Johnny Cash's first wife tells of romance, heartbreak

Posted at 1:00 AM, Nov 18, 2007

Drugs and June Carter, Vivian Cash writes in her new book, ruined her marriage to music icon Johnny Cash — and Carter, others told her, was the more relentless of the two threats.

Vivian was the one cast out of the spotlight, left behind to raise her and Johnny's four daughters in Ventura as he and June Carter became the king and queen of country music in almost storybook romance style. Vivian became fodder only for, as she writes, people curious about her past with her famous ex-husband and those of the Nashville mind-set who wanted her "written out of Johnny's history altogether."

Now Vivian's writing back, so to speak, in "I Walked The Line: My Life with Johnny," released this fall. By turns sad and uplifting, the book is a sobering antidote to our celebrity-obsessed culture and speaks to the oft-ignored fallout from fame.

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In it, Vivian confesses that she never stopped loving Johnny and wistfully ruminates on what might have been had drugs and June not entered their lives. The heart and setting for much of this is Johnny and Vivian's stint living in a hillside home above Nye Road in Casitas Springs from 1961 to 1967, a period containing some of the most colorful and worst of the legendary Man in Black's bad-boy behavior — the pills, the booze, the binges, the arrests and an infamous June 1965 forest fire he set above Fillmore.

It wasn't long after they moved to Casitas Springs, Vivian writes in the book, "that everything, and I mean everything, started to fall apart." While Johnny toured (sometimes with June) and his fame grew, Vivian stayed home.

"She'd say, If I only could have traveled with him instead of being here raising four kids, things would have been different,'" recalled longtime friend Alice Smith of Ventura. "She said that a lot."

Vivian remarried (Ventura Police Officer Dick Distin, who still lives in town) in 1968 and lived out her days in Ventura, an active, admired and social member of the community. All four daughters she had with Cash — Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara — graduated from St. Bonaventure High School in Ventura.

Vivian died in May 2005 at age 71, shortly after finishing the manuscript on her days with Johnny.

In some ways, her book is a retort to the Oscar-winning 2005 film "Walk the Line," with Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny and Reese Witherspoon as June depicted in a dreamy love story.

The film portrayed Johnny as the aggressive pursuer and June as the reluctant one, but Vivian paints June as the chaser — most pointedly in the book when she writes about an angry backstage confrontation (in an unnamed place) in which June said to her, "Vivian, he will be mine."

"She wanted people to know June went after Johnny," said Ann Sharpsteen, who co-authored the book with Vivian. "That was where most of her pain and anger rested all these years."

Vivian's daughter, Cindy Cash, largely agrees with her mother.

"Once June came along, she relentlessly — well, she wanted Dad and she was going to get him," said Cindy, who lives in Ventura. "And she did. She made herself very available, to where he pursued her back."

Truths of the triangle

Vivian also writes of the pain of hearing June claim in interviews that she was raising Johnny's daughters. She also claims June Carter was a drug supplier for Johnny, contributed to his addiction and was also an addict. Where the absolute truth in all this lies is likely buried: The three prongs of the love triangle who can speak directly to it are all dead — June Carter and Johnny Cash died in 2003.

Johnny Cash blessed the book and supposedly was going to write the foreword before he passed away.

But his fingerprints are all over it. In fact, most of this unusual memoir is written by the Man in Black — fully 75 percent of the 320-page book is love letters he wrote to Vivian while he was an Air Force serviceman stationed in Germany from 1951 to 1954. The two had met at a roller-skating rink in her hometown of San Antonio and engaged in a whirlwind three-week romance before he shipped out to Europe.

Sharpsteen said she and Vivian sifted through almost 10,000 pages of love letters the two wrote each other while they were apart.

Vivian's sister Sylvia Flye, who proofread some of the book, said she had a reason for including so many of the love letters.

"The movie, as well as articles, had portrayed Johnny and June as this love story of the century,'" said Flye, a former local resident who now lives in Tulare. "She wanted to show they (she and Johnny) had a great love, too. She wanted to show people she wasn't the ogre."

Though Vivian never saw the movie, she was aware, friends say, that she was depicted unflatteringly, almost as a shrew.

The book's concluding section, in which Vivian is very open about the triangle, has raised eyebrows among her friends. Though Vivian confided in some of them, she was a private sort who usually talked about Johnny only when others brought it up.

The last part "was very enlightening to me," said Suzanne Dunn of Oxnard. Helen Boyd of Ventura said Vivian told her some things but added, "It wasn't hatred or venom or anything like that. And she didn't speak hostilely about June Carter."

