Many myths and contradictions regarding the life of Johnny and his family have been perpetuated for decades in film and literature. Vivian exposes previously untold stories involving Johnny's drug addiction, his fraught family life, and their divorce in 1968, as well as the truth behind the writing of two of Johnny's most famous songs, "I Walk the Line" and "Ring of Fire."
Supplemented by a never-before-published archive of love letters and family photos, I Walked the Line offers a deeper look at one of the most sig- nificant artists in music history. Here, fans and readers can experience the extraordinary account of love and heartbreak between Johnny and Vivian, and come to understand Vivian's dignified silence over the years. Through this elegant, revealing, and powerful memoir, Vivian Cash's voice is finally heard.
|Product dimensions:||5.46(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.86(d)|
Read an Excerpt
It was September 11, 2003, and although a beautiful day, there was an uneasiness in the air. My daughter Cindy had just arrived in town for a visit along with her husband, Eddie, and she felt it too an unmistakable sense of something amiss, something dreadful about to happen. So later that night when the phone rang at one thirty a.m., after we had all gone to bed, my heart froze. Phone calls in the middle of the night never bring good news.
And then a bone-chilling scream came from down the hall. Cindy was the first to hear the news: Johnny was dead.
For the rest of the night, none of us slept. Cindy was inconsolable, devastated, virtually drowning in grief after the call. She had spent the last three months with Johnny at his home, caring for him, doting on him, and she had just left for a quick visit to come see me. She was choked in grief now that she wasn't there when he passed. Helpless to do much else, I simply hugged her.
I knew firsthand the pain of losing a parent. I lost both of mine years ago. The coming weeks and months, even years, would be tough, not only for her but also for our other three daughters Johnny and I had together: Rosanne, Kathy, and Tara. Our poor babies would never be the same. I knew that much.
To the world, Johnny was revered as the Man in Black. But to us he was simply Daddy. To the girls, he was their world. And to me he is and will always be my wonderful, caring, protective husband and the father of my children. In disbelief I paced the floor.
Johnny was supposed to have been here in California, recording yet another record. He was to have visited New York for the MTV Music Awards on his way out, where he was excited to have been nominated in six categories. We were all excited. He and the producers of the show secretly planned for him to walk out onto the stage unassisted: Only recently his heath had been improving, and he was walking again. But as fate would have it, what was thought to be a troubling case of heartburn sent him to the hospital instead. That's where he stayed for two weeks before being released. Then this sudden disastrous turn for the worse. And now our lives were spinning out of control.
Within hours, Johnny's death was the top story on all the cable news channels and morning shows. The media frenzy had begun. CNN, Fox News, ABC, CBS, NBC, every channel I turned to, were all talking about our family.
The music world is mourning the death this morning of one of America's most influential performers, Johnny Cash...
Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, died this morning in a Nashville hospital at the age of seventy-one...
One of the greatest voices in American music is silent today...
It was surreal to hear them talking about Johnny in the past tense. Only eight weeks earlier, I had been with him in his home in Hendersonville, just north of Nashville, and we had enjoyed a wonderful visit. We sat and laughed about old times. We reminisced. We hugged and cried. We joked and teased each other. Looking back, that afternoon visit was a precious gift from God. My trip to Nashville had been a very last-minute decision, and I wasn't certain I would even have the chance to see Johnny. But I'm so thankful very, very thankful that God let us see each other one last time.
Ironically, it was during that visit that we discussed this book and I told him of my decision to write it. To be honest, I was a little nervous in telling him. I wasn't sure how he would react to me finally deciding to tell my story. Not only have I gone out of my way for years to not talk about our years together, but the real truth about our marriage and divorce has never been told. Now that I had decided to tell the truth, I wondered how he would feel about that.
My decision to write this book was a difficult one for me. Early on, I became aware that some of the things I planned on revealing would be upsetting to Johnny's second wife, June. I was also aware that some of her irritation might inevitably be targeted at Johnny. And with all of his medical problems at the time, I cringed at the possibility of imposing any additional misery on him.
Two months earlier, however, something happened that none of us expected: June passed away. It was a devastating blow to Johnny and to our girls, who had known June for many years by that time. However, along with the understandable sadness at her passing, I experienced a sense of liberation that I would be freer to say the things I have to say and Johnny would be freer to tell the truth too. The full story of our lives, the unvarnished truth, could now be told more easily without hesitancy. Would Johnny agree? I wouldn't know until I spoke with him.
