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John Wayne was one of the most popular film actors of the twentieth century. Between 1926 and 1976 he appeared in more than 170 films – including some of the best westerns ever made. Wayne often portrayed lonely and flawed men of dignity and strength searching for justice. But over the course of his five-decade career John Wayne became something much greater than a movie star: he became a symbol of America itself. But while many Americans viewed Wayne as a hero, others vilified him for his controversial political causes. Diane and her guest explore the life and legend of John Wayne.
- Scott Eyman author
Watch Featured Clips
See John Wayne in character in these movie trailers.
The Alamo (1960)
Green Berets (1968)
Read an Excerpt
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Thirty-five years after his death, John Wayne is still one of America's favorite movie stars, ranking ahead of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in some polls. Here's that instantly recognizable voice.
MR. JOHN WAYNENow, we'll all calm down.
UNKNOWN MALEBoss, he's just a little excited.
WAYNEI know. I know. I'm going to use good judgment. I haven't lost my temper in 40 years. But pilgrim you've caused a lot of trouble this morning. Might have got somebody killed and somebody ought to belt you in the mouth. But I won't. I won't. The hell I won't.
REHMMy guest this hour says John Wayne has become more than one of Hollywood's most famous actors, he's become a symbol of America itself. Scott Eyman has written a new biography of John Wayne. He joins me in the studio to talk about his book "John Wayne: The Life and Legend." And throughout the hour, you might want to join us. 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Scott, it's good to meet you.
MR. SCOTT EYMANOh, it's great to meet you, Diane.
REHMThank you. You actually met John Wayne.
REHMAnd you call him a very complicated man.
REHMOne who perhaps did not come through as clearly as you encountered him.
EYMANHe was that guy on the screen in some ways. But in a lot of other ways, he wasn't the guy on the screen. And it was the -- and I didn’t fully understand the construction at the time, because I was only 21 years old and I hadn't had as much life experience as I've had since.
REHMHow did you come to meet him?
EYMANI wrote him a letter at Paramount Pictures. He had an office at Paramount. And I had begun to -- focused my career, I thought I was going to write about the movies. And I thought, well, if I'm going to write about the movies, I'd better talk to people who make the movies. And I was living in Cleveland, Ohio, and not a lot of people who made movies passed through Cleveland, Ohio. So I had to go to them. So I wrote a series of letters to people that I thought had had really interesting careers. One of them was John Wayne. His secretary, a sainted woman named Mary St. John, replied to my letter. She said, well, if you're ever out here, I'll do what I can to hook you up.
EYMANSo about three months later, I showed up in Los Angeles. I called Mary St. John, reminded her who I was, reminded her about the letter. She said, well, Duke's shooting a TV special at CBS for the next two days. She said, do you want to go over to CBS and talk to him. Duh, duh, duh. So I said, sure. And I went over to CBS and they showed me into his dressing room. And he was sitting there in his tux and his dress shoes. He didn't have his jacket on, he just had his tux shirt on. And he was smoking a little cigar, which really took me back, because at that point, he was America's most famous cancer survivor.
EYMANHe'd lost a lung to cancer in 1964, but liked to give the impression that he had sworn off tobacco. In fact, he never did swear off tobacco. He was totally addicted and smoked or chewed tobacco or smoked cigars or something almost continually for the rest of his life. And he was smoking little black, little tiny cigars. And he stuck out his hand, stood up and said, John Wayne. And I said, I know. And he was huge. And I'm 6'2" and change. And he wasn't actually that much taller than I was. He was 6'3 3/4" usually rounded off to 6'4".
REHMBut a big guy.
EYMANBut he was massive. As I write in the book, a normal-size six footer could stand in back of him and you'd never see him. He was just massive. He was massive like a football lineman was massive.
EYMANAnd he had the largest hands I've ever seen on a human being.
REHMAnd his personality, how close to what you saw on the screen?
EYMANAlmost 180 degrees away.
