John Wayne, accidental cowboy

A review of John Wayne: The Life and Legend, by Scott Eyman. It borders on hagiography but for Wayne fans that’s no flaw

26 July 2014

9:00 AM

26 July 2014

9:00 AM

John Wayne: The Life and Legend Scott Eyman

Simon & Schuster, pp.512, £25, ISBN: 978439199589

I’m not making a picture [The Green Berets] about Vietnam, I’m making a picture about good against bad. I happen to think that’s true about Vietnam, but even if it isn’t as clear as all that, that’s what you have to do to make a picture. It’s all right, because we’re in the business of selling tickets. It’s the same thing as the Indians. Maybe we shouldn’t have destroyed all those Indians, I don’t know, but when you’re making a picture, the Indians are the bad guys.

— Mike Wayne, producer of The Green Berets, starring his father, John Wayne

The words above appeared in a 1968 issue of Esquire magazine above a colour drawing of Wayne’s father in blue cavalry uniform and green beret, astride a stagecoach. A tiny Ho Chi Minh is shooting arrows at him from horseback. Michael Wayne signed it for me: ‘Charlie, It wasn’t said quite like this! Michael.’ To which his father appended, ‘Oh, yes it was, Charlie! With a son like him you don’t need an enemy. John Wayne.’

One of the few errors in Scott Eyman’s fascinating biography of John Wayne attributes ‘the Indians are the bad guys quote’ to pater Wayne. Otherwise, Eyman has dug deep, trawling records including the 1907 Iowa birth certificate of Marion Robert Morrison, and interviewing most of the people who knew him and are still alive. It borders on hagiography, but for Wayne fans like myself, and probably you — that’s no flaw.

I was a fan before I worked as his driver, first in 1967–68 as an after-school job and again full-time in the summer when I finished university four years later. It may be that no man is a hero to his valet, but Wayne was one to this driver.

Wayne’s mother dropped his middle name, Robert, when her second and favoured son, Robert Emmett, was born in 1911. Marion Morrison grew up in a succession of Iowa towns, a path determined by his father Clyde’s business failures, until the family moved to California in 1914. Former drug-store clerk Clyde bought 80 acres near Palmdale, about 60 miles north of Los Angeles, for $3,000 and set himself up as a farmer.

Young Morrison rode a mare named Jenny to school, until the farm went under. The family moved to the LA suburb of Glendale and acquired an airedale called Duke, prompting the local firemen to call the boy Little Duke. The name Duke stayed long after Marion Morrison became John Wayne. Prowess at American football led to a scholarship at the University of Southern California in 1925. Coach Howard Jones sent some of his players, including tackle Duke Morrison, to work as grips at Fox Studios. Morrison also appeared as an extra in various films. One, fortuitously, was directed by an up-and-coming director who had Americanised his name from Irish Jack Feeney to John Ford. Duke Morrison injured his shoulder body-surfing, costing him his football scholarship and sending him to Hollywood as scene-shifter, prop man and occasional extra.

What should have been his breakthrough role, as a frontiersman in Raoul Walsh’s 1930 The Big Trail, was a critical triumph but a financial catastrophe. By then, Morrison had become John Wayne, a name that both Walsh and Ford claimed to have invented. Wayne descended to low-budget B-westerns. He said that ‘the best advice I ever got’ came from cowboy comic actor Will Rogers: ‘You’re working, aren’t you? Just keep working.’

He married a patrician from Panama, Josephine Saenz, in 1933 and had five children. Josie Wayne, a devout Catholic, was much admired in our parish as a loving mother untouched by Hollywood scandal. While her husband was no womaniser, his affairs with Marlene Dietrich and other actresses ultimately doomed the marriage. He next married a Mexican named Chata, whom John Ford called ‘that whore’. Although Chata livened Wayne’s sex life, she nearly bankrupted him when the marriage collapsed.

Ned Depinet, head of distribution at RKO Studios, gave an assessment of Wayne’s box-office appeal that would surprise the moguls who made fortunes from Wayne movies: ‘[We] believe it would be a mistake to distribute John Wayne westerns, which have little prospect of gaining popularity… We believe we would be better to go ahead with George Smalley.’ Although Wayne was then seventh in popularity among cowboy stars, he was the only one to hit the big time. Wayne asked his friend John Ford for better parts. ‘Just wait,’ Ford said. ‘I’ll let you know when I get the right script.’ Ford cast him as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach.

