How does reel life compare with real life? John Wayne had three wives, all of them Latinas. This is but one of the complexities and apparent contradictions of a motion picture actor who came to symbolize America.
Wayne was a man whose millions of fans the world over included Nikita Khrushchev, who when visiting the United States in 1959 had two requests: to visit Disneyland and meet Wayne. On his visit to the United States in 1975, the emperor Hirohito of Japan asked to meet him, although Wayne claimed, with typical humor, that he had probably killed more Japanese in his war movies than the entire U.S. Army had during World War II. And, although they were far apart politically, President Jimmy Carter invited Wayne to the White House; was impressed with his intelligence, in contradiction to some of the movie roles he had played; and appreciated his support of the 1978 Panama Canal Treaty, which returned the Canal Zone to Panama, over the fierce objection of conservative Republicans whose political attitudes Wayne generally shared. Two weeks before he died, the U.S. Congress and Carter awarded Wayne a special medal inscribed “John Wayne American.”
During his lifetime Wayne had a plaque on his yacht engraved with words that expressed how he saw others and himself: “Each of us is a mixture of some good and some not so good qualities. In considering one’s fellow man it’s important to remember the good things, and to realize his faults only prove he’s a human being. We should refrain from making judgments—just because a fella’ happens to be a dirty, rotten son-of-a-bitch.”
The last of Wayne’s three wives, Pilar, said that he wasn’t perfect but wasn’t a son of a bitch, either.
“Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much”—that’s Wayne’s advice on acting. For over fifty years he worked at making movies. He began as the new power of communication through silent movies and radio helped forge a national culture from disparate regions of the United States, making possible the creation of mythical national heroes.
In his prime Wayne stood six feet four inches tall and weighed 230 pounds, a handsome man with broad shoulders and blue eyes that could be piercingly cold or innocently warm. Wearing cowboy boots and a twenty-gallon hat—Wayne was too big for just a ten-gallon [End Page 2] hat—he stood nearly seven feet tall, a towering figure who could dominate a room. Sitting in a movie theater, popcorn in hand, a fan could not fail to be awed by such a figure, magnified to superhuman size on the silver screen.
Wayne learned his craft in quickie B movies made on Hollywood’s Poverty Row and achieved worldwide stardom in modern epics. Making movies was his passion and obsession. His filmography includes over 170 titles. He started out as an assistant propman, lugging furniture onto sets; did work as an extra, a double, and a stuntman; and finally graduated to leading roles. Later in his career he was a producer and a director, taking part in all phases of the Hollywood dream factory. His longevity was a testament to his talent. He became an icon of the rugged man of the American West, the American fighting man in World War II, and the stalwart American anti-Communist during the Cold War. For twenty-five years he was one of the top ten box-office stars, a record of popularity that no other Hollywood star has matched.
Wayne was born on 26 May 1907 in Winterset, Iowa, weighing in at thirteen pounds. His parents were of Scotch-Irish ancestry. His mother claimed that the delivery almost killed her, which may have had something to do with her dislike of her eldest son. He was baptized Marion Robert Morrison, after his two grandfathers. Five years later his mother renamed him Marion Mitchell and gave the name Robert (her father’s name) to her newborn son, her lifelong favorite.
Winterset, a town of fewer than...