EYMANOn screen, he was forceful, in charge, not liable to take orders from other people terribly well. In person, waiting to shoot a TV special, it was something about CBS's 50-year anniversary, so Milton Berle was there, Jack Benny was there, Lucille Ball was there, all of these luminaries were there -- show business luminaries of that era. And he was there too, even though he'd really had nothing to do with CBS. But he was quiet. He was reflective. He was thoughtful. He was almost contemplative. He -- I asked him strictly movie questions. I wasn't interested in talking about cancer. I wasn't interested in talking about politics.
EYMANAt this point in his life, he was probably more famous or as famous for his conservative political views as he was for his movie career. And I didn't care about his conservative political views.
EYMANBecause those had been aired every year and re-aired.
EYMANHe was probably America's most prominent conservative -- certainly Hollywood conservative, of his generation.
REHMHow did he first come to be involved in westerns?
EYMANHis first starring picture was in 1930, was for a very good director named Raoul Walsh at Fox, it was called "The Big Trail." And it was about a wagon train moving west. The plot was nothing special. It was the treatment. It was shot in 70 millimeter, one of the early 70 millimeter features, epic, very expensive picture. And he was a prop man at Fox at that point when he was given the job of starring in this epic western, because Walsh didn't want a conventional movie star. He wanted someone who seemed to embody a sense of command.
EYMANAnd even though Wayne was only 22 years old at the time, he pulled it off fairly well for a guy who hadn't acted really since high school. He was in the drama club at high school. And he wanted desperately to be an actor, which he tended to downplay all his life.
REHMBut you start your book with Wayne's performance in "Stage Coach." You say that was the turning point for him.
EYMANIt fired the starting gun for his starring career as far as the mass audience was concerned. "The Big Trail," the film he did in 1930, was a huge financial flop. Nobody went to see it. It was only exhibited in 70 millimeter in two cities: New York and Los Angeles. Everybody else saw it in conventional 35 millimeter. And nobody went. So his -- he was a blazing star of the future at 22, and he was a washed-up has been at 23. So for the next nine years basically he made his living playing big parts in tiny films and tiny parts in big films.
EYMANHe made dozens of disposable B westerns, shot in anywhere from three days to five days.
EYMANSometimes six days, a really luxurious schedule would be six days. And in films with major stars, Barbara Stanwyck or Douglas Fairbanks, he would show up almost as a walk-on, unbilled, say one line of dialog, say, and then be gone. In a William Wellman picture, he -- there's a plane crash and he dies in the plane crash. He never has a line of dialog. You don't even see his face. This is 1933. So he was damaged goods as far as Hollywood was concerned. But what he was doing, during those nine years, was (a) learning how to act. As I write in the book, he was a natural movie star.
EYMANBut he was not a natural actor. He had to learn how to project. He had to learn how to -- he had to learn his craft. He had to learn how to project. He had to learn the art and science of being an actor.
REHMAnd then how did John Ford affect that man, who wanted so desperately to become an actor.
EYMANFord was -- it was such a complicated relationship. Ford was essentially his father figure. Now, why did he need a father figure? Wayne's own father, a man named Clyde Morrison -- Wayne's real name was Marion Robert Morrison...
REHMBut they called him Duke.
EYMANThey called him Duke...
EYMAN...for obvious reasons, because they took Robert away from him and gave it to his younger brother. And then he became Marion Mitchell Morrison. Well, he didn't want to go by Marion. The kids in school would make your life living hell. And he didn't want to go by Mitch either. So he had this Airedale -- there's a picture of the dog in the book, as a matter of fact. It's a rather oversized Airedale. It looks like it's about 80 pounds. And the dog's name was Duke. And he and the dog were inseparable on the streets of Glendale. And they became known to the general population as Big Duke, the dog...
EYMAN...and Little Duke, the boy.
EYMANSo Duke, he simply adopted Duke as his nickname and he kept it all his life. And interestingly, he never change his name. He was always Marion Morrison, legally.
EYMANOn his death certificate it says, Marion Morrison, parentheses, (John Wayne). And I think that was his way of maintaining psychological clarity about who he was -- who he was really.
REHMBut that relationship with John Ford was, as you say, very complex.
