No doubt about it, the Duke came in the giant economy size – 6-feet-4 as mortals grow – but, to the world in general and to an adoring daughter in particular, he was a good 60 feet tall in the saddle.
Aissa Wayne spent her first 23 years looking up to her father, onscreen and off. years after his death, it’s the stance that still holds.
”John Wayne, My Father” (Random House, $20), her just-published account of growing up in the privileged shade of her movie-star pop, is not the money-grubbing rantings of an ungrateful child, but a love offering. The publisher is getting it to market, hot on the hooves of the memoirs of his secretary-mistress (Pat Stacy) and his last wife (Pilar Palette).
”I really didn’t tell anybody about the book until I knew what it was going to say,” admits Aissa. ”I was afraid they were going to twist my words around – I’ve heard of that happening – but I’m very happy with the way everything was handled.”
Through Aissa’s eyes, we see the John Wayne that we would expect to see – making his entrance in his own homestead, bellowing as he had in so many Westerns, ”Hello, the house!” – and sometimes, there surfaces a Wayne that catches us off-guard (cradling the young Aissa, getting her to promise to love him ”when you get older and realize I’m not as strong as you think I am”).
Warts ‘n’ all wear well on John Wayne, and his insecurities about his acting make him all the more human to us.
”Dukie Dearest,” it’s not; nor is it a studio-processed, WarnerColored, larger-than-life whitewash. It is, pure and complicated, the way that Aissa remembers him and the way she wants to pass him along to her own children.
”I wrote it for them,” she says of her brood (Jennifer, 9; Nicholas, 8, Anastasia, 4). ”Now that they’re in school, they’re finding out there’s something special about being John Wayne’s grandkids. They always ask about him and see him on TV. It’s really sad to me that my dad and my children did not meet, because he’d have loved them.”
But one wonders how one of Hollywood’s most committed Commie-chasers would have cottoned to the fact that two-thirds of these grandkids bear the names of Russian royalty. Aissa insists he’d have loved them regardless of what they were labeled.
”What would have really interested him is what’s happening to communism nowadays. He was very slow to trust (change), but when he did trust, he gave in all the way.”
Of course, Aissa wasn’t around when Wayne and his perennial sidekick from old gridiron days, Ward Bond, were running the Reds (real and imagined, mostly imagined) out of the Hollywood hills.
She came along in ’56 when those two were embroiled in what may well have been their greatest Western, John Ford’s ”The Searchers.” Wayne loved that film so much he named his last son John Ethan, after the character he played.
Heeding the ”early calling,” John Ethan Wayne has followed his dad onto the movie range – plus, he has lathered up for the daytime soaps. Recently, he and his stepbrother, Patrick, co-starred in a summer-stock production of Neil Simon’s ”Come Blow Your Horn.”
Of Wayne’s seven offspring, Aissa is the only other one with acting credits – and those were cut off after four bits in her father’s films. The best, and best-paying, was her first: as one of the three survivors of ”The Alamo.”
A decade later, she almost came out of her father-enforced retirement to co-star with him in ”True Grit.” The original actress picked to play his 14-year-old employer didn’t pan out, and Aissa was put to work learning the role – till Wayne flagged her down when Kim Darby got the part: ”At the time, I was resentful of her. I thought, `How could they do that?’ But now I think she did a wonderful job.”
For a star who was constantly on the defensive about his thespic shortcomings – ”I’m not an actor, I’m a re-actor,” he would say – it’s ironic that Wayne’s final public appearance was at the 1979 Academy Awards where (ironically, again) he announced Best Picture honors to the leftist anti-war saga, ”The Deer Hunter.” Looking quite drawn and haggard, almost unrecognizable, from the effects of ”The Big C” he said he’d kicked 15 years earlier, the actor summoned all his strength for that exit.
”It was agony watching him on the TV set, thinking, `They’re taking too long to announce the movies.’ He was so weak he could hardly stand up, but he wanted to make his last appearance there to say thank you to everybody – to his fans and to his peers for what they’ve given him in his life. I thought that took a lot of courage.”
It did, but somehow you’d would expect nothing less from the man who won his Oscar for ”True Grit.” Keeper-of-the-flame Aissa Wayne helps us keep that thought.
New york times
proc. BY Movies