The Man in Black's First Lady

By Chrissie Dickinson,
a writer and musician based in Chicago
Wednesday, September 5, 2007


My Life With Johnny

By Vivian Cash with Ann Sharpsteen

Scribner. 326 pp. $27

Unless you're a pop-culture presence in your own right -- like, say, Ivana Trump -- membership in the celebrity first-wives club generally gets you a one-way ticket to obscurity. Vivian Cash's "I Walked the Line," written with Ann Sharpsteen, a television and radio writer-producer, is a flawed but interesting attempt by Johnny Cash's first wife to step out from the shadows.

Vivian -- who died in 2005 -- married Johnny in 1954, when the future Man in Black was still a nobody, and she was there for his meteoric rise. Their marriage produced four daughters, including the respected singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash. But by the time they divorced in 1968, Johnny, and the world, had moved on to the woman with whom he would forever be associated in the public eye: the country singer June Carter.

Johnny and June married in 1968, and their love story was writ large for decades on records, stage and screen. Given that June was nearly glued to Johnny's side until their deaths, only months apart, in 2003, it's hardly surprising that, for many outsiders, Vivian seems barely to have existed in Cash's life, let alone his heart. "I Walked the Line" is her attempt to tell her side of events. Though she emerges as a sympathetic and likable figure, this is an awkwardly framed and paced book. It's essentially an underwritten memoir bisected by a big, fat stack of Johnny's old love letters.

The early portion of the book finds Vivian casting an eye back to the beginning of their relationship, and these are sweet reminiscences. Vivian Liberto is a 17-year-old Catholic schoolgirl when she first meets 19-year-old Johnny Cash at a skating rink in Texas. The son of Arkansas cotton farmers, Johnny is an Air Force serviceman killing a lonely night in the weeks before his overseas deployment. Smitten by the shy Italian American beauty, he takes her for a spin around the rink. Thus begins a whirlwind but chaste courtship of soda-sipping, drive-in necking and window-shopping through the downtown streets of San Antonio in the summer of 1951.

Three weeks later Johnny ships out to a military base in Germany. The lovebirds vow to stick together despite the long-distance separation. For the next three years, Vivian and Johnny keep their relationship alive through a mountain of correspondence. And here is where the book becomes problematic. Vivian's memoir-voice is put on pause, and the middle of the book is given over to a voluminous, verbatim reproduction of Johnny's letters. Vivian's letters are not included, making this a one-sided conversation.

Despite the marquee value, this cache of Cash often makes for a tedious read. These could be the letters of nearly any lonely serviceman longing for his gal back home, his stir-crazy emotions rising or crashing each day at mail call. Letter after letter is filled with desperate emotional pleas. A typical passage: "My darling, please keep on loving me. If I ever lost you, I wouldn't want to live. You're my life Vivian. You're all I live for Vivian darling. I mean that Viv, you are."

Though the sentiment is touching, the same-sounding letters, taken in their totality, produce a numbing effect. Buried in this lovelorn stew are revealing and sometimes troubling incidents. Foreshadowing his years of addictions, Johnny confesses drunken jags and ugly behavior, followed by self-loathing mea culpas.

By the time the letters come to a close, it's a relief to return to a straightforward memoir and Vivian's zippy plainspeak. Though these final pages are frustratingly brief, they are the most riveting and dishy of the book. She quickly chronicles their early marriage, Johnny's rise to stardom and his harrowing descent into pill addiction. Without self-pity, she conveys the emotional isolation she feels in caring for four young daughters while the increasingly erratic Cash disappears for days at a time.

She is also tortured by growing rumors of Johnny's affair with June Carter. Vivian pulls no punches about her feelings: "She would eventually contribute to Johnny's addiction, pursue him relentlessly, and destroy our marriage." This is Vivian's side of the story, of course, but she tells it in a direct, candid voice.

Due to its structural problems, this is a wildly uneven book. But it does achieve the thing that seems to have mattered most to Vivian Cash: With its long-ago letters filled with promises of undying devotion, it stands as proof to the world that she was the woman Johnny loved first.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company