By IAN WILSON
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
Fishing in Alberta, of course.
Or at least that’s what he told reporters prior to his arrival in Wild Rose Country in the summer of 1953.
“I’m going to Jasper to fish,” DiMaggio told The Vancouver Sun before hopping on a Trans-Canada Airlines plane for Calgary.
There was indeed an enticing catch to be had in Alberta at the time, in the form of his main squeeze Marilyn Monroe.
“The fact that she is there is purely coincidental,” insisted the retired New York Yankee outfielder.
These were starry times in the province, with three major movie projects being filmed in the Banff area at the same time – Saskatchewan, with Alan Ladd and Shelley Winters; The Far Country, featuring Jimmy Stewart and Corinne Calvet; and River of No Return putting Monroe and Robert Mitchum on the big screen together.
The clear headliners, however, were Monroe and her Hall-of-Fame boyfriend.
“At the time, Marilyn was the biggest movie star on the planet, at the apex of her spectacular and tragic career as an actress. Her film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes had been released in March to delirious press coverage, she was dating the legendary baseball player Joe DiMaggio, and a calendar featuring her posing in the nude had just resurfaced, causing somewhat of a scandal,” noted Brian Wallis in the book Marilyn August 1953, which chronicled the sex symbol’s time in Alberta.
“Despite her success as a movie star, Monroe was at a key juncture in her personal and professional life. She was obligated to star in River of No Return as part of her contract with 20th Century Fox, nearing the end of an exploitative seven-year deal that paid her a fraction of what her co-stars received. Studio executives were capitalizing on Marilyn’s growing popularity but refusing to grant any leniency or added benefits to her contract. … Monroe reluctantly agreed to the film, aware that she would be paid only as a contract player, that she was being miscast as the love interest in a poorly scripted Western, and that her co-star Robert Mitchum would be given top billing. Monroe did everything she could to fight the studio system, but fulfilling her contract was the only escape.”
DiMaggio, meanwhile, finished his last year of Major League Baseball (MLB) in 1951, having played all 13 of his seasons for the Yankees and achieving a status that catapulted him into the celebrity spotlight, whether he was dating Monroe or not. “The Yankee Clipper” won nine World Series titles and was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) on three occasions. His 56-game hitting streak, set in 1941, remains an MLB record.
The California-born ball player had been dating Monroe for over a year, and while her star was rising, resulting in more media exposure with each passing day, he valued his privacy.
“Her career demanded that she remain in the public eye; he was through with all that, never liked it much in the first place, and considered himself well out of the limelight. He wanted to settle down and make a home,” explained photographer George Barris in his book Marilyn: Her Life in Her Own Words.
“Although Marilyn, too, was basically a private person … her career was going into overdrive, and there were more invitations and appearances that she couldn’t afford to turn down if she wanted her fortunes to continue to rise.”
PLACED ON THE 10-DAY INJURED LIST
Filming of River of No Return took the couple to Banff, Jasper, Devona, Maligne Canyon and other scenic areas of the Rocky Mountains. For Monroe, it was not an easy shoot. She clashed with director Otto Preminger and suffered injuries that left her sidelined for several days.
The 27-year-old “nearly drowned” in Jasper National Park, according to newspaper reports.
“The blonde star had donned chest-high rubber waders during rehearsals to protect her costume,” read the Aug. 14th edition of the Lethbridge Herald.
“She slipped on a rock, the waders filling with water and she was unable to rise. Actor Robert Mitchum and a dozen crew men leaped in and pulled her to shore. Examination disclosed a seriously-sprained left ankle which may force her out of the film for several days.”
The actress, who was born in Los Angeles with the name Norma Jeane Mortenson, experienced a second fall during filming near Jasper less than a week later.
Pat Costigan, who served as a doctor in the Second World War before practicing in Banff, diagnosed Monroe’s injury as either a badly-sprained ankle or a chipped bone fracture. The Stettler-born physician instructed her to stay off her feet for ten days and later joked that he was so distracted by her good looks that he nearly put the wrong ankle in a cast.
Mitchum offered his own witty remark about the injury: “This is one time when you can’t complain about the absence of a large supporting cast.”
