Drive down John Wayne Drive in Winterset, Iowa, and you’ll find it: the John Wayne Birthplace Museum, designed with an imperative to make it “timeless and masculine.” There’s a bronze of Wayne, splay-legged; across one street, there’s a garage filled with tractors; across the other, there’s a makeshift war memorial, perched on a trailer with “PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN” emblazoned on the side. Winterset, population just over 5,000, is the type of town where students toilet-paper friends’ homes in anticipation of homecoming and the Wednesday night special at the local diner is ham balls. When I drive into town, the sky’s a perfect shade of Midwestern blue-black, and the lights of the courthouse square — one of the best preserved in all of America, according to various proud brochures and friendly waitresses — can be seen for miles.
Until this May, the birthplace museum was little more than a humble, sleepy old house, believed to be where the 13-pound infant Wayne came into the world as Marion Morrison, and a van, airbrushed with scenescapes of Wayne, straight out of the ‘80s. But under the management of Museum Director Brian Downes — a former Wild West performer and travel writer — the museum raised $2.5 million for a building that includes a small theater, an expansive gift shop (best-selling items include a tin sign with Wayne holding a rifle beside “THIS COMMUNITY PROTECTED BY NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH,” and The Official John Wayne Way to Grill) and a gallery, about the size of a large Starbucks, where all manner of Wayne trinkets are arranged into three thematic areas: “Movie Star,” “Family Man” (his massive station wagon, customized by Pontiac so that The Big Man could easily maneuver), and “American.”
Some artifacts are more suggestion than fact — it’s easy to make the conclusion that a pistol displayed in one of the exhibits was one used, by Wayne, on set; in fact, it’s from Downes’ personal collection, placed for ambiance. That’s the guiding thesis of the house, still snuggled behind the main museum, where visitors can imagine that the tiny, metal-springed bed in the kitchen would’ve been where toddler Wayne slept, or the glass bottles on the shelf, dug out from the backyard, were Wayne’s family refuse. The family was there for little more than two years, and left little trace on the Winterset public record save Wayne’s birth certificate. But it’s easy to imagine all of these things to be true, even if the only evidence that the house in question was Wayne’s birthplace comes from a neighbor, decades after the fact, who remembered a commotion at the house the day Wayne was born.
Inside the house, a tiny, white-haired woman named Ruth takes both my hands in hers and holds them for a solid three minutes, asking warmly where my people are from. She leads me through the house, narrating “Marion’s” early life, rounding out a few of the details of Wayne’s father’s life and his future accomplishments. It’s not that Ruth, who’s lived in Winterset since the late ‘60s, is fibbing — she’s just the latest to sing the refrain in what has become the well-practiced ballad of John Wayne.
The image of John Wayne on offer at the museum is a tapestry of half-truths and tall tales, a myth meant to assuage a nation’s anxieties and assure its citizens that a certain type of man, with a sort of principle, was still central to American identity. It’s also a contradiction: an evocation of an idyllic past that never was, a man who only played at, but never actually lived, the wars and skirmishes and shoot-outs that served as a testament to his character and the foundation of his image.
He’s so difficult to resist. He’s charismatic and charming, with a hypnotic onscreen presence and a drawl that sounds like a gruff lullaby. He was a top box office draw for nearly 20 years; in 1995, 16 years after his death, a national poll voted him America’s favorite movie star. There’s a sense that he’s always been, always will be. He’s like the racist grandpa that millions of Americans nevertheless acknowledge as their own; he’s the embarrassing tear in your eye when you root for America in the Olympics or watch a good Chevy commercial. He’s a mansplainer; he’s a xenophobe; he’d probably have horrible things to say about Islam. And Obama. And trans rights. And so many of the issues that are shaping the future of our collective identity.
ked with ideals of Americanism, patriotism, and liberty. On the surface, those ideologies are hard to decry — they’re the building blocks of our nation! — but the Wayne-inflected versions are undergirded by a dark and unspeakable fear: of change, of difference, of anything that threatens the primacy of a white, masculine, heterosexual world. Over the last 50 years, that fear has been explored, interrogated, and decried: Playing “cowboys and Indians” isn’t just un-PC, but flatly racist; anti-miscegenation laws feel like a relic of another time; cowboys can be gay, and feminist, and women. And yet a desire to return to Wayne’s America nevertheless remains strong: Just because a thing never existed doesn’t mean people don’t yearn for it anyway.
But how did Marion Morrison became John Wayne, and, in turn, the ultimate embodiment of those values? He went west. BY
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