Review: ‘My Darling Vivian,’ starring Rosanne Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Cindy Cash and Tara Cash Schwoebel

June 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Vivian Liberto Cash and Johnny Cash in “My Darling Vivian” (Photo courtesy of Estate of Vivian Distin)

“My Darling Vivian”

Directed by Matt Riddlehoover

Culture Representation: This intimate family documentary about country singer Johnny Cash’s first wife, Vivian, features interviews with only her four daughters: Rosanne Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Cindy Cash and Tara Cash Schwoebel.

Culture Clash: The four daughters claim that their mother’s legacy was overshadowed by Johnny’s relationship with his second wife, June Carter Cash, who might not or might not have deliberately tried to diminish Vivian’s importance in the family.

Culture Audience: “My Darling Vivian” will appeal primarily to fans of Johnny Cash and to people who are interested in “first wives of celebrities” stories.

Vivian Liberto Cash, Rosanne Cash, Kathy Cash and Johnny Cash in “My Darling Vivian” (Photo courtesy of Estate of Vivian Distin)

When country music legend Johnny Cash died in 2003, at the age of 71, much of the media coverage was about the fact the he died just four months after the death of June Carter Cash, who was his wife since 1968. What the media overlooked or barely mentioned was Johnny Cash’s life with his first wife, Vivian Liberto Cash, who was married to him from 1954 to 1966, and who was the mother of his four eldest children (all daughters): Rosanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara. The heartfelt and sentimental documentary “My Darling Vivian” is the daughters’ love letter to Vivian to honor their mother’s legacy.

Directed by Matt Riddlehoover, “My Darling Vivian” includes the expected archival footage and family photos, but what makes this documentary unusual is that the only people who are interviewed in the movie are Rosanne Cash, Kathy Cash Tittle, Cindy Cash and Tara Cash Schwoebel, who all make their comments in separate interviews. Riddlehoover produced “My Darling Vivian” with his husband, Dustin Tittle, who is Kathy’s son. Tara is a co-producer of the documentary.

With only family members as the filmmakers, does that make this documentary one-sided? Absolutely. But the Cash daughters say that they are the only living people who knew their mother best. And the daughters make it clear in the documentary that the movie is their way of taking back other people’s narratives that often caused their mother to be ignored or misunderstood.

The daughters point to the 2005 Oscar-winning film “Walk the Line” (starring Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash) as an example of an inaccurate portrayal of their mother Vivian, who was played by Ginnifer Goodwin in a fairly small role. “Walk the Line” (directed by James Mangold and written by Mangold and Gill Dennis) depicted Vivian as needy and shrewish, while June Carter Cash was depicted as Johnny Cash’s soul mate who “saved” Johnny from drug addiction and a bad marriage. “Walk the Line” was produced by Mangold’s then-wife Cathy Konrad and James Keach. Johnny and June’s son, John Carter Cash, was an executive producer of the film.

Tara (the youngest of the daughters) says of her mother Vivian: “My experience has been that people don’t really don’t know her. Ever since ‘Walk the Line’ came out, it did some damage and made her look bad.” She comments further on how “Walk the Line” affected her mother when the movie was released just two years after Johnny Cash’s death: “To experience a loss like that and have the whole world see, I think that was really hard for her.”

Cindy Cash adds, “I haven’t seen the movie and I don’t want to see the movie. I understand that the movie depicted her differently than she was. And honestly, I don’t think anyone had an impression of her before that. She had friends for 10 years who never knew that she was married to my dad.”

The daughters don’t really come right out and call June Carter Cash a “homewrecker” (perhaps because it wouldn’t look good if they spoke ill of the dead), but it’s clear that they believe that she had a lot to with breaking up their parents’ marriage and “erasing” Vivian from Johnny Cash’s public legacy. In addition to John Carter Cash (John and June’s son who was born in 1970), the Cash family includes June’s daughters Carlene and Rosie from her previous two marriages.

Rosanne (the eldest of Johnny Cash’s children) and Kathy (the second eldest) were born just one year apart (1955 for Rosanne, 1956 for Kathy) and were sometimes mistaken as fraternal twins when they were children. Rosanne says in the beginning of the documentary that all four daughters probably remember different versions of Vivian because their mother changed over time.

