Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe split 37 years ago

It was a marriage made in American heaven, a wedding of two great national institutions: baseball and Hollywood. When screen siren Marilyn Monroe, 27, joined retired Yankee slugger Joe DiMaggio, 39, at the altar in 1954, they were both living legends — and other than that, they had very little in common. He grew to hate her need for the spotlight; she grew to hate his obsession with sports. On Oct. 27, 1954, after nine splenetic months of marriage, Monroe divorced DiMaggio on grounds of mental cruelty and put a split in the American psyche that has never quite healed.

Like a family dispute on a national scale, debating who was responsible for the breakup has become a pop-culture pastime. Hollywood’s reaction to Monroe at the time was harsh, and many of the 40-odd bios written about Monroe since then toe that line: Her exhibitionism and infidelities brought the marriage to its end. Perhaps the best example of pro-Joe thinking is found in Norman Mailer’s 1973 pictorial psycho-history, Marilyn, in which the author not only portrays DiMaggio sympathetically but suggests that Monroe’s extraordinary beauty during the marriage came from good sex.

The pendulum swung Monroe’s way in the mid-’80s. In Marilyn (1986), Gloria Steinem wrote off Monroe’s flings with other men as ”insecurity” and depicted DiMaggio as an old-fashioned lug who probably beat her.

Lately, feelings have been swaying back in Joe’s favor. In C. David Heymann’s A Woman Named Jackie (1989) DiMaggio seems like a white knight trying to save Monroe from the grip of the Kennedy boys.

But author Graham McCann waves a disapproving finger at both camps. ”Regrettably,” he writes in Marilyn Monroe (1988), ”as each author contorts the story, DiMaggio is further stereotyped and subdued.” The only known facts are these: DiMaggio never remarried (he now lives quietly in San Francisco), stayed devoted to Monroe until her death in 1962, and for 20 years after sent a pair of red roses to her Los Angeles crypt three times a week. The rest is & silence.

Oct. 27, 1954

John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday and William Faulkner’s A Fable were best-selling novels. Couch potatoes watched Dragnet, moviegoers saw Elizabeth Taylor and Stewart Granger in Beau Brummell, and just about everybody was humming ”Sh-Boom” by the Crewcuts.