On May 26, 1907, pharmacist Clyde Morrison and his wife, Mary Brown, welcomed a happy, healthy baby boy into their modest, four-room Winterset, Iowa, home. They named him Marion Michael Morrison. What they didn't know was that their baby would grow up to become one of the most well-loved and universally recognized big-screen American icons of all time, so much so that at the time of his death on June 11, 1979, the Olympic Torch was lit in his honor and shortly thereafter the Orange County, California, airport was named after him.
We know Marion Michael by his screen name, John Wayne, and by his nickname, Duke; we know him as the man who became a star as Ringo Kid in the 1939 film Stagecoach, who won an Oscar 30 years later for playing the part of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, and who appeared in more than 100 movies in his nearly 50-year-long acting career. His life was glamorous, legendary, and well cataloged. He worked hard, played hard, and palled around with other Tinseltown icons like Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. Back then and still today, women loved him and men wanted to be him.
But beneath the high-profile Wild West image, Wayne was a devoted family man who longed for privacy and a life at sea. That desire was fulfilled during the last 16 years of his life, when he spent the bulk of his leisure time with his third wife, Pilar, and their three children, Aissa, Ethan, and Marissa, aboard one of his most cherished possessions: the 136-foot Wild Goose. I spoke with Marissa and Wild Goose's former captain Bert Minshall, who cataloged his experiences cruising with Wayne in On Board With the Duke, to dig up the hard-to-find information about the vessel and what life onboard with the Duke was really like.
Duke's love affair with the sea began early on, long before his film career ever took off. After graduating high school in 1925, hoping to start a career on the water, he applied to the U.S. Navy. He was rejected. He later described the incident as one of the "greatest disappointments of his life," according to Minshall. With the Navy a no-go, Duke instead attended the University of Southern California on a football scholarship (the Morrison family relocated to California for its warm climate in 1912, after Clyde was diagnosed with a lung condition). But when a body-surfing injury to his shoulder left him unable to play, Wayne lost his scholarship and was forced to drop out due to financial reasons. Down on his luck and desperate for cash, he took a job in the prop department of Fox studios for the then-generous sum of $35 a week. That's where he met director John Ford, who took a liking to him and cast him as an extra in one of his movies. It was an auspicious start to an extraordinary film career that, among other things, would eventually allow him to pursue his dream of a life at sea; in fact, 15 of his films were set on the water.
Fast forward to the early 1960's when Wayne, now a big-time actor, bought a 9,000-square-foot Newport Beach home with a dock, the perfect location for the other big purchase he made during this time period: a 136-foot former U.S. Navy minesweeper, which he bought from his friend, Seattle lumber tycoon Max Wyman, for $110,000. Minshall says she was the perfect vessel for the 6'4" Duke: big, rugged, and manly. Shortly after he took possession, the refit began. A master stateroom, which wrapped around the ship's funnel, was added just aft of the wheelhouse; interior bulkheads were removed to give the yacht a more spacious feel, and overheads were raised to accommodate Duke's height. A wood-burning fireplace, poker table, and built-in wet bar were added to the saloon to make the boat a comfortable, family-friendly cruiser. But even so, Wayne was intent on maintaining the boat's naval heritage and left many of her original military elements intact, like the old-fashioned swivel wall fans, the bell, and the brass wheel in the wheelhouse, the rim of which the captain was forbidden from touching, as it smudged easily; instead, Minshall and Wild Goose's other captains were required to steer the vessel holding the wheel's inner spokes.
Sadly, by the time Wild Goose was out of the yard and in her berth in Newport Harbor (at the time she was the largest vessel there and was described as a floating Taj Mahal thanks to her shiny white hull sides and varnished teak trim), Duke's focus was on something else: his failing health. His dream of spending time with his family aboard almost ended before it even began when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in late 1964. Wayne underwent surgery, and a golf-ball size tumor was successfully removed, as was part of his lung. "I beat the big C," he boasted, rejoicing in his new lease on life and adding that, although recently he'd thought often about dying, "now, all I can feel is life."
From then on, he spent as much time as possible aboard Wild Goose, cruising between Newport Beach, nearby Santa Catalina Island, and Mexico in the winter and Alaska and Vancouver in the summer. (When he was filming, Wayne made arrangements to fly in to meet up with the yacht on weekends.) He described this time as the happiest period of his life. Minshall says that onboard, Wayne was a refined man who sipped brandy (although tequila was his favorite drink, and he'd often polish off a bottle of it in a single day), played chess, and enjoyed curling up on the aft deck with a good book.
