Although he wrote a bestselling memoir about the B.C. coast, David Conover will likely be known for many years to come as the photographer who is sometimes credited with discovering Marilyn Monroe in 1945.

Born in Missourri on June 26, 1919, Conover was an army photographer assigned to the 1st Motion Picture unit in California, based at the Hal Roach Studio in Culver City. Sometimes referred to as Fort Roach, this unusual military unit dubbed the "Celluloid Commandos" included movie stars ostensibly serving the war effort such as Clark Cable and Alan Ladd. In the spring of 1945, as a private in the U.S. Army, Conover was sent by his commander, actor and future U.S. President Ronald Reagan, to take photographs of women engaged in war work at the Radioplane Corporation factory in Van Nuys, California. This company, which manufactured miniature planes to be used for anti-aircraft practice, was owned by a friend of Reagan's named Reginald Denny (hence any photos used to support the war effort would simultaneously promote Denny's business interests).

The story goes that Conover was taking photos of women on the assembly line when he noticed a lovely 19-year-old woman with ash-blonde hair putting propellers onto miniature planes. This was Norma Jean Dougherty. Impressed by her photogenic beauty, Conover asked if she had a sweater with her and he hastily arranged to take some additional "private" photos of Dougherty during her lunch break. The more he watched Dougherty become animated in front of his camera, the more Conover became convinced she had the makings of a model. After their first meeting, he tried to convince her to pursue a career in front of the camera.

Conover kept a journal in 1945 that described their friendship: "June 28. After parade duty I picked up my film at Eastman. The guy asked me who my model was -- that she was a humdinger! I showed the shots to Norma Jean this evening. She liked them tremendously, and I think she was excited about them as much as I." This journal would prove useful when he published his memoir Finding Marilyn: A Romance (1981) containing some previously unseen images of her. Soon after their photo sessions, Conover was transferred to the Philippines. He wrote to her frequently but never received any reply. Norma Jean had changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. According to Conover, her pet name for him was 'Shutterbug'.

David Conover's better-known book Once Upon an Island (1967) is based on his experiences as the owner of Wallace Island, located off the west coast of Galiano Island and off north-east side of Salt Spring Island. It was translated into at least seven languages. He and his wife Jeanne Conover first came to uninhabited Wallace Island in a rowboat on a long-delayed honeymoon excursion. They sold their Los Angeles bungalow, bought the island and opened the Wallace Island Resort in the summer of 1947. It consisted of six cottages and a store. After their son, David, turned six years old, they bought a second home at Fernwood on Saltspring Island so he could more easily attend school. When the manuscript for One Man's Island was finally accepted in 1967 after many rejection slips, the couple excitedly opted to move back to Wallace Island where David Conover pursued a new new career as an author. Most of Wallace Island was eventually sold to a Seattle group and the Conovers built a house on the remaining property on Princess Point. The Wallace Island Resort ceased operations in the 1970s. David Conover published a family memoir of their time on Saltspring Island in 1978. He died on Wallace Island in 1983, at age 64. There is a permanent display about his life and work at Father's Country Inn Bed and Breakfast, near Kamloops, owned by David Conover Jr.

[Photo: David and Jeanne Conover, with their son Davey]


AWARDS: Northwest Book of the Year


Once Upon an Island (New York: Crown Publishing, 1967).
One Man's Island: The Intimate Journal of a Family's Four Seasons on Their wilderness Isle (New York: Crown Publishers Inc. 1971; General Publishing, 1971; Woodinville, Washington: San Juan Publishing, 2003).
Sitting on a Salt Spring (Markham, Ontario: Paperjacks, 1978).
Finding Marilyn: A Romance (New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1981).

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006] "Memoir" "Galiano"