Because Rosanne and Kathy were close in age, their memories of Vivian are probably the most similar, while Cindy (born in 1959) has another perspective, and youngest daughter Tara (born in 1961) remembers their mother very differently from her older sisters. Rosanne says that the most emotionally challenging period of time for Vivian was when Vivian was in her 20s and 30s. “That was tough,” Rosanne comments.

“My Darling Vivian” starts out very much how the relationship of Vivian Liberto and Johnny Cash was in its early years: very romantic. In 1951, Vivian and Johnny met at a roller-skating rink in her hometown of San Antonio, Texas, when Vivian was 17 and Johnny was a 21-year-old Air Force enlistee in basic training. Three weeks after they met and began dating, he was sent to work in West Germany, where he was stationed for the next three years.

During that three-year separation, the couple exchanged hundreds of passionate love letters, some of which are shown and read in “My Darling Vivian.” After Johnny was honorably discharged from his Air Force duties in Germany, the couple got married in 1954 by Vivian’s uncle, who was a priest (she came from a strict Italian-American Catholic family), and started a new life in Memphis.

While in Memphis, Johnny began to pursue his dream of becoming a country singer/musician. Success and fame happened pretty quickly for him, not just because he was in the right place at the right time but also, as Rosanne tells it in the documentary, he was extremely persistent in his goals. And the daughters say that Vivian was very supportive of Johnny’s dreams and appreciated his talent, unlike the way Vivian was portrayed in “Walk the Line” as someone who had a negative attitude about Johnny being a musician.

Of course, being a touring musician comes with a lot of occupational hazards that can destroy relationships. Johnny had well-documented vices that included his addictions to amphetamines and alcohol. These addictions, as well as all the time that he spent away from home, took a toll on his marriage to Vivian.

But Vivian was no angel either. According to what Rosanne says in the documentary about Vivian: “She was damaged from the get-go.” Vivian grew up with a strict and demanding father, while Vivian’s mother was an alcoholic and very lenient. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know that children of alcoholic/addicts often gravitate toward chaos in their personal lives. It might explain why Vivian tolerated many destructive and unhealthy things about her marriage when other people would have walked away.

Her daughters describe Vivian as someone who was very alone and isolated in a lot of ways. She spent a lot of time worrying about what Johnny was doing on tour. And even when he wasn’t on tour, he would often disappear for days without telling her where he was. As the eldest child, Rosanne remembers that her father’s drug use changed him (he had more irritable mood swings) and that it was traumatic for the whole family.

It’s mentioned in the documentary that Vivian because a close friend to Ella Grant, the wife of Marshall Grant, one of the musicians in Johnny’s band. But Vivian didn’t seem to have a close circle of friends or family to lean on for emotional support. For the most part, she was a wife and mother who was often alone to raise her four children and felt overwhelmed by it all. (The family didn’t have any nannies to help.)

When the Cash family moved from Memphis to a custom-built mansion in Casita Springs, California, the marriage began to further deteriorate. Johnny had a habit of bringing home stray animals and exotic pets—essentially turning their home into a menagerie—but it was Vivian who had to take of all of the animals and the children by herself.

Vivian was also constantly worried about her family’s safety. The house was located in the hills, where rattlesnakes and bobcats lived. And fans of Johnny Cash would randomly show up at the unprotected house, at all hours of the day and night.

To make matters worse, Vivian began to suspect that Johnny and his musical collaborator June Carter Cash were having an affair with each other. Rosanne remembers that after her mother discovered that Johnny was in fact cheating on her with June (he eventually left Vivian for June), Vivian still didn’t want her marriage to end. Her daughters say that Vivian remained in love with Johnny Cash for the rest of her life. Vivian kept almost all the mementos of their love affair, including the love letters and the rollerskates that she wore the day that she and Johnny met.

Vivian was also married to Johnny at a time when divorce was taboo, especially for people in certain religions such as Catholicism. She was also a homemaker who probably didn’t have any marketable skills to have a career outside the home. And most importantly, according to her daughters, Vivian really was in love with Johnny and was hoping that they could work out the problems in their marriage. But it wasn’t meant to be.

There were also some other major stresses on the marriage before it ended in divorce. Kathy got a bacterial disease and almost died. Johnny was arrested multiple times. And in 1965, Vivian was targeted by white supremacists, who accused her of being black. It was an accusation that she and Johnny vehemently denied.

