Leaning back on a beach recliner under a blue-and-white striped cabana for two, the most-photographed woman in the world smiled shyly at the gathered gaggle of photographers – the newswire paparazzi and the Brownie-toting locals.
“Her skin is white – almost chalky – and her hair is platinum-gold,” the daily newspaper would report the next morning. “She’s trimmer than the girl in the movies. And she’s beautiful. She’s really beautiful.”
The paper was the St. Petersburg Times, and the woman under glass was none other than Marilyn Monroe, actress, sex goddess, living Hollywood legend. Monroe checked into the expansive Tides Hotel in North Redington Beach on March 22, 1961, in the company of her ex-husband, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio.
Although the couple’s nine-month marriage had ended acrimoniously six years earlier, they’d remained friendly.
Her latest movie, The Misfits, was still in theaters, although the box office receipts were disappointing. The script had been written for Monroe by playwright Arthur Miller, whom she’d wed after her split from DiMaggio. Her divorce from Miller had been finalized in January.
It was, of course, not public knowledge, but the fragile star was well into a downward spiral that included clinical depression, barbiturate abuse and near-constant psychiatric care.
On March 5, she had been discharged from the Neurological Institute at New York’s Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, following a brief, frightening stay at the Dickensian Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic. The ever-protective DiMaggio had threatened to “take the place apart, brick by brick” if Monroe wasn’t immediately transferred out of Payne Whitney.
It was DiMaggio who suggested a relaxing week at the beach. The retired Yankee slugger was working as batting coach for the team during spring training in St. Petersburg.
At the Tides, they took separate top-floor suites.
Local residents were allowed limited access to the hotel’s two pools, snack bar and beachfront. Membership in the Bath Club wasn’t exclusive – anyone who paid the annual dues could use the facility.
“It was all about her – I don’t think I even knew who Joe DiMaggio was at the time,” says Karen DeYoung, 12 years old in March of 1961. She and her family were Bath Club regulars.
“Everybody was talking about it, as we were hanging out by the pool,” she recalls, “so of course we had to go down and check it out. We were giggling and nonchalantly walking in front of their cabana, trying to get a glimpse of them.”
DeYoung, senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post, has never forgotten what happened next.
“It was at that point that DiMaggio called out ‘Hey kid,’ and handed me a dollar, or a couple dollars, and said ‘Go get us some hot dogs.’ So I did.”
She ran to the poolside snack bar and dutifully returned, handing a steaming pair of franks to the bare-chested sports icon and the movie star with the chalky-white skin.
They took frequent walks on the beach, holding hands and posing for news photographers. Monroe accompanied her ex to Huggins Field, the Yankees’ training site adjacent to Crescent Lake downtown. A photographer from Sports Illustrated snapped her gazing adoringly as he swatted a few balls. Together, they watched spring training games from the press box at Al Lang Field.
During their eight-day stay, DiMaggio and Monroe dined often in the Tides’ on-site restaurant, and at the Wine Cellar, about a mile north on Gulf Boulevard. The Wine Cellar was a favorite haunt for visiting Yankee players.
Mike Porter was 20 years old, a student at St. Petersburg Junior College, working on the valet team at the Wine Cellar. He remembers when the Tides’ official “limo,” a four-door DeSoto with a wooden rack on the roof, dropped Joe and Marilyn at the restaurant’s front door.
“He was sitting in the front seat, she was in back,” Porter recalls. “I reached in to help her get out. She was very pale, and very frail. She looked at me and didn’t say anything.”
They were promptly seated at a dark corner table. “The manager came out about 45 minutes later and said ‘Hey, the guests are bothering them so much they can’t eat their meal – would you take my car and drive them back to the Tides?’” Porter explains. “I said sure.”
Monroe was chatty, Porter remembers, while DiMaggio didn’t say much. The two talked about possibly renting a car. They asked him if he had a car of his own.
A day or so later, Porter was summoned to the Tides, poolside, on official business: “I came and picked her up and I took her to get her hair done,” he says. “She was delightful; she called me Mike. I didn’t make any reference to who she was – I knew she’d had enough of that at the restaurant.”
Porter had no interest in Monroe’s personal or marital issues. “Other than the fact that she looked great in a bathing suit,” he says, “I wasn’t into that stuff.”
The young student, who lived in a rented cottage on Treasure Island, saw famous people all the time; Yankees star Roger Maris lived across the alley, and he sometimes babysat for the slugger’s wife when she went grocery shopping. Micky Mantle was a frequent visitor to the Maris home.
Hotel management arranged for the golden couple to sunbathe in privacy, on a secluded rooftop deck over the lobby. Remembers Bath Club “cabana boy” John Messmore: “They were hounded all the time, so Mr. Dross, the hotel manager, said to them ‘Why don’t I just give you the key?’”
Messmore, 17 at the time, was dispatched to the sundeck to take a lunch order. “And when Joe saw me, he thought I was there to get an autograph,” Messmore explains. “And that was exactly the opposite of what he wanted. So he wasn’t a lot of smiles.
“But Marilyn, I remember she had on a white terrycloth robe, and a kind of white terrycloth wrap thing on her head. And she ordered an avocado, and an iced tea with two lemons, for lunch. And I cannot remember what Joe ordered, I was so enamored with Marilyn Monroe.”
Even their secluded rooftop nest wasn’t totally private. Boys lined up to throw baseballs to DiMaggio, who’d sign them and toss them back down.
The presence of the famous couple was, naturally, common knowledge to Tides and Bath Club staff. But they were absolutely, positively not to speak to Monroe or DiMaggio unless spoken to, and under no circumstances were they to ask for a photo or an autograph.
On the beach, DiMaggio had snapped, more than once, at locals who got too close to his former wife.
“I do remember her peeking out of the door of her room,” Messmore says, “and looking both ways when I was walking down the hallway, like she had heard a noise or something. And that’s how I knew which room she was in.”
On March 31, the Times published a United Press International photo taken the previous afternoon. In another beach cabana, Monroe and DiMaggio were smiling broadly. She was wearing a shoulderless, midriff-bearing top and black shorts. “Marilyn looks healthy and happy,” read the caption.
On April 1, nine days after their arrival, the couple flew out of Tampa International Airport.
Rumors began to circulate in Hollywood that they were planning to re-marry.
Seventeen months later, Monroe was dead, from an overdose of barbiturates. The coroner ruled her death a possible suicide.
In the interim, she’d started working on a new movie, but was fired from the production after just a few days because of her ongoing health issues, both physical and mental.
The film, ironically, was called Something’s Got to Give.
St. Petersburg Times – Friday, March 31, 1961. SUNCOAST SUN GILDS A LILY. Marilyn Monroe arrived on the Suncoast just a week ago today, pale and drawn from a recent illness. Taking her sunglasses off for a cameraman for the first time, Marilyn looks healthy and happy as she poses in a cabana at The Tides, North Redington Beach with her ex-husband, former baseball great, Joe DiMaggio. Both are reported to be leaving the Suncoast area Saturday. Photo: UPI.
Originally published Feb. 5, 2020, this story appears in the book Vintage St. Pete: The Golden Age of Tourism – and More, available January 2021 from St. Petersburg Press. Info and pre-orders here.