EYMANFords -- I mean, Wayne's father was a very nice man who was emotionally accessible to him. He was very physical with the boy -- I mean, lovingly -- lovingly physical with the boy. They would play -- he would teach him sports, put his arm around the boy. Ford -- I mean, Wayne loved his dad. But his dad was ineffectual in life. His dad had trouble supporting the family. His marriage was a failure, it was a bad marriage between Wayne's parents. They ended up divorcing, which was unusual in that era -- in the early 20th century.
REHMAnd Wayne went to live with his dad.
EYMANWayne went to live with his father. His younger brother, Bob, went to live with his mother. And his mother never really forgave him. His mother always totally favored his brother Bob. And after Wayne became this huge movie star and producing pictures and this and that, his mother couldn't have cared less.
EYMANShe just wanted to know what he could do for Bob and why wasn't Bob producing these pictures? And why aren't you paying Bob more money? And this and that and the other thing. It was never a moment of praise from his mother about his own career.
REHMBut his relationship with his father remained close from...
EYMANVery close. But all of his life, Ford was drawn to emotionally inaccessible father figures. His father died when Wayne was still in B-movie hell in the mid-thirties. And when he went to USC to play football on a scholarship, there was a coach there -- a very great coach named Howard Jones -- who was one of those guys that you could rush for 250 yards for Howard Jones, and he would nod. That's all he'd give you.
EYMANThere was none of this, hugs -- none of this, you're the best player I've ever coached. None of this -- he was one of those tough, Marine drill instructor type football coaches. And Wayne loved that. And Ford was not radically different from Howard Jones. As a matter of fact, Ford was friends with Howard Jones.
REHMScott Eyman, his new book titled "John Wayne: The Life and Legend." We'll talk more when we come back, take your calls, your comments. Stay with us.
INTERVIEWERAnd welcome back. Scott Eyman has a brand new biography of "John Wayne: The Life and Legend." He actually met John Wayne back in 19...
REHM...remembers that very vividly. Tell us, if you would, about how you think the life differs so dramatically from the legend of John Wayne.
EYMANWell, interesting. He had a fair degree of self awareness. And as he put it, I've been lucky enough to play all these stories of the frontier and of the rough west and the Wild West. And at the same time I had someone to bring me my orange juice in the morning. I mean, he understood that he -- on the one hand he's an actor. And he's not really that guy. He's not really leading the wagon train. He's not really spending seven years of his life searching for Natalie Wood in "The Searchers." He's not actually doing these things. It's a movie.
EYMANBut he genuinely believed correctly, I think, that movies have wires into our subconscious. And they can change the way we think and feel, not about movies but about our lives and about the world and about the country we live in. And he wanted very much to be one of those actors who makes a concerted effort to not just make product but to make something that affects people's lives.
REHMNow, we have our first email and apparently there are a number like this. This from Jerry who says, "Just remember that John Wayne often is symbol of the U.S. military, sought and received a deferment from the draft during World War II on grounds that he had a family to support, while Henry Fonda, with an ill wife and two children enlisted in the Navy." Why do you think that was?
EYMANWell, it’s a complicated story. After Pearl Harbor, basically FDR gave the motion picture industry a blanket exemption -- or what amounted to a blanket exemption from the draft for those persons in the industry who were regarded as crucial for propaganda reasons. FDR wanted the movie industry working hard for the war effort.
EYMANThe result of that was that if you wanted to go into the military during the war, you had to enlist. You wouldn't get drafted because the studios, as an almost general rule, would file deferments for you. And the deferments, because of FDR's concern about propaganda films, would be upheld. A lot of people -- a lot of people enlisted.
EYMANJimmy Stewart enlisted in the Air Force, Henry Fonda, as the gentleman said, enlisted in the Navy. Tyrone Power enlisted in the Marines. Clark Gable, who was 40 years old -- 39 or 40 years old enlisted in the Army. Dozens and dozens of people enlisted. Initially Wayne's studio Republic filed the conventional deferments form, as they did for Gene Autry and a number of other people they had under contract.
EYMANIn 1942 Wayne writes a letter to John Ford saying, I want to get in your unit, Pappy. Ford was working at his own unit attached to the OSS for Wild Bill Donovan.
REHMOh, I see.
