Marilyn Monroe & Joe DiMaggio

updated 02/12/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/12/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

She was "like a good double-play combination," Joe DiMaggio told a friend after he and Marilyn Monroe were introduced on a blind date in 1952. Six months into retirement, he saw the 26-year-old actress, in the words of Monroe biographer Donald Spoto, as "a beautiful blonde showgirl who might double as a devoted mother and homemaker." DiMaggio, New York Yankees legend and national hero, was in for a tougher game than he knew.

Monroe, who also longed for a home and children, was surprised by DiMaggio. "I expected a flashy New York sports type, and instead I met this reserved guy who didn't make a pass at me right away," she wrote. "He treated me like something special." But the star of the upcoming Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was special to the world as well, and while the 37-year-old DiMaggio avoided celebrity, she reveled in it. On Jan. 14, 1954, the day she and her Slugger married at City Hall in his native San Francisco, reporters mobbed them despite their efforts at secrecy. A few weeks later, on a tour to entertain American troops in Korea, Monroe was drowning in mass adulation. "Joe, you have never heard such cheering," she is said to have told her new husband. "Yes," he replied glumly, "I have."

By summer, when Monroe was filming The Seven Year Itch, it had become plain that Mrs. DiMaggio was no hausfrau. The couple quarreled over Marilyn's now-famous billowing-skirt scene, which the buttoned-up Joe—and dozens of hooting Manhattan onlookers—had witnessed in the making. "He said...exposing my legs and thighs, even my crotch—that was the last straw," Monroe said later. The couple divorced in October, nine months after their wedding. Yet they remained close friends, and for 20 years after Monroe's death, DiMaggio sent roses to her grave three times each week. Though the fame he hated has transformed her into myth, he has managed to safeguard the feelings they shared. Now 81, Joe DiMaggio has resisted speaking publicly about Marilyn Monroe.

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