Off camera he presented the same tough-talking persona to the world. But behind closed doors John Wayne was a very different person, as his long-lost letters, hand-written notes and private papers reveal in an insightful new book.
“The guy you see on the screen isn’t really me,” said the actor born Marion Morrison, and nicknamed “Duke” in childhood.
Playing John Wayne was his greatest role, and also taught him how to be the man he became. “I know him well,” Wayne wrote.
“I’m one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him. I am a demonstrative man, a baby picker-upper, a hugger and a kisser. That’s my nature.”
Wayne was Hollywood’s all-American hero, but through three failed marriages and multiple affairs with lovers including Marlene Dietrich and Maureen O’Hara, he struggled to live up to his image.
Contemplating his enduring appeal late in life, Wayne said: “I think many admire me because I haven’t been afraid to say that I drink a little whiskey, that I’ve done a lot of things wrong in my life, that I’m as imperfect as they all are.”
He was a war hero in numerous movies, fighting cinematic battles from the American Civil War to Vietnam, but in reality he sat out the Second World War, infatuated by his three-year affair with Dietrich who he called “the best lay” of his life, though it earned him accusations of being a “draft dodger.”
It was only years later that Wayne came to acknowledge his flaws. He was an often absent father to his eldest children – Michael, Patrick, Toni and Melinda from his first marriage to Josephine Saenz – leaving them behind for months when he filmed on location.
Not until his third marriage to Pilar Pallete did he recognise the need to keep close to his youngest children – Aissa, Ethan and Marisa. Son Ethan, aged 53, who was born when Wayne was 56, recalls: “I always went on location with him, because he knew he wouldn’t be around when I was in my 30s. I might start school and then, a couple weeks later, he might say: ‘Get your stuff and let’s go to Mexico.’ It wasn’t your typical kindergarten-through-eighth grade experience – but I always learned things.”
To daughter Melinda, “he was just a regular dad. He had a wonderful sense of humour, but was adamant about school and always said that education was the key to life.”
Wayne made Melinda work all summer to save money to buy her first car. When she had saved enough, she recalls: “He hands me a box with a key to a car in it. I tried to give him my money but he said no . . . He was trying to teach me to be responsible.”
Filming I Love Lucy, he wrote: “I was carried through the comedy sequences by Lucy’s hard work,” while after hours he could match Ol’ Blue Eyes drink-for-drink. In one photo Wayne stares lovingly into the eyes of his new bride, third wife Pilar, after tying the knot in Hawaii.
She sits in a swimsuit on his lap, while an accordionist serenades the couple. “Some men collect stamps; I go for Latin Americans,” said Wayne, whose three wives were all Latina. “As long as they’re feminine, I love them all – plump, skinny, tall or short.”
One of his deepest friendships was with director John Ford, who met Wayne when the aspiring actor was a college student working a summer job as a movie prop assistant. Ford gave Wayne several walkon parts, before launching his career in 1939 classic Stagecoach, the first of their 13 films together.
“Ford took a special liking to me which gradually grew into a very fine manly love,” Wayne wrote. He called Ford “Coach” in letters, and signed off “Your Ever-lovin.’”
Wayne also cultivated friendships with presidents from John F Kennedy to Ronald Reagan and surprisingly they took his advice to heart, the private papers reveal. He wrote of sharing “a martini or two” with Richard Nixon, and informed the President when supporters urged Wayne to run for the White House.
“Don’t do it,” replied Nixon. “After all Duke is a better title than President!”
After Wayne wrote to Nixon protesting his 1972 visit to China, the president replied at length, concluding: “I always welcome receiving your comments, and I hope you will feel free in the months ahead to give me the benefit of your views and counsel.”
Even when Democrats won the White House, Wayne could be magnanimous, telegramming president Jimmy Carter: “Congratulations sir from one of the loyal opposition.”
Carter replied: “I trust the only area in which we will find ourselves in opposition is that of Party loyalty. I will need your help in the coming years, and hope to have your support.”
Wayne was an outspoken conservative and passionate patriot, even when it was unfashionable. During the Vietnam War he urged relentless attack. “I figure if we’re going to send even one man to die, we ought to be in an all-out conflict,” he wrote.
“If you fight, you fight to win.”
Wayne kept tens of thousands of letters and telegrams through the years, including the many well-wishes from fans as he battled stomach cancer before his death in 1979, aged 72. And perhaps Wayne shared more with his macho movie characters than he cared to admit.
“I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on,” he wrote.
“I’ve always followed my father’s advice. He told me first, to always keep my word, and second, to never insult anybody unintentionally. If I insult you, you can be goddamn sure I intend to.”
Wayne, born and raised amid Iowa cornfields before moving to California and appearing in almost 200 movies, starring in 140 of them, admitted: “I’ve made so many pictures, some good and some pretty bad.”
He won an Oscar for 1969’s True Grit and was nominated for 1949’s Sands of Iwo Jima, but had little patience for Hollywood self-congratulation. “You can’t eat awards – nor, more to the point, drink ‘em,” he wrote.
Wayne kept acting till the end, driven not by a love of Hollywood but the necessity to work after a lifetime of dubious investments. “I’m a greedy old man,” he wrote. “Life’s been good to me, and I want more of it.”
Contemplating his legacy, Wayne hoped to be remembered as “an honest, kind and fairly decent man.”
Fiercely independent to the end, he wrote: “I have tried to live my life so that my family would love me and my friends respect me. The others can do whatever the hell they please.
By PETER SHERIDAN