During our visit, I settled in on a sofa by the fireplace in Johnny's bedroom and we chatted. It was so good to see him. He was enjoying improvement in his health in recent weeks. He had gone fishing for the first time in years. He had gone swimming. And he was walking again. On July 11 he took twenty-five steps unassisted. On July 12 he took seventy steps. It made me happy to hear of his continued improvement. And despite the fact that he was still obviously grieving the loss of June, I was thrilled to hear him say, "I'm happy."
One of the household help came into the bedroom with a silver tray carrying coffee and cream and sugar and set it on the coffee table. When she left, we finally had some privacy for me to share my news.
"Johnny," I said. As usual since the divorce, it was hard for me not to call him Honey. Years of habit are hard to break. I concentrated as I chose my words. "Johnny, I have thought long about and prayed about writing a book. I want to write a book and tell our story, and the truth of what happened. I spoke with the girls, and they are in support of it. So I've made a decision to do it," I said. "How do you feel about that?" I kept my eyes fixed on Johnny's face, watching for a change in his expression.
"I've been thinking about that for the past couple years," he said without a breath of hesitation. "I think it's a great idea."
"Are you serious?" I asked. It surprised me that he had been thinking about it for a couple years. I was floored.
"Honestly, I have been," he said. "Viv, I've been thinking for years, if anyone on this planet should write a book about me, it should be you. It's time."
As we discussed the book, Johnny became more excited. I could tell his mind was whirling a mile a minute. "If there's anything I can do to help, I'll do it. I'll write the foreword too. All my fans will buy it. I know they will. It's time."
"It's time." Was I really hearing him right? I was overjoyed! Those simple words, "It's time," took on so many dimensions. It was one thing to have his blessing, which I had hoped for. But to have his encouragement and active support was wonderful. I was so glad he thought it was time.
"I hope it will be healing for you too," he added. Ironically, I wished the same for him.
I also explained to Johnny that in telling our story, I might help other women who have gone through troubles such as we had. I so much want for good to come out of those darkest hours.
"Johnny, some of your fans might be upset hearing the details of our divorce and what happened," I said. I do worry deeply about the reaction the public will have.
But Johnny didn't waver in his support. "Like I said, all my fans will read it. They'll love it," he said with confidence. "It's time."
And in that single moment, having Johnny's support and blessing confirmed in my heart that it was finally time to tell my story. Too many things were lining up and falling into perfect place, clearing the way for me. I felt God guiding me forward each careful step of the way, assuring me I was on the right path.
The truth is, I have only recently begun to feel the grace and the reconciliation of making sense of what happened to our marriage. And now, with Johnny's blessing, I would finally have what I longed to have for so many years in his shadow: a voice of my own to tell the world the truth.
"Johnny, that makes me so happy I could just kiss you!" There was no hiding the tears welling up in my eyes.
I laughed as Johnny stared at me with outstretched arms. "Well, here I am!" We shared one of the sweetest hugs we ever shared.
It hurts my heart to know that afternoon was the last time I would see Johnny. If I had known, I wouldn't have been so quick to leave. I would have spent the rest of the afternoon with him. And I would have savored every minute.
I would have told him all the things I've wanted to tell him over the years but never did. I would have hugged him tighter. I would have told him how special he is, what a good man he is.
I would have held his hands and examined his face and searched for that young Johnny who stole my heart so many years ago. I would have relived so many more of the happy times with him. I would have asked questions that have lingered in my heart. I would have loved to hear him tell me what was in his heart too.
And maybe I would have told him my darkest secret, which I am only now able to admit. I would have told him that I never stopped loving him. Through all of it, despite everything, I never stopped loving him for one second.
Instead I just hugged him happily, said good-bye, and left thinking I would see him again soon. And now he's gone.
While word of Johnny's death spread around the globe, I sat quietly sipping coffee in our den at a window overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A world without Johnny hardly seemed possible.
In the hours that followed the horrible news, I did the only thing I could do, or have learned to do when times are bad: take each hour as it comes. As I managed through the next few days, my mind filled with memories of the life Johnny and I shared the adventures, the heartache, the success, the failures, the joy, the sadness, the secrets, the lies. And the regret.
In the weeks that followed Johnny's passing, it was impossible to escape media coverage of his death. Everywhere I went there was discussion about Johnny, articles about Johnny, and radio programs playing his music. His voice and image were everywhere. Even a simple trip to the dentist, where I hoped for a moment of quiet escape, was in vain. There was Johnny, smiling at me from the cover of People magazine sitting atop a stack of newspapers and books on the waiting-room coffee table.