EYMANAnd now Ford, at the time of Pearl Harbor, would've been 46 years old and was never going to be drafted. He's far too old to be drafted, but he enlisted and hooked up with Bill Donovan and had his own unit, reconnaissance unit. And Wayne writes a letter to Ford, I want to come in with you. Tell me what to do. No response. Ford goes to -- I mean, Wayne goes to Washington for a meeting with Wild Bill Donovan running the OSS.
EYMANI found an oral history with one of Donovan's secretary's saying she looked up and there was John Wayne sitting at her desk. And she was stunned because she hadn't known he was coming in. Donovan refuses to take Wayne because he didn't quite see what Wayne could do in the OSS. He didn't have any of the skill set particularly that Donovan needed, which was essentially deviousness, and the ability to think fast on your feet. And Donovan kicked him out, didn't take him.
EYMANAnd at that point, what I think happened -- I'm not sure about this -- Wayne never left any letters or anything explaining what happened -- what I think happened was, is that he wanted to work under Ford and he didn't want to work under anybody else.
EYMANAnd what happened was he -- Republic continued to file deferments for him and he accepted those deferments. He did a -- Gene Autry had a gutful of the deferments and enlisted in the Air Force. And as Autry put it in his memoirs, I can either accept the deferments and learn to shave in the dark and he couldn't do that. So he went in the service. Wayne did not. He did a three-and-a-half month USO tour off Australia off -- in that area, really rough areas. I found some interesting oral histories from soldiers who had worked with him during his USO tour but no, he never served.
REHMHis personal life, he made some bad choices in marriage. What kind of father was he?
EYMANHe was a good father allowing for the fact that he was basically a workaholic. His early life was essentially deprived because of his father's difficulty in providing for the family. So he went to work when he was a young boy in Glendale doing things young boys do, delivering papers, delivering prescriptions to houses, you know, just odd jobs. But he always had to contribute money to the family coffers.
EYMANAnd even then when it was time to go to college, there was no money for tuition, so he got in on a football scholarship. He was a very good football player, all state at Glendale High, as a lineman. And he got his football scholarship. But he hurt his shoulder surfing and there's not much use for -- in his second year...
REHMI see. I see.
EYMAN...and there was no use particularly for a lineman who couldn't block because his shoulder was all messed up, so he lost his scholarship. So he went to work at Fox where he'd been working in the summer to raise money for incidental expenses. Money was always a crucial element to him because he'd grown up in such deprived circumstances.
REHMHow many marriages?
EYMANThree. Three marriages.
REHMIn how many year?
EYMANHis first marriage was in 1934 -- '33 or '34 when he would've been -- he was born in '07 so he would've been about 26. And he was separated from his third wife at the time of his death, legally separated from his third wife at the time of his death in '72.
REHMHe died actually of stomach cancer, didn't he?
EYMANHe did, but it was everywhere.
REHMYeah, at that point.
EYMAN...it metastasized and it had spread.
REHMI see. I think probably one of the favorite movies that everybody thinks about when they hear about John Wayne is "The Quiet Man" with Maureen O'Hara. Let's hear a clip from this.
REHMNow, you know, Scott, I spoke with Maureen O'Hara back in 2004 on this program. And we talked just a little tiny bit about what she whispered to John Wayne at the end of that movie. The quality of this sound is not top notch but I thought you'd like to hear it anyhow.
MS. MAUREEN O'HARAThere was only three people who knew, John Ford, John Wayne and me. And our deal was if I -- I didn't want to whisper the line to him at all but John Ford wanted a certain reaction from him. And so I was told I had to do it. So I did it but the deal before I agreed was that it would never, ever be revealed. And John Ford can't reveal it now. He's up in heaven, we hope. And John Wayne is with him, still fighting together. And I'm still here and I will never, never tell.
EYMANGiven Wayne's reaction when she whispers in his ear and given Wayne's appreciation for a well-played salty remark, and given John Ford's appreciation for a well-played salty remark, I think we can come up with a pretty good approximation of what she whispers in his ear.
REHMShe was so lovely. How well did the two of them get along?
EYMANWayne and O'Hara?
EYMANOh, they adored each other.
REHMThat's what I thought.
