It’s a sad truth about the history of Hollywood that many once-legendary Golden Age names and faces have lost their luster, their stardom dimming over time. Not so with “The Duke,” who, 35 years after his death, remains a towering figure. John Wayne: The Life and the Legend, by noted Hollywood biographer Scott Eyman, tells us why.
Yes, there have been many books on the subject. Some examined Wayne’s films and/or staunchly conservative politics, some were written by those who knew him, some boasted estate-sanctioned memorabilia. Eyman’s take is nonetheless eye-opening and astute, bolstered by access to the archives of Wayne’s production company and a host of interview sources, and the fine way he utilizes oral histories and other research materials. Then there’s the author’s cinematic acumen, which he displayed in previous work on filmmaker John Ford, who famously worked with Wayne.
Both father figure and mentor, Ford gave Wayne the role that made him a star. In these days of revolving-door “stardom,” it’s sobering to realize that by the time Wayne made the superlative Ford-directed Stagecoach, he’d been working for more than a decade, with some 80 movies to his credit. He was 32.
Born in 1907 with the memorable moniker Marion Morrison (and weighing in at 13 pounds), he was seven when the family relocated to California from his birthplace in Iowa, eventually settling in Glendale. When his parents separated, Wayne chose to stay with his pharmacist father; a younger brother lived with their mother (who would always favor the baby of the family).
At that time several movie studios were based in Glendale and the young Wayne —called Little Duke (the family dog was Big Duke), a now-famed sobriquet later shortened to Duke—sometimes watched as crews shot on local streets. He was attending the University of Southern California on a football scholarship when he got work as a film double and extra. Then came a summer job at Fox, working props. Bit parts followed. A Fox studio head rechristened him John Wayne—though he would always be Duke to friends.
Well read and personable, the early Wayne was also a looker. Catching sight of him in the Universal commissary, Marlene Dietrich whispered to an associate, “Daddy, buy me that.” He had seven children and three wives, all of them Latinos. As his dear friend and co-star Maureen O’Hara put it, “he was really marrying the same woman every time.” There were affairs, including one with Dietrich, during those marriages.
He wasn’t perfect, and he knew it. He was especially ashamed of the fact that he didn’t serve during World War II. (Eyman details his many reclassifications during wartime.) But Wayne had many admirable traits—including loyalty to longtime friends and a diehard commitment to his fans and to the image he had shrewdly constructed.
Nowadays acknowledged as a great (yes, great) actor, his performances in Red River and The Searchers and The Quiet Man, etc., have been scrutinized by scholars and delighted movie lovers the world over. His career had peaks and valleys and in-betweens, but through it all he was ever-professional. The first on the set, and the last to leave, he was a trouper up to the end—while battling cancer during the making of his final film, The Shootist. As the saying goes, and as this book demonstrates, they don’t make ’em like that, anymore