And strangely for me, during this time when I most longed to be left alone to grieve privately, there were repeated mentions and photographs of me amid all the coverage and stories. I felt uncomfortably exposed, thrown into the mix of public examination of Johnny's life.
Curious strangers appeared at our front door. "Is this where Johnny Cash's first wife lives?" they'd ask, peering into our house. And I began noticing the hushed whispers of strangers behind my back as I ran my errands: "...that's Johnny's ex-wife, Vivian...." I even received a phone call from a reporter at the National Enquirer tabloid, pressing for details of my last meeting with Johnny. A "reliable" source had told them of our meeting, including certain gifts that he gave me. They wanted details.
I have to say I've never been comfortable with the attention I received as Johnny's wife. I've always been a very private person. Even though most people are interested, if they do find out about me having been married to Johnny, they found out on their own. Never from me.
And I have learned over the years that there are two distinct groups of people: people who have a curiosity about me and my past with Johnny, and people of the Nashville mind-set, who prefer that I be written out of Johnny's history altogether.
So on November 10, 2003, when I arrived at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville the inner sanctum of the Nashville establishment to attend a television taping of a memorial tribute to Johnny, I felt something like an unwelcome guest. If it weren't for the girls' insistence that I attend with them, I might have spared myself the anxiety. A public retrospection into Johnny's life would mean retrospection into my life. And that would mean revisiting times and places from my past, whether I was ready or not.
As I stepped closer toward the side entrance of the building, the flashbulbs popped and flashed and the press photographers yelled just like the last time Johnny and I passed through these doors of the historic Grand Ole Opry. Back then I felt like the first lady of country music on Johnny's arm as he shouldered his way through the crush of fans. There was always such commotion wherever Johnny went women screaming and throwing themselves at him, girls clamoring for autographs. Johnny had a huge following of fans from the very beginning.
But on this November night, there were no screaming women. Outside, fans were quietly gathered in front of the Ryman. They had come from all over the country, some driving eighteen hours or more, just to stand outside in the cold and pay their respects. Many had made makeshift shrines on the sidewalk, candles burning next to framed photos of Johnny. One man stood alone playing his banjo, plucking out "Folsom Prison Blues." Other fans simply stood quietly holding candles. The mood was solemn and reverent.
Johnny's funeral had been a private ceremony, closed to the public. So this evening offered the first chance for fans and fellow artists to publicly honor and remember Johnny, whom they all loved and admired. And everybody, I mean everybody, loved Johnny.
Some of the biggest names in the world of music were on hand on this night, a testament to Johnny's influence: Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr., and George Jones. Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, and John Mellencamp were also slated to perform. It was a Who's Who of celebrities from Al Gore and Whoopi Goldberg to Bono and Tim Robbins, who was acting the role of host.
Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy, Tara, and I, along with our husbands, all took our seats in the wooden pews of the historic church to watch the show. Forty-seven years previous on Saturday July 7, 1956, to be exact, two months before Johnny's biggest hit, "I Walk the Line," was released I had sat in these very same pews when Johnny made his first appearance on this very same stage. Johnny was nervous and excited. I was too. I beamed with pride. It was an honor to perform at the Opry. Johnny was sharing billing with the likes of Minnie Pearl and Grandpa Jones and others. I watched from the audience when he took the stage.
"I'd like to dedicate this song to my wife, who is here tonight," Johnny said as he looked over to me with a smile.
It was a smile of pure joy. A smile that said, I'm proud to be here, I'm doing what I love, I'm a blessed man. And with that he started to sing. As always, within minutes he had the audience demanding more. I stopped counting at his fifth encore.
Never did I dream back then that I wouldn't be by his side all these years later. If someone had caught me by the shoulder and told me that Johnny and I wouldn't be married forever, I never would have believed it. Nothing would ever come between Johnny and me. I was the woman he walked the line for.
As I sat and waited for the tribute to begin, I tried to convince myself that Johnny really was gone. Maybe the evening would give me some measure of closure, I hoped. None of it seemed real. In a sense, none of the past forty years have seemed real. Johnny went straight from my arms to God's arms. Anything that happened in between just wasn't supposed to happen.
I wondered what people sitting next to me in the auditorium would think if they only knew the truth about the stories that Johnny insisted it was "time" to finally tell. Could they imagine a truth other than the stories they've been told? They believe what they want to believe what they've been told to believe. Would they believe the truth?