Despite being hobbled by the elements, Monroe still managed to enjoy her time in Jasper with DiMaggio, who proved he wasn’t lying about his pursuit of trout during his visit. The couple visited a government hatchery in mid-August, where Bill Cable – one of Canada’s leading fish experts – gave them a tour and described the process of nurturing the freshwater animals prior to their release in the glacial waters of the Maligne River.
“Joltin’ Joe” also walked atop a glacier with Monroe, and accompanied her Canadian National Railway (CNR) train ride from Jasper to Devona, where the cast and crew were shooting river scenes for several days at Maligne Canyon.
“CNR flat cars were loaded with trucks, electrical generating equipment, portable dressing-rooms, lights and lamps of all descriptions, along with giant reflectors. The horses of Major Fred Brewster, dean of the Canadian Rocky Mountain outfitters, rode in style in their own stock cars,” observed the Edmonton Journal.
DiMaggio was around for some of the filming. He was both possessive and protective of his love interest.
“The New York Yankees star center fielder shunned the spotlight, and took a proprietary view of his young girlfriend, whom he encouraged to abandon Hollywood forever. In Banff to discuss his future with Marilyn, DiMaggio provided key support for the actress as she struggled with the studio, the film, the director, and an on-set injury,” wrote Wallis.
“DiMaggio then became Monroe’s attendant, squiring her to doctor’s appointments and whisking her by waiting photographers.”
When work prevented Monroe and DiMaggio from being together, he got in some buddy time with his trusted friend George Solotaire, who made the trek to Alberta, as well. The pals stayed in rustic lodgings in Jasper and got an up-close look at the wildlife in the area.
“Joe and I just made friends with a deer … we won her over with some lump sugar, and she’s lying right outside our log cabin,” Solotaire wrote in a letter to his son, which was quoted in the book DiMaggio: Setting the Record Straight by Morris Engelberg and Marv Schneider.
DiMaggio took marshmallows out to feed the deer, and discovered a small black bear looking for food, too.
“The animal waddled to the garbage can outside the cabin, pulled out a piece of toast and ate it. Joe was mesmerized. The bear looked at DiMaggio; he obviously didn’t recognize him as the famed Yankee Clipper, because he finished his toast and returned to the woods,” stated Engelberg and Schneider in their biography about the former San Francisco Seals slugger.
“The two city slickers were told that if they ignored the black bears, the bears wouldn’t bother them, but they were cautioned to beware of grizzlies because those were the dangerous ones. In fact, Joe and George were told that some grizzlies had to be shot recently because they got too mean. The next day, the two men were sunning themselves outside the cabin, and George dozed off when he heard DiMaggio scream. A small grizzly bear was sniffing Joe’s bare toes, and when he opened his eyes and saw the curious cub, he yelled, ‘A grizzly, George, a grizzly.’ The bear took off.”
More off-screen action ensued for DiMaggio, Solotaire, and Monroe when they made their way to a filming location that was about an hour’s drive from Jasper. Traffic was halted when a gasoline tanker truck caught fire on the road ahead.
“An explosion rocked the truck and bright red flames shot toward the sky. The truck’s driver disappeared, leaving behind a seared hat, jacket, and gloves. The theory was that he had been smoking, caught fire, and ran to the river. DiMaggio volunteered to look for the unfortunate fellow and, with a group of motorists, trudged through the thick woods to the river,” recounted Engelberg and Schneider.
The driver was later discovered and taken to hospital, where he was treated for his burns. A bulldozer pushed the truck off the road, and Monroe continued her commute to a waterfall, where she shot two scenes with DiMaggio looking on.
After shooting wrapped up in the Jasper area, DiMaggio and Monroe settled in at the Banff Springs Hotel, where they met up with John Vachon. The staff photographer with Look magazine was dispatched to the Rockies to get pictures for a “Hollywood comes to Canada” themed cover story.
Vachon captured black-and-white images of Monroe at the hotel pool on crutches, riding a ski lift at Mount Norquay, posing with Mounties, and paddling a canoe. But his most popular shots were intimate portraits of the celebrity couple in Monroe’s hotel room. The photographs are now archived in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
The Minnesotan was initially impressed by the landscape he encountered, along with the Banff Springs Hotel.
