“Witness To A Friendship” — Reviewing “Dinner With DiMaggio: Memories Of An American Hero”

If you’re looking to reaffirm your conviction that friendship is not a Facebook numbers game — but an authentic expression of a complex and unyielding connection between two people — a bond that is often improbable but no less meaningful for that story arc (and perhaps all the stronger for its alchemy of surprise,) may I direct your midsummer reading to “Dinner With DiMaggio: Memories of an American Hero” by Dr. Rock Positano and John Positano.

While the hooks are many for this book — baseball, celebrity, a string of bold-faced names that include (obviously) Marilyn Monroe, Sinatra and the Kennedys — even Henry Kissinger, Charlie Rose, Woody Allen and Bill Clinton — its appeal is deeper than those juicy morsels. If this were an 18th century Russian novel, perhaps by Turgenev, it would be called “Notes From A Private Soul.”

Joe DiMaggio’s iconic status, his famous exoskeleton of privacy and stiff sense of personal rectitude, are so alien to today’s culture — witness Jay-Z turning an affair into a public mea culpa in his recent album “4:44” — that to read about someone for whom privacy was a life-strategy is both quaint and re-assuring.

Unlike J.D. Salinger or others who ended up as reclusive refugees from both invasion and acclamation, DiMaggio was emotionally guarded in full view of an adoring public. This was not easy to achieve: “I came to realize that Joe’s isolation was his heroism” notes Positano, in one of the many piercing aphorisms that break through an otherwise charming and chatty style.

“Dinner With DiMaggio” recounts the evolving friendship between Joe DiMaggio and the podiatrist Rock Positano — 76 and 32 when they met — who (with his brother) has written an unpretentious but nonetheless lyrical, memoiristic paean to a relationship that was gradually built with mutual effort and escalating warmth.

After all, DiMaggio was famously taciturn; as Positano puts it: “He knew the less he said, the more control he had over his image.” Given this def-con suspicion — “In {DiMaggio’s} book of life, everyone started in the negative column and had to prove himself trustworthy” — the friendship celebrated in this book, including its imperfections, was composed of hard-won trust, shared values — “straight-upness”; shared, gauzy nostalgia for first-generation Italian-American culture; and the potent street urgency of New York at its Breslinesque, Lardneresque best.

Once the trust became implicit, Positano notes, DiMaggio “… opened up with all sorts of memories and insights that were not widely known. I had an unprecedented view of the inner life of a great American icon. Knowing him changed me forever.”

Those memories and insights often leapt to the surface as Positano squired DiMaggio to his favorite haunts in New York — but largely over dinner, as the title telegraphs. This is a book about conviviality; Positano writes “Dinner was a sacrament to Joe, a meal you shared with people you cared about” — but it is also a book with a searching and often melancholic heart that engages fully with love, loss, estrangement, disappointment, decline and the nature of success and legacy.

The intense and complex friendship between DiMaggio and Positano — “Doc” as he called him — was the result of what was, in its time, the most famous operative screw-up of the era. Positano puts it like this:

“My friendship with Joe DiMaggio began with a heel spur in his right foot that had sidelined him for sixty-five games in 1949. It led to our meeting thirty-nine years later in 1990.”

Decades later, the heel pain persisted. Seeking relief, DiMaggio was introduced by a mutual friend — the Daily News sportswriter Bill Gallo — to the young podiatrist. Positano, who had attended Yale Medical School and was pioneering non-surgical approaches to foot and ankle pain, treated DiMaggio successfully, and the professional relationship blossomed into a personal one.

One of the great strengths of this book is the tough honesty at its core. Positano makes no effort to overstate the contours of the friendship; on the contrary, he makes it clear that the emotional balance of power was (at least initially) one-sided, based on Joe’s life experience, which Positano well-understood:

“Joe had been burned by the many who wanted something from him. He trusted very few. Wary and hesitant, he felt comfortable only with those who let him define their relationship.”

Positano accepted this role gladly — not solely because of idolatry, but because DiMaggio became a moral compass to the young man. He describes his role bluntly:

“During his last decade, I became his New York surrogate son and later a buffer and an expediter, a young friend who could read his mind and take care of things to keep him in his comfort zone.”

The timing (and need) came together perfectly. DiMaggio lived in Florida, but missed New York and was ready to re-engage. As Positano puts it, “When I met him in 1990, he was ready to regain the part of his life he had sacrificed to celebrity.”

Reading about the way Joe engaged with the city — the way his fans worshipped him, and the electric energy he drew from them (even reluctantly, even in his shell) — it’s clear that the hero had returned to a city that was hungry for his presence.