Like The Big Trail, Stagecoach received rave notices, especially for Wayne, but did not make him a star. He went back to Republic Pictures and two-reel westerns for a journeyman’s wages. In fact he never had a breakthrough. He just became more and more popular. During the war, to his later shame, he made great films while other actors were in uniform. He made the top ten for box office in 1949 and stayed there, often at the very top, until 1974. Some of the films were classics, like The Searchers, while some are best forgotten. One of the latter was The Green Berets, on which I worked.

Something that emerges in this biography, as well as in the more critical John Wayne’s America by Garry Wills, is that, in addition to being a fine actor, Wayne was a very nice guy. Eyman quotes a college friend: ‘He could have been a great football player, but he never wanted to hurt anybody.’ Tom Kane, story editor at Wayne’s production company, Batjac, told me that he and Wayne saw the actor Alan Ladd, who stood only 5’ 6” to Wayne’s 6’ 3¾”, walking towards them. Wayne hid to avoid embarrassing Ladd in front of his fans. I witnessed a similar occasion at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1972, when Cesar Romero was signing autographs. The fans looked at Wayne and forgot all about Romero. Romero, deprived of his audience, said without enthusiasm, ‘Hi, Duke.’.Wayne praised Romero and made sure the ladies knew the old Latin lover was still a big star.

Eyman relates an encounter between Carl Foreman, director of High Noon, whom Wayne and other right-wingers had helped to blacklist in the 1950s, and Wayne in a Los Angeles restaurant years afterwards: ‘The two men looked at each other, then quickly embraced as if they were old friends.’ Foreman explained to his mystified English wife, ‘He was a patriot. I was a patriot. He didn’t do it to hurt me.’ I checked this story with Foreman’s son, Jonathan, who swears it’s true. He’s another Wayne fan.

Whenever I was walking to the car with Wayne in some part of Los Angeles, people would stop him for autographs. He was happy to sign. Older men would say, ‘Mr Wayne, I joined the marines because of you.’ He would lean back as if a punch were about to follow, and the veterans would laugh.

Eyman quotes the actor Robert Walker, Jr: ‘John Wayne? I had the pleasure and honour of working with him.’ I am happy to say the same.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • Shorne

    “During the war, to his later shame, he made great films while other actors were in uniform.” I can never take him seriously in war films, especially when you consider this;
    Clark Gable at the age of 40 flew 5 combat missions as a gunner (many say he flew more).
    James Stewart entered the Army Air Forces as a private and worked his way to the rank of Colonel. During WWII Stewart served as a bomber pilot. His service record credits him with leading more than 20 missions over Germany and taking part in hundreds of air strikes during his tour of duty.
    Rod Steiger falsified his age to enlist in the U.S. Navy at 16 and served as a Torpedoman in World War II.
    Lee Marvin left school to join the US Marine Corps, serving as a sniper in the 4th Marine Division in WW II.

    and many, many more

    • Kennybhoy

      “I can never take him seriously in war films…”

      What an utterly silly coment…

      • Shorne

        I am not saying you have to have experienced war in order to portray it but if you have actively avoided it then it’s rather hypocritical, still carry on with your hero worship.

        • Vince SantaCruz

          If it bothers you so much don’t watch. I believe that most people are aware of his not having served in the military. They just don’t care, he was an actor playing roles. Tom Hanks was great in saving Private Ryan, so was Matt Damen. Neither one of them served.

          • Shorne

            The circumstances that would have necessitated their serving didn’t arise.

      • GraveDave

        Why is it a silly comment.

    • GraveDave

      That’s a good post.

      • Shorne

        Thank you Dave, Errol Flynn was just as bad.

    • Gergiev

      … and James Stewart was the Pilgrim… but there you go, print the legend.

    • Millington Guy

      He was 34 and the father of four when the Pearl Harbor was attacked. He discussed enlistment with the government, but for reasons not completely known military service never occurred.