Longtime friend Cynthia Burell noted that Vivian didn't have it easy going through all this, and holding it back so long also was tough.

"This is something that's been with her for years," said Burell, a former Ojai city clerk and director of finance who still lives there. "It's very hurtful to have someone else say they were raising her four daughters; she raised those daughters. To be sort of overlooked was very hurtful; it would have been hurtful to anyone. And in her situation, it was worse because he was a very public figure."

It did hurt her, said Cindy Cash. On that subject, her mother was frustrated and "feeling invisible." She wanted, Cindy said, "to finally, finally have a voice."

Remembering Vivian

Vivian filed for divorce from Johnny in summer 1966; it was granted in late 1967.

But rather than being the shattered ex-wife, Vivian — at least outwardly — threw herself into life and the community. She was a three-term president of the Garden Club of San Buenaventura and did volunteer work for the county hospital and a home for unwed mothers in Los Angeles, among other things.

Those who knew her, from close friends to casual acquaintances, unfailingly speak of her in glowing terms — kind, generous, down to earth, socially engaging, a decorating guru and an ace hostess, always ready with her trademark afghans and homemade treats.

"She really had the heart of a saint and the wisdom of a queen," said Katrina Plate of Ventura. "I've truly never met a nicer person."

Added Shirley Wilmot of Ojai, "How beautiful she was, inside and out."

Boyd coordinated volunteers at the Ventura County Medical Center for years and remembers Vivian as "gracious, modest and a bit shy. I liked her a lot."

Vivian's Ventura foothills home had an indoor pool and was impeccably decorated. She loved entertaining people there.

Said Dunn, who knew her from the Garden Club, "She had an innate sense of style in her dress and her home."

Fran Diamond, the manager of Scott's Apparel in Ventura when Vivian briefly worked there, called her "an all-around fun person." Opal Root worked alongside her at St. Bonaventure's Fiesta fundraisers in the mid-1970s while her son and two of the Cash daughters were in school there and remembers Vivian did whatever it took to help the effort.

"She always had a smile on her face," Root said.

Smith, who met Vivian through selling cosmetics, said every room in her house has something she made for her. "If you knew Vivian, you had one of her afghans; that's the kind of person she was," Smith said.

Cindy Cash said her mom was "completely devoted to being a mother." She said Vivian, though resentful, never badmouthed June or Johnny.

But he wasn't far from her mind. Winifred Singleton of Camarillo gave Vivian machine-knitting lessons at her home in the early 1970s and recalled that Vivian once interrupted a session so she could watch a Johnny Cash special on television. She thought that was odd until Vivian told her she was once married to him.

It was hard for many to read Vivian, including Flye, her sister. She found out about the divorce in the media.

It came as a shock to Flye. She had looked on the Vivian-Johnny relationship with envy and thought it was a wonderful marriage and great love "until pills and June interfered and I don't know which one came first."

Their early days

Vivian (nee Liberto) writes that she met Johnny Cash on July 18, 1951, at a roller-skating rink in San Antonio when he asked her for a skate near closing time. He wasn't good on skates, she recalls, but made up for it by crooning along to the Rosemary Clooney tune playing at the time.

A quick romance ensued before the Air Force sent Johnny to Germany. He carved "Johnny Loves Vivian" in a bench along San Antonio's famed River Walk.

They promised to write each other — and did they ever. Johnny's letters over the three years came in a flurry, sometimes one a day, and are full of love, innocence and the famous Cash humor. The son of Arkansas cotton farmers, Cash wrote once of living in a room with "dumb selfish Yankees," adding, "I'm thinking about reviving the Civil War."

Cash wrote of being lonely, feeling insecure. His tone was often tender, writing in one, "You are the only one for me — for always."

The letters are addressed "My Darling Vivian" or "My Baby" — once he called her "My Snookie Pootsie," adding: "Isn't that a killer, sweetheart? I'm not drunk honey. I just dreamed up that name."

The letters, with the benefit of perfect 20-20 hindsight, can be viewed as harbingers of Cash's later behavior. Several times, he wrote of being drunk or being with other women, remorsefully promising Vivian he wouldn't do it again, only to repeat it.

Vivian (who relates that she went out with guys back home) doesn't address that head-on but writes of being "crazy in love" then and in the first part of the marriage.

Johnny came home from the service on July 4, 1954. Vivian and family gathered at the Cash home in Dyess, Ark., and drove to the West Memphis airport to meet him. Wordless, "I just fell into his arms, he scooped me up, and we kissed," she writes.

They married Aug. 7 of that year in St. Anne's Catholic Church in San Antonio.