As the book and the relationship unfold, and Positano’s relationship with DiMaggio deepens and matures, a more balanced emotional equipoise develops. There was unavoidable tension because Joe was demanding and pushed the limits of Positano’s patience and self-esteem. When this finally erupted, Positano stood his ground — he had been exiled to Siberia (there’s an entire chapter dedicated to the cold north) for what was basically an honest misunderstanding. Finally, Joe relented and reached out. Positano notes: “His days of taking me for granted had just ended.”

Finally, though, at the end of his life, the famously unemotional DiMaggio lets his guard crumble and makes the simple statement that Positano was awaiting a long time — and which the reader feels deeply: “Doc, I love you.”

Between Gallo’s introduction and DiMaggio’s death we are exposed to three interlocking stories, told against the larger narrative framework of the last decade of his life, and his re-engagement with New York City. Time and time again, the cross-generational love that engulfed DiMaggio was palpable and affirmed his being.

Story One is the relationship with Positano and DiMaggio, which becomes an ever-widening window into the heart and soul of the Yankee Clipper, as he becomes more comfortable sharing that heart and baring that soul to Positano.

Normally, the voyeuristic public’s engagement with celebrity is limited to a choice between bromidic hagiographies and sensationalist take-downs — biography as beanball.

Positano succeeds quite admirably in avoiding both extremes. He puts it well:

“One of the reasons I wrote this memoir was to define Joe’s place in history and in the setting of the town that made him legendary … he was a complex man, both a demon and a hero … so many have portrayed him as one or the other, which oversimplifies the man he was.”

Then he adds a comment that is striking in its observational acuity:

“I sometimes thought that Joe’s whole existence was designed for future consumption.” To that point, there’s a lapidary chapter in the book called “La Bella Figura” — Italian for “cutting a beautiful figure” which describes DiMaggio’s dignity and restraint. It travels across many aspects of self-presentation, all of which mattered deeply to DiMaggio — “how you look, how you comport yourself, how you make the best possible impression in all things, how you act and respond in the face of adversity.”

Story Two is a compressed biography of DiMaggio, a discursive yet holistic view into his values, friendships, commitments, grudges, struggles with the past and for privacy, philanthropy, movements between high and low (Bamonte’s in Brooklyn and the 21 Club), impatience with cant, nostalgia, formalism.

Story Three is the narrative of Positano’s own journey, from the streets of Brooklyn to not just DiMaggio’s friend and eventual emotional confidante, but to becoming a successful and innovative doctor who by virtue of talent and brashness is able to move at the highest circles of power and influence.

In fact, there was a karmic connection in the way DiMaggio entered Positano’s life. As he notes:

“His name was a constant at our Sunday dinners at our grandparents’ cold water flat in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. To John and me, he was an old man who sold coffee makers. We couldn’t begin to understand why the men in our family, who were not easily impressed, venerated him so much.”

But eventually, by virtue of a random introduction that turned into something grander, DiMaggio went from the subject of Positano’s family dinner table to a participant in many shared Positano dinners: “Joe opened up a new world for me, and served as a tremendous source of inspiration. He was my safety net for the high wire of life.”

There were no-fly zones, many of them. You couldn’t bring up baseball unless DiMaggio brought it up first. But Number One avoidance was his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. It couldn’t even be remotely alluded to, so when DiMaggio finally broached the subject, Positano listened and rarely questioned. As for the storyline which has become folklore, that DiMaggio really never got over her death, it is indeed the case.

“I won nine World Series championships. I could make a catch in center field look easy every time. There wasn’t a king or a politician who wouldn’t kiss my ass.

But with Marilyn, the ball hit the sweet part of the glove and plopped to the ground.

I’ll go to my grave regretting and blaming myself for what happened to her.”

We learn that DiMaggio blamed the Kennedys particularly RFK — for what happened. Positano writes: “He believed that Marilyn was either more intensely involved with RFK or maybe that the attorney general had something to do with her death, as he had alluded to in the past.”

Monroe was also the reason for the end of DiMaggio’s friendship with Sinatra, which had been close. Sinatra violated the “stand-up guy” clause in relationships; as DiMaggio told Positano:

“ … when Ava Gardner twisted his heart like a pretzel, I refused to make a move on her, though she indicated she wanted me to…I refused to even take her phone calls out of respect for him. Real men don’t screw around with a friend’s woman, especially when there are still feelings.

He clearly didn’t feel the same way.”

DiMaggio was also pissed because he had been such a friend to Sinatra when he needed it, when he “lost his voice.” DiMaggio was blunt:

“I helped him get gigs at some of the hotels in Vegas, in exchange for my promise that I would also appear there and just show up.”

At the end, DiMaggio banned Sinatra “and all the other bastards from her funeral.”

One of Positano’s regrets was that he wasn’t able to reconcile Joe and Frank, as he was able to restore the friendship between DiMaggio and former Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent.

