Vivian L. Distin, 71; Inspired Hit by Husband Johnny Cash

Times Staff Writer

Vivian Liberto Distin, the first wife of Johnny Cash and the woman he pledged to remain faithful to in the song "I Walk the Line," died Tuesday at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura. She was 71.

Distin died of complications from surgery for lung cancer, said Danny Kahn, manager of singer Rosanne Cash, the oldest of the couple's four daughters.

The pair met at a roller-skating rink in San Antonio three weeks before the Air Force sent Cash to Germany in 1950. While he was overseas, they exchanged more than 10,000 pages of love letters that Distin was using as the basis for an autobiography tentatively titled "I Walked the Line," said her coauthor, Ann Sharpsteen. The book is scheduled to be published next year.

"Vivian saw the women fans just swooning over Johnny when he toured with Elvis.... Periodically she would ask him, 'Honey, what do you think about those women?' He always told her, 'You don't have a thing to worry about. I always walk the line,' " Sharpsteen said.

That would not always be the case. The marriage ended after 13 years, and Cash openly acknowledged one of the reasons.

"My first marriage was in trouble when I lived in California, and I have to take blame for that -- because no woman can live with a man who's strung out on amphetamines," he told Penthouse magazine in 1975.

It didn't help that she was home taking care of the children while he was an entertainer who traveled all the time, said Cash's longtime manager, Lou Robin.

Still, Sharpsteen said, "Vivian believed in her heart of hearts that if Johnny had never gotten involved in drugs, they would have remain married."

Distin recalled scratching down the lyrics to "I Walk the Line" as they came to Cash while they were driving around or at home in their living room, Sharpsteen said.

After marrying in 1954, the couple settled in Memphis, Tenn., where Cash worked as a door-to-door appliance salesman and laid the groundwork for his musical career.

In 1958, they moved to California and bought Johnny Carson's old house on Hayvenhurst Avenue in Encino, Sharpsteen said.

Seeking more privacy, they moved to 12 acres in Casitas Springs, Calif., days after their fourth daughter was born in 1961 and lived there until their marriage ended. She filed for divorce in 1966, married Dick Distin, a police officer, in 1968 and moved to Ventura. Cash also got married again, to country singer June Carter, in 1968.

Vivian Dorraine Liberto was born on April 23, 1934, in San Antonio, where an unofficial reminder of a blossoming teenage romance between a Catholic school student and a future country star fresh out of high school is now under lock and key: A cedar bench with the weathered inscription "Johnny Loves Vivian." "We would walk on the river, and we sat there and did what we shouldn't have done and carved our names in the bench," Distin told the San Antonio Express-News in 2004.

Sharpsteen hunted down the bench last year because she wanted to give it to Distin, who considered it a large part of her courtship with Cash. When they found the bench, and city officials became aware of its historic significance, the city refused to part with it, Sharpsteen said.

In addition to her husband and Rosanne Cash, Distin is survived by three other daughters, Kathleen, Cindy and Tara. A memorial Mass will be held at 2 p.m. today at Sacred Heart Church, 10800 Henderson Road, Ventura.

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