“These mountains beat all others I’ve ever seen,” wrote Vachon in one of many letters to his wife Penny that were published alongside his photos in the book Marilyn August 1953.
“This is the most elegant hotel I’ve ever stayed at. Vast dining rooms with chamber music, and full of reverence for the old traditions.”
He loathed the public relations machinery that came along with the assignment, some of which put him in paparazzi mode.
“I am just totally confused by the myriad publicity people, production people, and all that I’ve been meeting all day and not understanding. I had to come to Banff to learn to really hate Hollywood,” wrote Vachon.
Before he was granted access to DiMaggio and Monroe for his photo shoot, Vachon was tipped off about a wheelchair sitting outside the starlet’s door, suggesting she could be leaving the hotel for a doctor’s appointment. He waited “on the porch, reading a newspaper like a hotel detective” with his Leica camera on his lap.
“I was to get Joe pushing the wheelchair. There was a story in the paper, and it’s true, about how Joe has not and will not pose in any pictures with her. So, in a few minutes Joe comes down and looks all over the area, a car drives up and Joe says a few words to the driver. Then he goes in and in ten minutes the poor girl is pushed out in a wheelchair, Joe walking well behind, Marilyn in dark glasses and no make up and a pretty sad looking apple. I wildly shoot a few unorganized views of this scene and it’s all over,” said Vachon.
On Aug. 20th, Vachon finally got the access to the Hollywood stars that he’d been waiting for. He photographed Mitchum – who he described as an “unmitigated jerk” – fishing in the morning, followed by Ladd golfing in the afternoon, and he spent two hours in Monroe’s suite later that day.
“Joe was there for the first hour, and we got some historic pictures,” read Vachon’s letter home describing the first “official” images of the couple together.
“She’s real different from any preconception, just a friendly girl, not especially sexy, as they say, kind of sweet and dumb. Obviously crazy in love for this DiMaggio fellow. He was okay, too, and we can consider it a coup that we got these pictures of them together.”
The final Alberta-filmed scenes for River of No Return were shot during the last weekend of August. Monroe, still on crutches at that point, flew back home to Los Angeles. During a three-hour stop in Vancouver she bought some ties for DiMaggio between flights.
DiMaggio and Solotaire went the opposite direction, with the two-time American League batting champion set to play in an Old Timers game at Yankee Stadium. The game was honouring DiMaggio’s former teammate, Lou Gehrig, and Gehrig’s mother and widow were expected to be in attendance. Solotaire and DiMaggio boarded a 3:30 a.m. Calgary flight only to have it return to the terminal for repairs, but they got off the ground a couple hours later. After making stops in Winnipeg and Toronto, they arrived in New York and DiMaggio was able to play in the game.
The relationship between Monroe and DiMaggio, meanwhile, was just getting started.
Monroe, who had already graced the front of Life magazine, appeared on the cover of the first issue of Playboy magazine in December. The issue contained nude images of Monroe that she posed for when she was struggling to make ends meet years earlier, before her Hollywood breakthrough. She was paid just $50 for the photo session and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner paid $500 for the rights to the images in the fall of 1953.
DiMaggio was angry and embarrassed by the public release of the racy photos, but that didn’t stop him from proposing to Monroe on New Year’s Eve and marrying her in a civil ceremony at San Francisco City Hall on Jan. 14, 1954.
The two divorced less than a year later. They reconciled in 1960, following Monroe’s separation from playwright Arthur Miller.
By that point, Monroe struggled with drug and alcohol use. DiMaggio was reportedly considering asking her to marry him again when she died of an overdose on Aug. 4, 1962 at the age of 36.
A heartbroken DiMaggio orchestrated the funeral at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles, and prevented many Hollywood stars from attending, blaming them for the events that led to her death.
“Joe DiMaggio bent down to kiss the forehead of the woman he had never stopped loving, and whispered, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you,’ before finally the coffin was sealed,” revealed Michelle Morgan in the 2012 biography Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed.
In the decades that followed Monroe’s passing, DiMaggio had two red roses delivered to her crypt three times each week.
DiMaggio died of lung cancer on March 7, 1999. In his final days, he told his lawyer and friend Morris Engelberg: “Soon Marilyn and I will be together again, up there.”
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