For those on the prowl for tidbits, the book will not disappoint, although there are far more rewarding reasons to dive into it. Actually, there is more talk about minestrone and al dente — Joe liked his pasta well-cooked — then there are dynamite revelations (at least to this reader.)

But here goes:

• DiMaggio disliked Bill and Hillary Clinton, and once refused to sit next to them at a dinner because he had promised Henry Kissinger he would sit with him. (Joe was fond of Kissinger and there’s a charming anecdote about how they met in Positano’s office.

• DiMaggio and Monroe’s song was “Embraceable You.”

• During the war, DiMaggio’s father was one of 600,000 Italians who were not citizens, and thus considered “enemy aliens.” Their movements were restricted, and in the case of DiMaggio’s father, that meant he couldn’t go fishing and lost his license. I was not aware of this part of our history, or his.

• One night, Positano was driving DiMaggio around Times Square and they came upon a giant billboard, featuring Monroe’s derriere. DiMaggio commented that she looked better with her clothes off.

• DiMaggio had an impotence problem due to nerve damage as a result of surgery for an aortic aneurysm. (There’s an amusing description of dinner with a urologist, on this subject, complete with a prosthetic penis.)

• DiMaggio had a populist streak; “Few things could infuriate Joe more than owners’ ruthless attempts to make more money. Their business interests took precedence over the game.”

DiMaggio also had a strong allergy to the self-importance and wealth of the Manhattan elite — although he moved effortlessly (but pugnaciously) through it — and had a soft spot for kids in the outer boroughs. Stories of DiMaggio’s love of children, and work for them, abound. But this book tells them in a more intimate way.

It also puts into sharp relief the estrangement between DiMaggio and his son. At the end of life, reflecting to Positano, he says, with brutal self-awareness: “I should have been closer to my son, but I didn’t have the nerve to show up at his garage one morning and tell him I loved him.”

Positano reflects:

“It’s painful to think that Joe was a role model for every little boy except his own. Joe had the cards stacked against him when it came to fatherhood, and people who cared about him know that he tried his best under the difficult and hostile circumstances. Though Joe was disappointed in his son, the rumors that Joe disowned Joe. Jr. are not true.”

One of the criticisms that is often leveled at DiMaggio is that he refused to sign autographs without getting paid for it. Which made him come across as cheap and ungenerous. What Positano makes clear is that this was an essential finance decision, one that was masterminded in large part by Morris Engelberg, DiMaggio’s lawyer and friend.

Positano writes: “Autographs and memorabilia became a major source of income as Joe grew older and further away from the stadium … Morris explained that to Joe, every time he signed a picture or a baseball, the Yankee Clipper was just giving away money that would have been put in his family’s treasure chest for when he was gone.”

Sandy Koufax, whom DiMaggio respected, articulated this well. “If it wasn’t for Joe, a lot of us wouldn’t be able to make a living. Joe started this whole memorabilia business for us. For that we are forever grateful.”

DiMaggio saw what happened to Joe Lewis and other athletes; Positano notes “Joe always insisted that ballplayers deserved to make a living in dignity.”

He was way ahead of his time. DiMaggio understood the “value of his brand” and had every right to build a strategy around his personal IP, in the same way that every company and celebrity today are fiercely aggressive in defending their trademarks and other assets.

When Joe signed a ball or a bat, it was for a kid or for a really good reason. As it should have been. He wasn’t paid stratospherically; as he describes to Positano, he often took the subway to work.

There is much to cherish in this book, including the touching moment when Joe steps in to the batter’s box on the Boardwalk — “his last at bat” as Positano puts it — to show Rock how to improve his hitting. All so Joe wouldn’t be embarrassed by Positano’s performance at a charity event.

I’ve gotten this far without mentioning Paul Simon’s lyrical lament to lost dignity — “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” DiMaggio was not angered by this, as many have said. In fact, when he was seated next to Ann Bancroft at a dinner, DiMaggio “grinned” and repeated the line.

Those lonely eyes, the power of the world’s obsession with DiMaggio, in fact contributed to his own sense of isolation. Positano writes:

“Joe’s yearning was to be the standard-bearer, to set the bar high for athletes as well as fans. This compulsion made him difficult and lonely, but it is also what made him great.”

When Joe knew he was dying, he opened up to Positano on precisely this theme, saying:

“Over the years I’ve believed that we’re not here to be loved — just respected. I had plenty of respect but I realize that respect often isn’t enough …

…I lived for the game….the game treated me well. But where I got to, the high spot, was lonely.”

Early on, Positano summarizes his subject aptly:

“No one knew him completely. In the end, only he held all the pieces of the puzzle, and he always kept us guessing.”

I don’t think we’ll get a more honest, open and noble attempt to put those pieces together. Savor a “Dinner With DiMaggio” — it’s the closest anyone will get to actually sharing farfalle di Maggio with him.