My thoughts were interrupted as the Fisk Jubilee Singers started the evening off with the rousing gospel hymn "Ain't No Grave Can Hold My Body Down." They sang that song just a few weeks earlier at Johnny's funeral. Then Tommy Cash, Johnny's brother, took the stage to begin the show. As teenagers he and I climbed trees together and chased each other around the yard. We were like brother and sister. It made me proud to see him standing tall during this difficult time.
Next, Rosanne took the stage to perform and speak about Johnny. How she was able to find the composure to sing and speak eloquently amid her grief, I have no idea. But she's just like Johnny, a consummate performer. Once onstage, she's in complete control. She inherited her daddy's genius in that way.
As I watched her perform, I thought of Johnny and me as newlyweds. When I was pregnant with Rosanne, Johnny loved to lay his hands on my stomach, rub my tummy, and sing and play the guitar to her, fascinated by her kicks and rolls. "What are you doing in there?" he'd say. Johnny was amazed by the miracle of his baby growing inside me.
We both adored kids and were anxious for a family of our own. We wanted a large family eight children as quick as we could have them. After our one-month wedding anniversary passed and I wasn't pregnant, I was so upset that I had disappointed Johnny. I can still hear him, so sweet, telling me, "Don't get discouraged, baby! It's only been one month. We'll get our baby, don't you worry." When we learned that I was pregnant, we literally jumped up and down with joy.
Back then our dreams were so simple, and not even music-related. Johnny sold appliances door-to-door in east Memphis for Mr. Bates at the Home Equipment appliance store, and we scratched by on what he earned. We had no baby crib, no baby clothes, not much of anything. I sewed my maternity clothes from pieces of old bedsheets and leftover costume fabric my sister gave me blue velvet that she wore as a shepherd in some Christmas pageant.
Our main form of entertainment was Cash family picnics at the park. That's how we had our fun. In the evenings I would roll my hair on our bed while Johnny sat next to me and played his guitar and wrote songs. And we listened endlessly to music on the radio. Hank Snow was always Johnny's favorite. And we both loved George Jones, Ferlin Husky, Ernest Tubb, and the Grand Ole Opry radio program. When I look back, those were the happiest days ever. We didn't have much, but we had each other.
There was nothing back then to suggest a superstar in the making or the material success that would come within a year after we were married. Nothing to suggest that fifty years later, Johnny would be loved by millions of fans and celebrated as the greatest country music artist of all time. Johnny was just my husband back then. A career in music was something we only dreamed about.
I later learned that an astounding ten million viewers tuned in to watch the memorial tribute show on television, and I marvel at the tremendous influence Johnny had in his lifetime. But at the same time I'm not at all surprised.
From the very beginning, even from his very earliest public performance, Johnny had an innate ability to connect with audiences and command their attention. He had a magnetism unlike anyone I have ever met. I don't know if it was his height he was over six feet tall or it might have been his distinctive walk. With those long legs of his, you couldn't help but be transfixed by him. I don't know what it was. But he was captivating to watch. You felt the power of his presence when he was in the room. Even as his wife I sensed that. And on that night, just like the enormous black-and-white portrait of Johnny hanging center stage, his presence still loomed large.
While I sat in the church pews of the Opry, watching all those hundreds of people revere Johnny, I was struck by their laughter and comments celebrating Johnny's darker side. They all admire the man who angrily gave the finger in that famous photograph and kicked out the footlights of the Opry. They hail him as "America's favorite bad boy," dangerous and unpredictable. A lot of people think that was all funny. I never did. That wasn't Johnny. That violent, belligerent side wasn't him at all. That was drugs.
The real story, in my mind, that should be told is how one person and so many lives can be unalterably changed because of drugs. Johnny was tortured. Our family was tortured. For years he lived under the control of pills and did things he never would have done if he'd been sober. He fogged his mind so that he lived a double life. And he learned to live and be comfortable in that skin. I know we would still be married today if the drugs hadn't entered our lives.
So as the night unfolded I experienced a whole realm of emotions. Every person taking the stage shared a personal snapshot of memories from the past with Johnny that were vastly different from my own.
I can't remember the lyrics of every song that Johnny ever recorded in his career, or in what order they hit the charts. But I can remember the wonder and silence Johnny and I shared every time we looked at each of our newborn daughters.
I can't remember every city, every venue we visited as we crisscrossed the country on his tours, nor can I remember the names and faces of all of his bookers, label executives, and the like. But I do remember the feel of his hand squeezing mine backstage his secret assurance to me that I was his.