      • Shorne

        No sorry that won’t wash. As I pointed out Clark Gable was 40 when he joined up. Also Henry Fonda joined up at the age of 37 when he had 3 children saying “I don’t want to be in a fake war in a studio.”. He joined the Navy as a Non-Com and was later Commissioned and won the Bronze Star.
        Wayne motives for not enlisting were purely financial. Wayne knew that if he took a few years off for military service, there was a good chance that by the time he got back he’d be over the hill. Wayne knew that if he took a few years off for military service, there was a good chance that by the time he got back he’d be over the hill.Wayne obtained 3-A status, “deferred for [family] dependency reasons.” He told friends he’d enlist after he made just one or two more movies.
        The real question is why he never did so. Wayne cranked out thirteen movies during the war, many with war-related themes. Most of the films were enormously successful and within a short time the Duke was one of America’s most popular stars. His bankability now firmly established, he could have joined the military, secure in the knowledge that Hollywood would welcome him back later. He even made a half-hearted effort to sign up, sending in the paperwork to enlist in the naval photography unit commanded by a good friend, director John Ford.
        But he didn’t follow through. Nobody really knows why; Wayne didn’t like to talk about it. So whenever I see him charging into battle in a film I remember that in reality someone might have just shouted ‘Cut’ so Wayne could have his toupee adjusted

        • Millington Guy

          Shorne, if you feel this way about John Wayne, I can only image your opinion of Jane Fonda.

          • Shorne

            Why – did she fight in WW2?

  • Kennybhoy

    “Looking up at him I thought, this is no actor but the hero of all mythology miraculously to life.”

    Louise Brooks on first meeting a young, unknown John Wayne…

    • GraveDave

      Then he opened his mouth. But she’s right about one thing, he was no actor.

      • mikewaller

        I could not agree more and could never see what made others – not just Americans – idolise him. To my ears, he almost unfailingly put the emphasis of the wrong syllable and the combination of war hero on film and draft-dodger in the flesh made me feel deeply contemptuous. To tease a very intelligent American friend of mine, who is nonetheless a Wayne fan, I wrote the following:

        Although a procedure that would bring me no joy,
        I would feel it my duty to thrash any boy
        Who, on seeing a film staring John Wayne,
        Expressed a desire to see it again.

        • Freedom

          Ha. That doesn’t work for me bec. I pronounce it ‘aGEN’.

          • mikewaller

            Think positively! It is never too late to learn to speak properly! [:-)]

          • Freedom

            Never too late to speak idiosyncratically, either. Or with regional weirdness: example is the old Brooklyn NY pronunciation of ‘coin’ as ‘kern’ etc. I learned that watching The Honeymooners.

  • Augustus

    Michael Parkinson certainly made a fool of himself back in the 70s trying to trip up John Wayne on the MP Show about his blacklisting days, as I recall. He believed passionately in America (the start a business in your garage and become a billionaire kind of America, not the live in your parents’ garage lefty kind).

  • Laguna Beach Fogey

    Wayne was somewhat of a celebrity around here in Newport Beach.

    He hurt his shoulder body-surfing near Balboa Pier in Newport Beach. He and other Hollywood celebrities used to frequent the old Arches restaurant [now closed and renamed ‘A’].

    In the final years of his life Wayne lived in Newport Beach in a big house overlooking the water. His house was later torn down by the new owners.

    His widow, Pilar, still lives here (the last I heard) and can be seen around the Corona del Mar neighbourhood of Newport Beach.

    The local airport is named John Wayne Airport and features a large bronze statue of Wayne.

  • Millington Guy

    I highly recommend Mr. Eyman’s biography of John Wayne. It was enlightening and entertaining. The book was well written.

  • Blaise Pascal

    John Wayne became a Catholic on his death bed.He didn’t convert before that because he felt he couldn’t live up to it’s tenants.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    I just love John Wayne, he’s been a massive part of my life. Thanks for the memories Duke!!

  • misterwax

    Much of the Green Berets was filmed at Fort Benning in Georgia. the jungle scenes were made in the Phillipines. I saw the first week’s run in Atlanta as a kid. The movie was a little corny with some of the cast but it was not a bad film…it illustrated good vs. evil very graphically… we see the same now in AQ – ISIL all over the Muslim world.