They moved to Memphis, where Johnny took a job selling appliances door to door. He soon grew to hate it. His brother Roy introduced him to friends Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins, and they and Johnny shared a love for "hillbilly" music.

One day — "one hour that would change everything," Vivian writes — Johnny auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. "Baby, we're cuttin' a record!" Johnny said when he came home (Vivian was pregnant with Rosanne, their first child).

What followed was "Cry, Cry, Cry," a song Johnny wrote in 15 minutes, Vivian says; days later, Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two were Sun's newest artists.

Cash went into music history with other Sun artists such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison, all of whom he toured with; Vivian writes: "Johnny and I especially liked Elvis. He was an all-around great guy and became a very close friend."

The tours also drew women, and when Vivian asked Johnny if he was ever tempted, he told her not to worry — "I walk the line for you."

That would spark a song; Johnny asked Vivian to write down lyrics while driving in the car. Released in spring 1956, "I Walk the Line" became a No. 1 hit, around the time their second daughter, Kathy, was born.

Cash was huge. A new manager, Stu Carnall, Vivian says, convinced him to move to California.

"At this point," Vivian writes, "I simply agreed with whatever Johnny wanted to do. I can't say I had much of a mind of my own."

In the summer of 1958, about a month after welcoming third daughter Cindy into the world, the Cashes moved west to Encino, buying a house owned by Johnny Carson.

This marked the start of what Vivian terms "a dangerous current" running beneath their exciting life. Johnny's drinking escalated and he began to take pills.

"All of the things that Johnny had called filthy and dirty' (his actual words from the love letters) and had insisted would destroy our lives were things he began to embrace," Vivian writes.

Cindy Cash, then a child, remembers hearing her parents fight only once. But she recalled, "Mom always seeming worried and staying up late, but she never let us see her pain."

Now, looking back, Cindy said, "Pills kind of led Dad into a very destructive period in his life, and Mom unfortunately paid the price."

Vivian thought the move to Casitas Springs in late summer 1961, two weeks after their last child, Tara, was born, would put a stop to Johnny's behavior.

It didn't.

Bad Johnny, good Johnny

Johnny Cash is a legend in part due to his devil-may-care, outlaw persona and brushes with the law, and Ventura County had its share of Cash shenanigans.

Johnny was a regular visitor to Lake Casitas, ostensibly to fish. In the book, Vivian said he wrote "Ring of Fire," one of his most famous songs, during a fishing trip there. He also partied there, occasionally passing out in his boat.

"He used to come out here, drink too much and go over the edge," said Randy King, the Lake Casitas marina manager.

Phone calls would be made, and somebody always came out to take him away, King said.

Cindy recalled "Mom putting us all in the car and us having to go look for Dad somewhere and pick him up." She can't remember all the wheres.

Helen Boyd's husband, Jeffrey, then a sheriff's deputy, recalled that he went to the Casitas Springs home to talk to Johnny about his penchant for playing Christmas music loudly, a habit Vivian mentions in the book.

"I'm the one who told him to shut it down," Boyd, now 79 and retired, said with a chuckle, adding that Johnny was nice and polite about it. "It was a boisterous sound. It thundered all through there, down the creek bed."

It was loud, said Cindy Cash, who vividly remembers her dad putting up loudspeakers in the yard.

"He was devastated" when told to turn it off, she said, laughing at the memory. "He thought he was doing something nice for the community."

Boyd also was an investigating officer on the 508-acre forest fire Johnny accidentally set in late June 1965, near where Alder Creek spills into Sespe Creek above Fillmore. The so-named Adobe fire took a week to put out, required air tanker drops and resulted in the Man in Black being prosecuted.

Carl Rivenburgh, then an assistant fire control officer on the U.S. Forest Service's Ojai district, wrote Cash a citation and interviewed him at the scene.

When he got there — "way back in the backcountry" — Cash's pickup, a truck camper the singer affectionately called "Jesse," was pulled off to one side of the road and Cash was seated nearby. Cash told Rivenburgh that he had gone there to fish and that the fire started from his truck. Rivenburgh said he crawled underneath and discovered the exhaust pipe had separated from where it went into the muffler. That problem led to heat igniting nearby grass when Cash tried to start the camper.

Rivenburgh said Cash, who told him he tried to beat down the fire in early stages with his leather jacket, "was just about three-fourths shot and couldn't walk real straight."

"In my conversation with him, I considered him inebriated, probably drunk by liquor," said Rivenburgh, now 85, retired and living in Klamath, Calif. "Later — I wasn't educated on dope in those days — I thought he was probably shooting up on something."