EYMANThey adored each other. She said -- she told me that she thought the reason Ford and Wayne loved her was because she was the only feminine man in their life. That's the way she thought of herself, is because she could match them in terms of will and refusal to be dominated.
EYMANExcept by John Ford. Everybody who worked for Ford essentially had to acquiesce to his authority or else you didn't work for John Ford.
REHMAnd when she was here in 2004 she seemed so vibrant, so healthy and glowed when she talked about John Wayne. So I guess we can assume that they had a wonderful relationship. A movie he made in 1956, "The Searchers," tell me about that movie.
EYMANWell, it's probably his greatest performance I think, that or "Red River" perhaps, because it's his bravest performance. He's playing a dangerously unbalanced racist. And at the same time he's the only man who can get the job done. And what I find so ennobling about the performance is he doesn't separate himself from the character.
EYMANWhen actors play someone that's a little -- that they're not really comfortable with or that is really reprehensible, they often try to put distance between them. They try to be charming or they smile a lot and they do all these little actor tricks to make you like them in spite of the horrible things the character does. Wayne doesn't do that.
UNIDENTIFIED MANDid you see Debbie?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2No. No, but I saw Lucy, all right. She was wearing that blue dress and she was...
JOHN WAYNEWhat you saw wasn't Lucy.
#2Oh, but it was I tell you.
WAYNEWhat you saw was a buck wearing Lucy's dress. I found Lucy back in the canyon, wrapped her in my coat, buried her with my own hands. Thought it best to keep it from you.
#2Oh, did they -- what was she...
WAYNEWhat do you want me to do, draw you a picture, spell it out? Don't ever ask me. Long as you live, don't ever ask me more.
REHMThat powerful voice.
EYMANAnd the way it quavers at the end of the line when you realize he's about -- he's very close to tears himself. Yeah, it's a blast furnace performance. He just opens the door. And because the script is strong and Ford is functioning at the highest level, it's a great, great picture.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So he does an interview with Playboy Magazine in 1971. He says some things, he says, I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don't believe giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people. I don't think we did wrong in taking this great country away from Native Americans. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves. I would think the fallout from those comments had to have lasted for decades.
EYMANOh sure, sure, sure. It sealed his reputation as a anti (word?) dinosaur, really, certainly amongst the under thirty portion of the population. The odd thing about the interview was he'd settle out of those things before in print. At one point -- and in not obscure publications. I mean, in places like Life Magazine. He gave an interview to Life Magazine where he said that the younger generation -- referring to the reporter that was talking to him -- should colonize Africa, that there's so much land there. And the Native Africans weren't doing anything with it.
EYMANAnd, you know, basically he's indicating a kind of wave of apartheid, you know. And this was just a year or two before the Playboy interview. But the Playboy interview was the one that, like, created this firestorm.
REHMAfter he's said these things before why did this one in particular, do you think?
EYMANWell, partially because Life Magazine, for instance, was on the downhill slide in the early '70s and didn't have the leading edge quality that Playboy did, which at the time was the hot book, as they say in the publishing industry. Esquire was also a hot book of that era. You know, magazines have waves and influence just as actors do and they come up and they come down.
REHMWhy would he say such a thing?
EYMANBecause he believed it.
REHMHe believed it.
EYMANBecause he was a very conservative man. He was conservative by the -- in the early '30s when he was making all those crummy three- and five-day B-westerns. He would get into arguments with other actors or production people. He hated Roosevelt. He hated the new deal. And they were before the new deal. And, I mean, he was not aggressive in -- he didn't start the fights, you know, these arguments. But he would volubly talk about, you know, the damage he thought Roosevelt was doing to the country.
EYMANSo he was -- in other words, he was conservative at a young age. It wasn't something where you -- the semi-conventional thing is where you're a moderate liberal as a young man. And as you age and as you accrue money and property and things you start to worry about losing it so you become more conservative.
REHMBut how about the people he worked with? How did they feel about his views?
EYMANOh, there's a wonderful story about Ford. One day -- this is -- I think they were on "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," or Fort Apache and Wayne was complaining about the taxes he had to pay, about the democratic -- because Roosevelt was dead and Sherman was in the White House but it was still a democratic administration. And he had to pay all this money for cigarette taxes and income taxes and all this. And Ford walked by and said, it seems to me you've been doing -- this country's been doing rather good for you. What are you complaining about?
