Review

I Walked the Line: My Life With Johnny

Vivian Cash with Ann Sharpsteen

Johnny Cash was a big man, with big failings and a big
following. Books about him have proliferated since he passed away,
and I WALKED THE LINE is another --- but not just another.
Constructed with care by Johnny’s first wife, Vivian Liberto
Cash and documentary producer Ann Sharpsteen, it reveals a new
facet of the Cash legend, the young star-eyed lover boy who wrote
almost daily letters to his teenaged girlfriend.

Sent to Germany by the U.S. Air Force shortly after meeting the
17-year-old Vivian, Johnny composed passionate prose to his
inamorata (photographs of the originals are included in
the book) in a bold italic hand. Every letter declares his love for
his “honey,” “darling” and
“sweetheart.” But there is more. He recounts the tragic
death of his brother and how it led to his conviction that
“all my life drinking has been associated with hungry kids
and unhappy homes, so for me, it’s taboo.”

Nevertheless, Johnny, away from home and lonely, frankly confesses
his visits to the women of the “French Zone” and his
bouts of boozing (“been spending all my passes drinking and
fighting and telling myself I hate you and every other woman in the
world”) followed by desperate promises: “I won’t
get drunk anymore Vivian.” He also dictates to the young girl
what she can and can’t do, showing himself to be strongly
domineering: she shouldn’t date other guys or go out to
nightclubs, he wants her to wear a white silk nightgown he has
picked out for her, even though he knows she doesn’t like
nightgowns, and he tells her “what I’m thankful for
most is your natural decency.” “When I get
back,” he writes fervently, “I want to go church with
you and thank God for all he’s doing for us.”

The letters comprise about 80% of this book. Vivian’s story,
some of it public knowledge, is disappointingly brief and does not
always ring true. Her conversation with Johnny towards the end of
his life, when he gives her his blessing to write the book, took
place behind closed doors without witnesses, as did June
Carter’s cold declaration, “Vivian, he will be
mine.” However, the story is not new in the history of the
world. In fact, it is the very stuff of fable. A man with a
long-suffering wife who shares his misfortunes finally rises from
obscurity, achieves fame and begins to enjoy being the center of
attention. Sycophants abound, and a woman within that magic world,
unencumbered by reminders of the old life, shines out as the new,
worthy partner.

As portrayed in the 2005 movie Walk the Line, Vivian was a
perpetually pregnant harridan holding Johnny back, while
effervescent June, heiress to the Carter Family musical mystique,
shared his ambitions and knew how to maximize his talents. Vivian,
who stood by Johnny when he was poor and hopeless, addicted and
helpless, paints the picture --- without using too heavy a brush
--- that Johnny’s new Nashville/Hollywood cronies were all
too complicit in closing ranks, boosting the new young starlet in
preference to the old, worn-out housewife as a suitable trophy for
the iconic Man in Black.

Vivian is quick to state that Johnny gave her and the children a
fair financial settlement and maintained a role in his
daughters’ lives. But she has no kind words for June or any
of her clan.

Vivian died not long after Johnny, stating in print that she had
always loved him. She tells the world that the time had come to
publish his letters, and with Ann Sharpsteen’s assistance,
that has been accomplished. Diehard Cash fanatics will mine the
epistolary portion of this book for further clues to the real man
behind the legend. The almost-incidental story of Vivian’s
love, sacrifice and loss will be seen, not surprisingly, as common,
predictable and sad.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 22, 2011

I Walked the Line: My Life With Johnny
Vivian Cash with Ann Sharpsteen

  • Publication Date: September 4, 2007
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1416532927
  • ISBN-13: 9781416532927