In a 1997 autobiography, Cash recalled the fire in his inimitable style. He said he went into a later court proceeding "full of amphetamines and arrogance," refusing to answer questions straight.

He denied starting the fire, writing that he said, "No, my truck did and it's dead, so you can't question it."

In that book, Cash also indicated that the fire scared off or even killed 44 California condors (the fire was close to a sanctuary). Asked about that in a deposition, Cash wrote that he replied, "I don't give a damn about your yellow buzzards."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, stewards of the condor recovery effort, said any condors were likely only driven off; if they had died, there'd be a record. Dennis Ensign, a firefighter who worked the blaze 42 years ago, recalled no dead birds there.

Cash also claimed to be the first private citizen the federal government successfully sued and collected from for starting a forest fire (to recover costs of fighting it). But the Forest Service doubts it.

Accounts from the day said Cash was fined about $125,000 — an amount Cash mentions in the autobiography — but The Star later reported it was reduced to about $82,000 and that Cash's insurance companies were ordered to pay the tab.

Not all Cash's faux pas were on such a grand scale. Randy Boswell, then 16 and driving around one night in the late 1960s, recalled that he was on a back road between Foster Park and Oak View when he passed a black Cadillac on the side of the road. Up a ways farther, he passed Johnny Cash walking along, likely heading to get gas. Boswell picked him up, took him to a station and drove him back to the Cadillac "and off he went."

"It was pretty obvious why he ran out of gas," said Boswell, now an electrical engineer living in Oregon. "He was pretty high. This was in his wild-child days."

Boswell said he recognized Cash because the singer had sponsored his Little League team only a few years earlier.

All of Cash's troubles, which even he seemed at times to revel in, overshadow his good deeds. Boswell was among those who recalled that Cash, sometimes with Buck Owens, did benefit shows in the area for the Boys Club and other causes.

In her book, Vivian writes that Johnny financially supported her and their daughters through the years, and came back for their graduations.

Flye, Vivian's sister, said she personally saw his bad behavior only once, on a visit back to their parents' home in San Antonio when Johnny was on pills and spent an entire night up and pacing.

He was, Flye said, a "very loving father."

There were a lot of good times, Cindy Cash said. On Christmas morning, Johnny always led his daughters into the living room in Casitas Springs to open presents; the girls had to walk in by order of age.

Once, Cindy said, "Dad had taken off his shoes, put them in the fireplace ashes, and made footprints leading out the door, just so we'd believe there was a Santa Claus."


Despite all his flaws, that's the Johnny that Vivian prefers to remember in the book. The dark side, the troubles with the law, the bad-boy stories his cronies liked to tell, she writes, wasn't her Johnny. "That was drugs."

June Carter doesn't fare as well in her eyes. From the first time she met her (in 1958), Vivian writes, her intuition said worry: "This woman was a danger to my family." She never knew exactly when the cheating began.

Initially, Vivian denied it; she was the one "Johnny walked the line for." But then came signs: Johnny began spending less time at home, family members and bandmates started dropping hints, and Vivian found receipts for thousands of dollars of gifts for June.

Losing her husband to another woman, she writes, was a "degrading, horrible experience." The idea Johnny could love someone else was hard to accept.

In the end, Vivian regrets not revisiting the love letters with Johnny and not fighting harder to save the marriage.

"I should have been relentless at saving it, as relentless as June was at destroying it," she writes (though she ultimately forgives her).

But Vivian most regrets the anger she carried around all those years.

He had left without a goodbye. Johnny, she writes, eventually apologized to his daughters but never to her — "I'd have given anything to hear Johnny say (he was sorry)."

June Carter died in May 2003. That summer, Vivian went to visit Johnny in his Tennessee home and told her she was writing a book about their life. He reportedly replied, "What took you so long?" Local friends said Vivian relayed that to them upon her return.

Alice Smith noted the symbolism in the book's title, which she said was suggested to Vivian by her friends.

"They would tell her, You were the one who walked the line all these years, raising four daughters,'" Smith said.

Johnny died Sept. 12, 2003, of complications from diabetes. Vivian starts the book with his death, writing " to me he is and will always be my wonderful, caring, protective husband."

At book's end, Vivian writes that she hopes her daughters know more than ever "how much I loved their daddy."

Vivian also relays repeated dreams in which Johnny is standing by a dark car and motioning her to come over, telling her he wants to talk. But the dreams end before Vivian gets to hear what he wants to say.

Maybe it was that apology. Maybe Vivian, after her death on May 24, 2005, of complications from lung cancer surgery, is in a better place to hear it.

Writes Vivian: "I hope someday we get to finally speak."