I can't remember details of each of Johnny's career milestones, but I remember hearing Johnny tell me that he loved me for the first time at our bench along the River Walk in San Antonio.
I remember our wedding day and the pride I felt the first time I wrote my name, Mrs. Johnny Cash.
I remember the soothing sound of Johnny's voice as he gently combed his fingers through my hair and lulled me to sleep with a whisper as he sang "Love Me Tender" at the end of a busy day.
I remember the giggles of our girls our "babies" on Christmas morning as Johnny played with them.
I remember the delicious smell of Johnny making biscuits in our kitchen with a recipe only he knew by heart.
I remember all the fun we had at home with our menagerie of animals around the house horses, dogs, a monkey, and a parrot.
I remember fishing with Johnny alone, just him and me, and how he loved to sit back and watch me cast, then wait and laugh each time I panicked when I caught something.
I remember us dyeing his hair black in the kitchen sink, and one time crying laughing when we tried bleaching it blond a mistake we quickly fixed before anyone could see.
Those are the slices of life I remember.
Nobody in that auditorium knew Johnny the way I did. Nobody loved him like I loved him. None of the people who tuned in to watch the show on television has any idea about the real man Johnny was. But I do. He was a wonderful, decent man. He was my strong, protective husband, and I knew he loved me.
Johnny was tender, sweet, and vulnerable. A writer of sugary, emotional love poems.
Here's a box of candy, Viv,
And if it's good and sweet,
Say "It's Johnny's love materialized"
With every bite you eat.
If it isn't tasty, hon,
Give Shraft the blame for that.
But if it's like my love for you,
It's bound to make you fat.
I never did stop loving Johnny, and that made getting on with my life after our divorce very difficult. Of course, he and I both moved on with new marriages and new lives, but I have always believed in my heart that what happened to our marriage should never have happened. I will never believe it was God's will.
Recently our daughter Kathy asked me pointedly, "Mom, you never got over divorcing Daddy, did you?" Leave it to our children to make uncomfortable observations. But she's right. I've never been able to admit that until recently. Years after Johnny and I divorced, I struggled with the pain and grief. I tortured myself with regret and second-guessing. What could I have done differently? Could I have fought harder to save the marriage? I still desperately miss the family we had, just Johnny, the girls, and me.
My daughters have always told me, "Mom, you have to revisit and examine your past in order to heal. You have to walk through it before you can get over it." That might be true, but it's not the easy way out. The easy way out is to stuff your feelings and go on. Pretend it never happened, pretend you don't have all those emotions. That's what I've done up until now.
You would think, wouldn't you, that when Johnny died it would be the end of the story for me. Instead it was just the beginning. It was the beginning of my search for answers and healing and doing all those things that my daughters told me I needed to do in order to heal. Revisiting my past was something I had always avoided. Now I knew I had to. For the first time in my life, my desire for truth was greater than any fear or doubt I had in making the journey. The first step, though, would require me to go back to the very beginning.
Copyright © 2007 by Dick Distin and Ann Sharpsteen
Table of Contents
What People are Saying About This
"This book is the greatest part of my mother's legacy as a wife, a grandmother, a matriarch, a mother, and most important, a woman in love."
"Vivian was there from the beginning with Johnny. I loved reading I Walked the Line. It brought back memories of our good times together and how crazy it was back then."
"Just when you thought you had a good idea who Johnny Cash was, in this book we get inside the heart of the Man in Black. Only a very few knew Johnny Cash like his beloved Vivian. Now for the first time we get the full picture of who Johnny Cash really was. His pen and heart expose this very complicated man. If you think you knew Johnny Cash, think again. You see the side he never let anyone on the outside see. The love letters of Johnny Cash will make even the biggest man sneak a tear."
Jimmy Carter, host of The Jimmy Carter Entertainment Report
"Here's a love story that encompasses ten thousand pages of love letters. I'm glad I was there to see a lot of that love in the early years in California. Vivian was a very special person in my life."
"We all thought we knew everything about Johnny Cash, but this book clearly reveals more secrets than ever before. In an age of email and IMs it is sweet to read the tender love letters a heartsore young man wrote to his very young girlfriend. They are full of tenderness and sweetness and caring. It is sad to see how once success, alcohol, and drugs enter the picture, everything changes. We live through the heartaches of their shattered marriage, his addictions, and a turbulent life. Vivian, the first lover and wife of this musical legend, tells the tale in a powerful way, and I am sure that all the readers will get as much from reading it as I did."