Marilyn Bell's charmed life
Fifty years ago, a 16-year-old girl swam into our hearts when she bested the waters of Lake Ontario

Sep. 5, 2004. 08:26 AM

Marilyn Bell DiLascio embraces swimmers who traversed Lake Ontario Aug. 20 in honour of her crossing as a 16-year-old in 1954. A solo swimmer gave up on Thursday.

Once upon a time, a magic princess reigned in our city.


No, she wasn't a fairy-tale beauty. But she was cute with freckles.


Nor did she live in a castle. Just a routine house on Hallam St. with a mortgage.


Her father wasn't a king. She had no magic wand. Her wardrobe came from Eaton's Annex. And yet ...


She was blessed with a heart of gold. A will of iron. And a sweetness in her soul.


Her name was Marilyn Bell. And she cast a spell on her adoring subjects that endures to this day.


So come with us now as we explore The Legend of Marilyn a saga that takes us back to an era before many of us were born.


All the way to 1954, when Bill Haley and the Comets topped the charts, a kid named Brando clicked in On The Waterfront and a 16-year-old girl did battle with The Beast.


Hey, you can't have a fairy princess without a Beast. In this case, a capricious water monster 50 kilometres wide called Lake Ontario, which Marilyn had vowed to conquer.


But wait. There's more. In addition to the monster, our girl had to deal with an all-powerful American sorceress named Florence Chadwick, the world's leading marathon swimmer.


Okay, so maybe Flo wasn't really evil. But she was a helluva lot more experienced than our girl. And the CNE was paying her $10,000 to swim the lake, while our plucky heroine was giving her all "for the honour of Canada."


Whoa! You see why it became such a big deal? Didn't we smirk a little when Flo was pulled from the water, seasick and exhausted, after 25 kilometres?


And didn't our hearts rejoice when, on Sept. 9, 1954, after 21 hours of battling lamprey eels, nausea and exhaustion for 65,000 strokes through numbing waves from Youngstown, N.Y., to the Sunnyside breakwater, our girl did it!


Yes, it was a fabled time, with hordes of Torontonians glued to their radios all through that long night, flocking to the waterfront to greet her, mobbing Bay St. for her tickertape parade, writing songs about her and overwhelming her with gifts.


As more swimming triumphs followed, her fame continued to grow. There were offers from Hollywood. A Marilyn Bell doll in the stores. New family home. Awards. And hundreds of baby girls named Marilyn in her honour.


But then, just when many feel she's approaching her peak, the princess abdicates. Marries a Prince Charming named Joe from New Jersey, moves south and eventually becomes an American citizen.


Hey, fairy tales do end. So let's leave the magic kingdom now for an update from our princess, an easy-going grandmother contemplating her 67th birthday: Mrs. Marilyn DiLascio of Southampton, N.J.


So tell us, Marilyn, why did you give it all up so quickly?


"The lake changed my life. But that came after I'd met Joe at the Atlantic City marathon, where he was a lifeguard.


"Finding Joe was the most wonderful gift of all. Do you know we were only together for 30 days in three years? The rest of our courtship was all through letters and phone calls.


"And he had no idea about all the fuss they were making in Canada, because I never told him. When he got up here, he was really shocked.


"After the wedding, I just knew we couldn't be happy if we stayed in Toronto. Sure, Joe had job offers, but it wouldn't be fair for him to have to share me with the city.


"I also knew I couldn't have a marriage and a swimming career at the same time. In swimming, I was so focused there wasn't room for anything else. So I gave it up. And I've never regretted it."


`In swimming, I was so focused there wasn't room for anything else. So I gave it up. And I've never regretted it'


Canada's own Marilyn Bell


So you chose love, moved to New Jersey to complete your college degree, pursue a teaching career and raise four children. Were you ever homesick?


"Of course. I still think of Toronto as home. And there was a time, after the second baby, when I went through a period of depression, wondering who I was. Maybe I subconsciously wanted to go back to where I was at 17. I had a lot of experiences then that I really didn't have a chance to think through."


So every life has its ebbs, flows, currents and storms just like a marathon swim?


"Absolutely. You start out fresh, eager and confident, only to be battered by variables beyond your control. Before you know it, you're cold, tired and feel like sinking.


"All sorts of elements, from luck to timing to tricks of your mind are battering and distracting you, pushing you off course. That's when it's so tempting to make excuses and give it up.


"But if you have the determination to keep moving, you'll find the wind and the currents will eventually change, allowing you to regroup and push on. Don't give up. That's what I've learned in life."


Marilyn has practised it, too. Beset by arthritis for decades, she's often confined to bed for days with back spasms. Swimming is out of the question. But never a complaint.


Excepting, perhaps, the law that obliged her to become a U.S. citizen to qualify for her teaching job. She still resents that.


Four years ago, her beloved Joe, a retired criminologist, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. It didn't look good. But he battled back after 10 months of chemotherapy.


"It's in remission now, and he's doing well," she says. "Every day is a special gift."


And what of all those other gifts, bestowed on the fairy princess so long ago by the star-struck residents of a worshipful city?


The year's supply of seamed nylons from Holeproof Hosiery is long gone, along with all those meat pies from the Scone Shop on Donlands, the free lube jobs at Johnny DeFonso's Queensway Service Station for her $2,200 baby-blue convertible from Austin Motors, and all those pledges of free hair-dos, dance lessons, dry cleaning, clothing, meals and assorted cats, dogs, budgies and live chinchillas.


"You'd be surprised how much I still have," Marilyn reveals. Like that carved oak footstool from Ridpath's, still residing beside her favourite easy chair; the set of Encyclopedia Britannica, used by her grandchildren, the $300 Babayan's Persian rug, now at daughter Lisa's home, and the silver tea set, prized by daughter Jody.


Not to mention the fur coats, televisions, record players, cameras, watches, furniture, luggage, dinnerware, silver and typewriters used by Marilyn and her family over the years or donated to good causes.


Such a fuss we made. A phenomenon that's hard to grasp by generations born after the event.


Marathon swimming? Strictly a fringe sport now. Long, slow and boring. Bereft of the instant gratification the computer generations demand.


But Marilyn understands. She notes it happened long before global positioning technology took the place of flashlights and compasses. Before Torontonians could soar to the top of the CN Tower to peer across their mighty lake.


And, most of all, before television brought sports directly into our homes in living colour and instant replay. "It was a newspaper and radio story," she recalls. "People had to use their imagination."


Still, for a lot of us, it remains a touchstone in our lives.


We're the ones who, even after five decades, cannot forget the kid who did it. Not for money. Or the fame she never expected. But for the challenge. And, corny as it sounds, for her country.


We're the ones who still cannot think of her without a smile. The ones who, when we meet her, feel compelled to tell her exactly where we were and what we were doing on Sept. 9, 1954.


The ones who say: "I prayed for you, Marilyn. ... Your courage inspired me. Helped me through some tough times. ... Toronto will never forget you, Marilyn..."


How well does the magic endure? Here's our final word, from the best-loved fairy-tale character of them all...


During one of her Christmas visits a few years back, when this sweet-natured grandma lifted a child on to Santa's lap at Eaton's, jolly old St. Nick did a double take.


"MARILYN!" he boomed. "HOW DA HELL ARE YA?"