REHMScott Eyman. His new book is titled "John Wayne: The Life and Legend." Short break, yours calls when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Here's our first email. It's from James, who says, "At the end of 'The Searchers,' John Wayne is silhouetted in a doorway. Someone once told me there was something significant about the way he positioned his arms in that scene, with one across his body grasping the other. Can you elaborate?"
EYMANSure. It's a coded gesture to another actor in the scene and to John Ford, too. One of the actresses in the scene, before they all disappear in the frame and Wayne is left alone in the doorway, is a woman named Olive Carey. Olive Carey was the widow of Harry Carey Sr., the mother of Harry Carey Jr. She was one of Ford's oldest friends. And Harry Carey Sr. had been one of Ford and Wayne's dearest friends.
EYMANAnd Harry had died some years earlier. And Harry had a characteristic gesture in his westerns that Wayne had grown up on when he was a kid in Glendale, at moments of pause or moments of contemplation he would reach with one arm over and grasp his elbow with his hand. And it's not a thinking gesture, just this kind of ruminative gesture.
EYMANAnd as Wayne stands in the doorway and looks past the camera at the people, at Natalie Wood, who he's brought back after seven years, he reaches over and grasps the elbow. And Olive Carey was standing behind the camera watching Duke, as she called him, perform the end of the movie. And it brought tears to her eyes because he was doing her dead husband's characteristic…
REHMExactly like he did.
EYMAN…gesture. And then he turns around and lets go of his arm and walks out and the door closes. It was a gesture for Olive Carey and for John Ford, who both loved Harry Carey Sr. very much.
REHMAll right. Let's go first to -- let's see if I can get this mouse working -- to Bill, in Bowie, Md. Hi, you're on the air.
BILLYes. I was in a movie with John Wayne. I was a marine sergeant in 1950, two days away from going to Korea. And they came on the base to do a movie called "Flying Leathernecks." I spent five weeks, 12 hours a day with John Wayne. And in the movie -- we were military. We couldn't have any speaking parts, but I spent five weeks with John Wayne, like I said, 12 hours a day. I have a John Wayne museum in Bowie, Md.
EYMANSo you thought a great deal of him, huh?
BILLI spent five weeks with him and he was the greatest person I ever met. He ate with the enlisted men. We played touch football. And usually when they do a movie on location they bring in a trailer. He didn't have a trailer. He hung out with the guys. And they had two tents there, one for my -- I was in charge of 14 guys. We were the real Marines (unintelligible) but in the movie we're called the Mug Marines.
BILLAnd they had a small tent set up to feed my men and a large circus tent for the studio people. And all the high-ranking military officers would bring their wives and girls down to meet the Duke and have lunch.
BILLWell, the funny part about it is about half the time they would come down and say, "Where's the Duke?" And he'd say, "Oh, he's over eating with the guys." And they were in the…
REHMWell, I thank you for those memories, very special in your own mind. Now to Patricia in San Antonio, Texas. You're on the air.
PATRICIAI have a story that I'd like to check with the author. During the '80s and '90s I owned a little hotel in Mexico. So twice a year my friends and I would stay in this hotel on a cliff overlooking Acapulco. The employees there said that John Wayne owned the hotel. Is that true?
EYMANWell, he was dead by that time. He died in 1979. He would go -- he adored Mexico. Mexico was his favorite vacation destination.
PATRICIAWell, I mean, they had the owner, and he died.
EYMANAnd he spent a lot of time down there. And he did go to Acapulco. He would go there to watch the cliff divers. It was a hangout for him and a guy he liked to drink with named Jim Henaghan, who was Gwen Verdon's first husband. So it's not inconceivable, but he had a lot of investments scattered around. And a lot of investments in Mexico and in Panama, for instance, scattered around. So it's not inconceivable.
PATRICIAApparently when he died the employees said that he left them the hotel to divide it up with them. So maybe that was not a true story.
EYMANIt might be a -- it sounds -- that part sounds like it might be apocryphal. That part sounds like it might be apocryphal.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling, Patricia. Now, to Keith, in Rochester, N.Y. You're on the air.
