrities protected themselves as they presented themselves to the public. In this new kind of journalism just coming of age the journalist was able to see these celebrities as they really were, not as they had so carefully presented themselves over the years.

And perhaps no celebrity was a better subject for that kind of reporting than Joe DiMaggio. At that moment he remained not merely in the world of sports, but to all Americans, a kind of icon of icons, the most celebrated athlete of his age, the best big game player of his era and a man who because of his deeds, looks and marriage to the actress Marilyn Monroe, had transcended the barriers of sports in terms of the breadth of his fame. But in journalistic terms, he remained a man about whom a great deal had been written but also, about whom very little real reporting had ever been done, and about whom very little was known.

Because the Yankees almost always won and because DiMaggio was the best player on those dominating teams and played with a certain athletic elegance (in the media capital of the world no less), and because it was a decidedly less iconoclastic era, he had always been treated with great delicacy by an adoring New York and thus national press corps. The essential portrait of DiMaggio which had emerged over the years was of someone as attractive and graceful off the field as he was on it. DiMaggio had rather skillfully contributed to this image--he was extremely forceful and icy in his control of his own image, as attentive and purposeful in controlling it as he was in excelling on the field, and he quickly and ruthlessly cut off any reporter who threatened to go beyond the accepted journalistic limits. Those limits were, of course, set by Joe DiMaggio. At the same time he was deft at offering just enough access--access under which he set all the ground rules--to a few favored reporters and he was particularly good with a number of columnists who were unusually influential in those days, most notably Jimmy Cannon, then of the New York Post, who often hung out with him. …

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