The media spread the rumor that Johnny Cash was married to a black woman, thereby causing Johnny to be boycotted by certain places in the South. Vivian and Johnny had to get certified letters to prove that her race was white, in order for Johnny to be allowed to work in certain parts of the South again.

Rosanne remembers her mother being devastated by the failure of her marriage to Johnny. “She was grief-stricken, enraged … She had violent outbursts.” However, Rosanne also recalls being “relieved” by her parents’ divorce. “Divorce isn’t always bad,” says Rosanne.

However, Vivian felt so ashamed about the divorce that she temporarily went into hiding with her children. Rosanne says, “I remember her fearing her father’s judgment—and she got it.” Vivian was also harshly punished by the Catholic Church, which ex-communicated her because of the divorce. She was able to rejoin the Catholic Church only after Johnny Cash wrote a letter to the Catholic Church to declare that he, not Vivian, was to blame for the divorce.

Vivian’s marriage to second husband Dick Distin (a police officer turned businessman) isn’t remembered as fondly by her daughters. The marriage is described as a rebound relationship for Vivian and a marriage of convenience instead of true love. Perhaps not coincidentally, she and Johnny Cash married other people in the same year (1968).

Rosanne comments about her mother’s marriage to Distin: “It was a bargain: He got perks … She created a life for herself that made sense.” Vivian, who was a lifelong homemaker, liked to keep busy with hobbies such as dancing, painting and making homemade arts and crafts. Vivian and Dick Distin remained married until her death of complications from lung cancer in 2005.

Although the Cash daughters speak lovingly of their mother, “My Darling Vivian” isn’t a sugarcoated biography of her. In addition to her violent outbursts after her marriage to Johnny fell apart, Vivian also became very paranoid, by installing bells and alarms everywhere in her household. And just as Vivian’s had a demanding father, she was also demanding of her own children, according to Rosanne, who says: “It was hard to get her unmitigated approval.”

However, over time, Rosanne says that Vivian became a better mother. Vivian was more attentive to youngest child Tara than her other three daughters. According to Rosanne, Vivian was very loving and devoted to her grandchildren and a “better grandmother than she was a mother.” Rosanne shares a vivid, bittersweet memory of her mother on the day that Vivian died, which was on Rosanne’s 50th birthday: “I saw her become like a child. She was laughing.”

One thing is clear from watching this documentary: Even though she wasn’t perfect (no one is), Vivian was very much loved and respected by her children, and they believe she wasn’t given enough credit for being a good wife and mother. It’s impossible to know if Johnny and Vivian would have stayed married if he hadn’t fallen in love with June, but Johnny and Vivian’s daughters say that Vivian certainly gave Johnny a stable home life and loving support that allowed him to thrive early in his career.

One of the “wrongs” that the daughters want to correct is the rewriting of family history that seems to have been instigated by June Carter Cash and her supporters. June gave many interviews over the years that implied that she and Johnny had custody of his four daughters when the daughters were minors. (The documentary includes a clip from one of those TV interviews.)

In reality, Vivian had custody of the kids and they were primarily raised by Vivian. The documentary mentions that after Vivian’s death, her family found an unsent letter written to June that had Vivian asking June to stop misleading people into thinking that June was raising Vivian’s daughters.

Another part of the documentary shows footage from the 2003 all-star memorial tribute to the late Johnny Cash that was held at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and later televised on CMT. Rosanne Cash’s ex-husband Rodney Crowell was one of the show’s performers in the musical tribute to Johnny Cash. Crowell dedicated his performance to Vivian, who was in the audience. It’s a dedication that was mysteriously edited out of the show when it was televised.

Years before she died, Vivian got Johnny Cash’s blessing to write her memoir. The book, titled “I Walked the Line: My Life With Johnny Cash,” was published posthumously in 2007. Many book critics were puzzled by the fact that much of the book’s content consisted of Johnny’s love letters to Vivian. Even in her own memoir, Vivian was overshadowed by Johnny Cash. With this documentary, Vivian’s family has succeeded in telling her story so that she is front and center where she belongs.

The Film Collaborative released “My Darling Vivian” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on June 19, 2020.