John Wayne was also an avid fisherman who would "spend $3,000 in three weeks on fishing guides, fish all day long, fill his freezer up with fish, and then give it away to friends," according to Minshall. He played games (Marissa recalls the onboard Easter egg hunts Wayne arranged for her and her siblings) and waterskied with his kids, and enjoyed meeting locals at Wild Goose's ports of call. In fact, he handed autographed cards with "good luck" written on them to the crowds of fans he encountered at each port. "It was just such a great, wholesome, family way to grow up," says Marissa, conceding that it was also a time when the press would "leave us alone and let us enjoy that family time in peace."
But by the mid-1970's, Duke was spending less time aboard Wild Goose. His growing children were pursuing other interests, which he reportedly found hard to accept. His marriage to Pilar was showing signs of strain; two weeks after celebrating their 19th wedding anniversary in 1973, they separated. And by 1977 the Duke's health was again failing. He was hospitalized in April of the following year for a faulty heart valve and then again ten months later when his cancer-laden stomach was removed. Although he was again cancer-free, Duke knew his days were limited; this is perhaps best illustrated by the photo above, depicting a frail, elderly Wayne on Wild Goose's tender, clasping a protein shake which he said "tasted like hell" but helped him maintain his strength.
Wayne's last trip aboard Wild Goose came on Easter weekend 1979. It was a cruise to Catalina Island. Minshall describes Duke's appearance that weekend as "noticeably weak and thin. He had no appetite and couldn't drink any alcohol." As Minshall motored Wild Goose back into her slip in Newport Harbor, Wayne confided that he didn't have much time left. Two weeks later Wayne was admitted to UCLA Medical Center—the Big C had returned with a vengeance, and this time it would beat him. On June 11 at 5:23 p.m., John Wayne died from complications due to stomach cancer.
Just prior to his death, a Los Angeles-area attorney bought Wild Goose for $750,000, then sold it to the Wild Goose Yacht Corporation for an undisclosed sum. An enclosed top deck was added , and today the yacht still resides in Newport Beach and is used for corporate charter and events through Hornblower Cruises. Marissa, who still dreams about the good times she and her Dad had onboard the Wild Goose, hopes that someone will buy the yacht and restore her to her original grandeur. "They really ruined the beauty of it," she laments.
As for Wayne, he is buried in a hill in Newport Beach, overlooking the ocean, and some say his spirit haunts Wild Goose. In any case, the legendary actor, who spent so much of his life in the public eye, is finally where he longed to be: near the ocean that filled his life with so much joy and solitude.
Shortly before he died of complications from stomach cancer in 1979, John Wayne sold Wild Goose to a Santa Monica, California, lawyer named Lynn Hutchins, and allegations that his ghost haunts the vessel quickly began to swirl. She reported to The National Enquirer, that she'd seen Duke's ghost twice while onboard and felt his presence on many occasions. Another report says that his ghost was seen in a mirror behind the bar as beer glasses rattled. A psychic who investigated the incidents said that Duke's spirit was returning because of his "deep emotional attachment" to the vessel.—E.G.B.
Seven different captains took the helm of Wild Goose under John Wayne's ownership, and each was a real character. But Capt. Peter Stein, who ran the boat from 1963 until Duke's death in 1979, was arguably the most colorful of all. In his early years, during Prohibition, he smuggled rum aboard a sailboat, and while employed by Wayne he even played the role of a pirate in a segment of the Tarzan TV series that was filmed aboard Wild Goose. Wayne joked that it wasn't much of a stretch for Stein, as he was simply "playing himself," adding that if they ever made a movie of Stein's life, he'd "want to play the lead."
Stein also had a passion for liquor and regularly spiked his morning coffee with J&B scotch. Although Duke reportedly had no problem with Stein's drinking (he allegedly "didn't trust a man who didn't drink"), it did land Stein in some legal trouble in the spring of 1969 when he ran Wild Goose onto a submerged jetty off San Diego.
The full extent of the damage was revealed the following day. In addition to the grapefruit-size holes in her hull, her keel was mangled, her props were bent beyond repair, one prop shaft was shattered, and the five-inch-thick, brass rudderposts were twisted. All told, the repairs cost $70,000.
Although Duke forgave him, Stein was called to testify at the U.S. Coast Guard board of inquiry about what happened. Ironically, after spending the afternoon answering the board's questions and then worrying about what the outcome would be, Stein went home, lit a cigarette, poured a drink, and suffered a massive heart attack.
Upon hearing the news, Duke reportedly mused, "Wouldn't ya know it that ol' Pete would beat the rap by dying."—E.G.B.
This article originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.