Johnny Cash’s first wife, Vivian Liberto, married the legendary country music singer shortly before his rapid rise to fame. But Liberto chose to stay away from the spotlight. When Cash was recording hit songs, appearing on television, and touring all over the country, she was raising their four daughters at home.
But due to Cash’s long absences, drug abuse, and relationship with fellow country singer June Carter, Liberto decided to file for divorce in 1966. She was then quickly forgotten by the moment Cash married Carter, and as soon as the two started making remarkable music.
Singer Rosanne Cash, the eldest child of Cash with Liberto, has said that her mother’s story was lost. Liberto returned to public attention with the release of the 2005 film biography, Walk the Line, featuring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Cash and Carter, with Ginnifer Goodwin as Liberto. However, in her daughters’ opinion, Vivian Liberto was negatively portrayed.
Fortunately, the new documentary “My Darling Vivian” tells a fairer story. It is her family’s attempt to set the record straight. The film was produced by Dustin Tittle, the grandson of Liberto and Cash, and was directed by Matt Riddlehoover, Cash’s grandson-in-law.
Here’s what we’ve learned from “My Darling Vivian” so far.
There Were Two Versions Among Liberto’s Daughters On How She Met Johnny Cash
Cash first met Vivian Liberto at a local roller sink in the summer of 1951. The country singer was 18 years old then and was an Air Force trainee stationed in San Antonio, Texas.
But there were two different versions Cash told his daughters. His daughter Rosanne was told that Cash would walk Liberto home to win a bet with his friends. But what the younger daughters knew was that Cash deliberately knocked Liberto down while skating so he could meet her.
Whichever version is true, Liberto and Cash started dating three weeks after their first meeting until the country singer was shipped off to Germany. Cash wrote Liberto over 1,000 letters, and one of those letters comes with an engagement ring.
Cash’s Family and His Career in Music Started with Just One Month Apart
In 1954, Cash came back home from Germany, and he and Vivian Liberto tied the knot. The happy couple honeymooned in Memphis and decided to settle there. They welcomed their first child, Rosanne, nine months after they married. One month later, Cash released his first single.
It was then the beginning of Cash’s life on the road and Vivian Cash being left behind at home for a long period of time. As Cash’s career starting to flourish, the family moved to California, where he started getting movie offers like the starring role in 1961’s Five Minutes to Live.
Hate Groups Started Attacking Liberto for Being African-American
In 1965, after Cash’s drug arrest in El Paso, Liberto’s photo beside her husband appeared in a newspaper, which led to a widely circulated rumor that she was African-American. The hate groups started attacking the couple. Cash was harassed and boycotted by some Southern fans. His concerts were canceled, and the family received threatening pamphlets.
Liberto’s Father Disapproved Her Divorce With Cash
Liberto’s father was a strict disciplinarian, so he fully disapproved of her divorce with Cash. What makes things worse was that the Catholic Church excommunicated Vivian Liberto because of it. She was forbidden from taking communion.
Cash had to write a letter to the archdiocese, the church’s governing body, to take full responsibility for their split and acknowledged his failings as a husband and father. Only then Liberto was allowed to receive communion again.
June Carter Exaggerated Her Role in the Lives of Cash’s Daughters
The hardest part of the film to watch without choking comes when the Cash sisters talked about how their stepmother would go on TV shows and make it sound like she was raising all of Cash’s daughters. Carter would often say in her interviews that she was raising her seven children, three of her own from her previous marriages, and Cash’s four daughters with Liberto.
The truth is, the Cash sisters stayed with their mother until adulthood. Cindy Cash also revealed that she discovered a letter Liberto wrote but never sent to Cash asking him to tell Carter to stop referring to their daughters as “her children.”
“My Darling Vivian” would’ve premiered at SXSW (South By Southwest) last March, but it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was instead made available for a limited time via Amazon Prime Video as part of its SXSW 2020 Film Festival Collection.