As a dinner companion to DiMaggio for nearly a decade in the 1990s, Positano saw the private side of the graceful, elegant outfielder and played the role of a healer and confidante. He has written a warm, sometimes gossipy, at times critical and very revealing look at DiMaggio. In Dinner With DiMaggio: Memories of an American Hero, by Dr. Rock Positano and John Positano (Simon & Schuster; hardback; $26; 350 pages), Rock Positano puts the reader at the dinner table with DiMaggio, who viewed “breaking bread” as a sacred ritual and trusted very few people.
“He was a complex man, both a demon and a hero,” Positano writes. “So many have portrayed him as one or the other, which oversimplifies the man he was.”
My uncle, for example, viewed DiMaggio as a hero. In the late 1980s, he worked as a handyman for the St. Andrews Club in Delray Beach, Florida, and struck up a friendship with Dominic DiMaggio, Joe’s younger brother who vacationed in Florida during the winter season. Knowing that my uncle was also a good bartender, Dominic invited him to tend bar one night at his St. Andrews winter residence.
My uncle’s eyes popped when he saw the men he was tending bar for — former Yankees Hank Bauer, Billy Martin, and Joe DiMaggio. Dominic warned my uncle to say nothing “unless spoken to,” especially if his brother walked up to the bar. My uncle, a garrulous sort, amazingly kept quiet, and was treated to a unique night.
Unfortunately, Bartending for DiMaggio never materialized.
But that’s the effect DiMaggio had on the public, particular of the men and women of the “Greatest Generation.” He could be aloof, reserved, petulant and ice cold. But he had a soft spot for children and would not refuse an autograph request, even when he knew the child had been put up to it by a star-struck adult. DiMaggio knew his place in American culture and strove diligently to keep his reputation clean. He did not suffer fools easily, and while he could charm children, older fans and even teenagers, he could snub powerful men — including the mayor of New York City and the president of the United States.
In his 2000 biography, Joe DiMaggio: A Hero’s Life, Richard Ben Cramer refers to Positano as “Foot Doctor to the Stars,” as the podiatrist serves as a foot and ankle specialist for the New York Mets and the NFL’s New York Giants. DiMaggio had gone to Positano because of the nagging effects of painful bone spurs in his right heel that limited his playing time in 1949. Positano saw that the doctors forty years earlier had botched the procedure, and he worked to make DiMaggio more comfortable.
A friendship was born, although sometimes it was not a two-way street. DiMaggio could be highly critical of Positano’s appearance or promptness, and expected the doctor to drop what he was doing in order to have dinner or go to an event. While Positano mentions his son in parts of the book and refers to his own youth in the rough-and-tumble Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, he mostly remains tight-lipped about his own personal life.
But the focus is naturally on DiMaggio, and Positano experienced some unique times. There are occasions during Dinner With DiMaggio, when Positano’s effusiveness bubbles over. At a Yankee Stadium ceremony in 1991 honoring the 50th anniversary of DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Positano “viscerally experienced the cultural and iconic significance” of DiMaggio, sitting next to him in team owner George Steinbrenner’s box.
“I felt like a parochial grade-school kid hanging out with Jesus Christ in the hallway,” Positano writes.
That’s a little over the top, but DiMaggio seemed to have that effect, whether it was on former players, wise-guy mobsters, diplomats like Henry Kissinger, actors like Woody Allen or singers like Paul Simon. To be summoned to DiMaggio’s dinner table by the great man himself was an honor to be cherished.
Any book about DiMaggio inevitably brings up his relationship with Marilyn Monroe, and Positano gingerly addresses the subject. It was a taboo to mention it to DiMaggio and was worth “a trip to Siberia” if brought up. DiMaggio opened up, if only slightly, about “my Marilyn,” Positano writes, “because I never mentioned her and always steered clear of the subject.”
Still, Positano was taken aback by DiMaggio’s frankness. “When we got together in the bedroom, it was like the gods were fighting,” he quotes DiMaggio as saying. “There were thunderclouds and lightning above us.”
Positano also claims that the reason the couple split was not over jealousy or lust for fame. He said DiMaggio told him it was because they were unable to have children together. “Whether or not she was willing, she proved to be unable,” Positano writes.
On another occasion, Positano writes, DiMaggio made a statement “that took my breath away.”
“They did in my poor Marilyn,” DiMaggio said.
“I knew enough not to ask who,” Positano writes.
DiMaggio blamed singer Frank Sinatra and the Kennedys for Monroe’s death. “I always knew who killed her, but I didn’t want to start a revolution in this country,” he told Positano.
Positano is not reciting these conversations from pure memory. He kept notes after every encounter with DiMaggio; some of his actual entries grace the beginning of each chapter.
Positano’s anecdotes are engaging, funny and at times aggravating, depending on DiMaggio’s mood. He reminisced about his rivalry with Ted Williams, explained why Lou Gehrig and Muhammad Ali were heroes, and expressed regret about the poor relationship he had with his only son. In a lighter moment, DiMaggio, in his late 70, showed Positano how to hit properly one night from the batting cages in Coney Island, jumping in for a final at-bat to illustrate how to do it right.
Dinner With DiMaggio is an intimate serving of the thoughts and actions of a man who always knew his standing in American culture. He worked to show class and dignity, and expected the same from his friends. He would open a window to his personality to an elite few, but those few never knew the whole story.
“Joe’s life was a jigsaw puzzle,” Positano writes, “and only he had all the pieces.”