'My Darling Vivian' Reveals the Harrowing Story of Johnny Cash's First Wife Directed by Matt Riddlehoover

'My Darling Vivian' Reveals the Harrowing Story of Johnny Cash's First Wife Directed by Matt Riddlehoover
Johnny Cash is known for many things, but "Father of the Year" he ain't. The Man in Black was simply not around. And that is according to his own children. Cash's marriage to Vivian Liberto bore four daughters, who act as narrators throughout this documentary, and they offer up numerous eye-opening anecdotes about their difficult upbringing.

But let's not get it twisted: My Darling Vivian is about Vivian Liberto, not Johnny Cash. After being unfairly disparaged by Nashville, Hollywood and even the Ku Klux Klan, the Cash daughters are here to set the record straight once and for all. One drawback of this documentary is that there are virtually no interviews with Vivian in existence, as she was a very private person. She never anticipated, nor wanted, the stardom that Johnny Cash brought to their family.

Their story is one of teenage romance, love letters and a passionate young marriage. The film peaks early when it shares a treasure trove of family movies, early photographs and handwritten correspondence. Country music superfans will be treated to some pretty neat shots of Cash serving overseas and hanging out at the Kölner Dom and on the Champs-Élysées. Johnny then returns from war and they are immediately wed in 1954. Nine months later Roseanne Cash enters the world, and one month after her birth, the new father leaves his family to go on tour. The film glazes over exactly how he got so busy so fast, but the fact is that Johnny Cash was in high demand and he consistently chose the touring life over a domestic one.

Someone could easily do a satirical cover of the famous Cash rendition of, "I've Been Everywhere," but instead of the many locales ("…Chicopee, Spirit Lake, Grand Lake, Devil's Lake, Crater Lake, for Pete's sake…") they could list the litany of his woeful parenting blunders. Johnny delivers hit after hit when it comes to bad decision making. In addition to foisting four children in six years upon Vivian, he had a penchant for bringing home exotic critters to add to the household mayhem. What kind of animals? Oh, just a monkey named Homer, for example.

With success came the time to build a dream home. Johnny moved his very young, very vulnerable family into an ostentatious house on the side of a cliff in the isolated hamlet of Casitas Springs, CA. Then, as always, he immediately left for tour. There the family was left to fend for themselves and deal with bothersome fans and rattlesnakes. Roving bobcats posed a legitimate threat to the small children, but luckily Vivian was handy with a rifle. According to one daughter, he once left for an entire year, missing out on birthdays and Christmas. 

The last straw on the camel's back came when Johnny was busted smuggling drugs across the Mexican border. The married couple had to appear in public, but it was Vivian that bore the brunt of the shame. In the eyes of the country music community, her Sicilian complexion triggered racist accusations. After somehow enduring 12 years of absence, infidelity and drug abuse, Vivian finally filed for divorce. It came as a relief to the children. As Roseanne Cash remembers, "This was… fucked up. This is not how children should be raised". But the suffering was far from over for Vivian, and she was cast out of the Catholic Church for committing the mortal sin of divorce.
Cash felt so deservedly guilty that his actions resulted in Vivian's excommunication that he wrote a letter to the Archdiocese and begged for her forgiveness.

There was still some semblance of love between the two, even up to their deaths. That's what is maybe so tragic about this love story: that their marriage would have likely remained intact had Cash's runaway career not taken the wheel.

Documentary filmmaking is becoming a lost art. Look no further than sports docuseries The Last Dance, which has been wildly popular during the COVID-19 lockdown. Jordan himself had a hand in the production, and what do ya know, he comes out looking like a pretty great guy! In My Darling Vivian, we have the subject matter's grandchild (Dustin Tittle) in a producer role, but this is still a "warts and all" portrayal of the marriage between Vivian and Johnny. But adding to the authenticity of their first-hand accounts, Vivian's daughters withhold any serious ire towards Johnny's second wife, June Carter Cash, who might have otherwise been labeled a homewrecker were it not for the revisionist history and damage control put forth by Nashville.

You can understand why Nashville would be so eager to get Vivian out of the picture: she was bad for business. Vivian's truth just didn't fit in with the mythology that has been so carefully curated by the entertainment biz. But as historians will tell you, it's oftentimes the perspectives of the marginalized that reveal the most truth. In this case, it's the long overdue story of yet another woman behind the scenes, and fans of Cash and "classic country" will take away a lot of new insights from this documentary film. (Element Twenty Two/This Heart of Mine)