John Wayne liked to live off the land. When the Oscar-winning actor wasn’t making movies—like Stagecoach or True Grit, which cemented his status as a movie star—he liked to head over to areas like Mexico or British Columbia on his boat, the Wild Goose, a 136-foot Navy minesweeper that he refashioned into a sea-bound home away from home. He’d entertain his family and a number of his close, famous friends, like Henry Fonda and director John Ford, finding beaches for them to relax on, or dipping into the water to scoop up fresh abalone for lunch. The boat, anchored in Newport Beach, is so iconic that in 2011, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Now, select images of Wayne’s seafaring private life are on display for the public, thanks to son Ethan Wayne (the sixth out of the actor’s seven children), who has curated a series of rare and never-before-seen photos for a special exhibit at the Balboa Island Museum in California, showcasing his father’s “rugged and remote” life on the sea, he tells Vanity Fair.
Though the actor found his true purpose through acting, being a star came with a unique pressure. He was incredibly famous, adored by legions of fans, but also criticized by people who disavowed his ultra-conservative views. “When he got on the boat, he could let all that go,” Wayne says.
The photos are a fascinating tableau of John Wayne’s life on the sea. Ethan, who was born when Wayne was 54 years old (he lovingly compares it to a “grandfather-grandson” relationship), says his life with his father was split up into two categories: “Either on a movie set in Mexico—or Colorado, or New Mexico, or Arizona—or it was on that boat.”
Sometimes Wayne’s work life would spill over onto the Wild Goose, with his famous co-stars climbing aboard for a visit. “Frank Sinatra would come around,” Ethan recalls. “Sammy Davis Jr. would charter the boat, Tom Jones would charter the boat, America the band, or Dennis Wilson [of the Beach Boys]—he was around everyone. He was a huge, huge star.” There are plenty of photos showcasing this Hollywood side—Dean Martin smiles genially in one photo, wearing a yellow-and-tan suit and holding cigarette; Sammy Davis Jr. lets out a boisterous laugh while standing with a crowded crew. There are also photos of Wayne standing alongside iconic pioneers, like Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian athlete who popularized surfing. Ethan laughs at that fact, aware of how surreal it is. “My dad went to the beach with the father of surfing. It doesn’t get any more legitimate than that.”
Then there’s the softer side, with photos showing Wayne and his children: play-sparring with Ethan, facing off in a round of chess with Melinda, or kissing Marisa on the cheek. Like Ethan, a few of Wayne’s children were born when the actor was older, and the boat served as a communal space for them to spend precious time together.
He took me with him because he knew once I became a teenager, I’d kind of leave him for a while,” Ethan says. “He said, ‘Boys leave when they’re teenagers. They don’t come back until they’re in their 30s. And I won’t be there for Ethan when he comes back, so I’m gonna take him with me now.’”
Today, Ethan runs John Wayne Enterprises, which licenses products with his father’s name, and raises money for the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, which is currently doing a hashtag campaign called _#_ShowYourGrit in order to raise money for cancer research. The issue is close to the Wayne family, as John died of stomach cancer in 1979. All the vintage photos serve as a portal to the past for the actor’s fans and his family, to a time when John Wayne wasn’t one of the biggest stars in the world, but rather a man who loved the sea, taking life one wave at a time.