By the mid-60s, after 25 years of stardom and superstardom, most people would mainly talk about John Wayne’s conservative politics, either pro or con, or about his having survived lung cancer, with the loss of part of a lung. Hardly anyone spoke of his acting, except to take it for granted or to minimize it by saying he “always plays himself.” But a surprising amount of care and work went into creating the persona known to the world as John Wayne.
Part of the charm of John Wayne, the man who was born Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, in 1907, was his lack of pretension or self-importance. He had wanted, at one point, to be a lawyer.
First known as Duke Morrison (the nickname originated with a dog he loved named Duke), Wayne was very popular in school and college, a dedicated student, a football star, brought up under difficult and not wealthy conditions, who drifted into movies first as a goose-herder for John Ford’s “Mother Machree” (1928), and later as an all-around laborer, prop man, extra and bit player.
Then in 1930, the veteran director Raoul Walsh noticed Duke on the Fox lot, liked the way he moved and decided to cast him as the lead in an expensive, sweeping western epic, “The Big Trail,” one of the first films (and possibly the last for quite a while) photographed in wide screen.
For his new job, Walsh decided the young man needed a better acting name than Marion Morrison, or even Duke Morrison; something more familiar, yet strong and decisive: And so John Wayne was born.
“Stagecoach” (1939) was the movie in which director John Ford — rejecting the producer’s choice, Gary Cooper, then a major box office attraction — decided to make John Wayne a big star. It was the picture that catapulted the actor overnight from grade-Z movies to the A-list. The opening scene was a very unusual shot for Ford, starting with a full figure of Wayne, saddle over his shoulder, a rifle in his hand. The camera then rushes into a close-up, and Wayne twirls and cocks the rifle in one flamboyant gesture.
This film was the true beginning of Wayne’s amazing career, and of a series of leading-man performances in Ford pictures like “The Long Voyage Home,” “They Were Expendable” and “Fort Apache,” along with numerous other films. And then there was director Howard Hawks’s “Red River,” with Montgomery Clift (watch it on MovieZoot.com) in the older-man role that sharply altered his image and career. Said director Ford in amazement, “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act!”
Wayne played a character a good 15 or more years older than he actually was, a single-minded man obsessed with a never-before-attempted, dangerous and exhausting cattle drive. It became the foundation for a series of performances that were a considerable distance from the easygoing good guy he had been accustomed to playing up to then.
Duke was cast in an even older role for “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949), and as the ultimate loner — in perhaps his greatest western, “The Searchers” (1956).
Wayne’s innate likability came through to great advantage in the title role of his delightful and memorable Irish romantic comedy, starring with the late actress Maureen O’Hara in “The Quiet Man” (1952). Duke always complained that he had nothing to do in “The Quiet Man” until the big fight at the end; he was evidently not fully conscious of how much he brought to a role just by showing up. Though in other ways he was very well aware of what he was doing.
Wayne won an Academy Award in 1969 for his role as Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit.”
Wayne and O’Hara attempted to reprise their roles and chemistry in the thinly-disguised set-in-the West “McClintock” (1963), which can be enjoyed on MovieZoot.com.
In 1957, at the peak of his career, he is reported to have said that the person on the screen wasn’t really him. “I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well. I’m one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.”
Next to his work, family life was another defining center of John Wayne’s existence. He was married three times and was the father of seven children. At the time of his death, in 1979, Wayne was the patriarch of a large clan, composed of seven children and twenty-one grandchildren.
Wayne’s first wife, Josephine Saenz, was the daughter of a Panamanian Consul in Los Angeles. They got married on June 24, 1933, and had four children: Michael in 1934, Toni in 1935, Patrick in 1938, and Melinda in 1940.
After a few years, the marriage was in trouble. Wayne practically lived for his work and was constantly unfaithful — most notably a twenty year affair with actress Marlene Dietrich — which his wife understandably found hard to accept. The couple separated in 1943 and a year later divorced
Wayne met his second wife, Esperanza Baur Diaz, nicknamed Chata, in Mexico, while vacationing there. They were married on January 17, 1946 and this marriage was rocky and volatile from the very start. Wayne met his third wife, Pilar Weldy (born Palette) in Lima, Peru in 1953, while he was scouting locations for “The Alamo.” It was part of a South-American tour, a gift from Howard Hughes, with whom he had a contract.
Younger than Wayne by 22 years, Pilar came from an upper class family; her father was a Peruvian politician. On November 1, 1954, the very day Wayne’s divorce became final, the couple got married. Pilar took an active interest in his career. She herself was an actress, although she did not pursue her own career. She bore Wayne three children: Aissa in l956, John Ethan in 1962, and Marisa Carmella in 1966; he was then close to 60 years of age.
The third marriage lasted seventeen years, but in November 1973, a trial separation was announced. Pilar complained about Wayne’s lengthy absences from home, even when he was not working; he simply said that they had lost interest in each other.
In his last years, Wayne lived with his secretary Pat Stacy, but this romantic involvement did not get any publicity in the press.
John Wayne may have been a major star and audience favorite from 1939 till his death, but in fact his popularity continued long after: 20 to 30 years later he remained among the top five American film stars of all time. On one occasion, he said, “I’ve played the kind of man I’d like to have been.” And he did, creating the legend of John Wayne that still exists today.
To learn more about John Wayne’s life and career, ZootScoop.com recommends:
JOHN WAYNE: The Life and Legend
By Scott Eyman
Illustrated. 658 pp. Simon & Schuster.