REHMHi, Keith. Go right ahead.
KEITHYes. The one gentleman who emailed earlier about John Wayne's military deferment…
KEITH…one of the other things, 30 days after the war ended he divorced his wife, too.
REHMIs that something that you know about?
EYMANWell, he was married three times so there were two divorces. The chronology is in the book. I don't have it in front of me, yeah.
REHMYeah. Okay. Thanks for calling, Keith. Now to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Hi, Gary.
GARYYeah, hi, Diane. This is a great show, as usual.
GARYI was very shocked to hear those comments that you made about John Wayne and what a racist he was. And after hearing them I just failed to see how anybody could have any respect for him.
EYMANInteresting question. One of the reasons I wrote the book is that he had come to be -- since his death, he had come to be viewed almost completely in political terms. If a conservative was talking about John Wayne, he was the risen Christ. If a liberal was talking about John Wayne, he was a draft-dodging, war-mongering hypocrite. And that was pretty much the end of the conversation. So I thought, well, okay. It's the 21st century, anybody who's interested knows that John Wayne was conservative.
EYMANLet's stop viewing him exclusively through the prism of our over-heated contemporary politics. And look at him in all the other roles that he played as a man. What was he like as a co-worker? What was he like as a producer? What was he like as a director?
REHMWhat was he like as a husband?
EYMANHe was -- with his first wife, who he regarded as the finest woman he'd ever known in his life, and he deeply regretted the marriage breakup, which was totally on him. He was, as he put it, "I was very young and I thought it was part of the deal when being a young actor around Hollywood." He had various and sundry, you know, brief hit-and-run relationships outside of his marriage.
EYMANAnd the marriage broke up. She was a very strict Catholic. And the marriage eventually broke up. And he regarded that as probably the biggest blunder of his life because she was a superb wife, she was a superb mother, she raised the children impeccably. And he knew that he'd blown something that he really shouldn't have done. And he knew that. And he would talk about that.
EYMANBut I thought of -- and to return to the original thing. I wanted to look at him in aspects, without necessarily viewing his every act he did or didn't do through the prism of contemporary politics. Not short-changing his life as a political creature, that's all in the book. But I wanted to see what he was like in all of the different roles he took in his life and as an actor.
REHMHe won his only Academy Award playing Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit," in 1968. Do you think that was his best role?
EYMANI think it was a great expansive, humorous, Falstaffian performance. And he didn't -- he brought everything to it he had learned as an actor in the 40 years he'd been doing it. Is it the equal of Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers," or Tom Dunson in "Red River," or Nathan Brittles in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon?" Probably not. It's in a more humorous key. It's a gentler kind of part.
EYMANBut there's something very profound about it because the John Wayne the people still put on the list of favorite movie stars, that guy succeeds because he refuses to fail.
WAYNEI mean to kill you in one minute, Ned, or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Barker's convenience. Which will it be?
MANI call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.
WAYNEFill your hands you son of a bitch.
REHMHe just really makes it come alive, doesn't he?
EYMANHe does. He does. And that's the way people like to think of him, you know. He's old, he's fat, he's past his prime, but he's got enough left for one more last hurrah.
EYMANAnd that's the way we like to think of ourselves, too.
REHMLet's go to Anthony, in Cleveland, Ohio. You're on the air.
ANTHONYHey, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
ANTHONYYou know, I just had a question regarding Wayne and Ford's relationship. I mean, given that I don't know anything about Ford's personal politics, but given that his movies had a lot of left-leaning tendencies, like "The Searchers" or "Grapes of Wrath," I was wondering how that was reconciled? Like, you know, with this kind of racist, conservative, you know, political figure.
EYMANFord's politics -- he started out as a New Deal liberal, an ardent New Deal liberal. He voted for Dwight Eisenhower as president because he knew Eisenhower from the war. They were friendly during the war. And he liked Eisenhower as a man. He voted for Jack Kennedy in 1960. So his politics -- he tended to vote for the man rather than a de facto thing. But he was certainly -- he didn't share, you know, a lot of Wayne's political leanings.
EYMANThat said, he didn't -- I talked to so many people about the political life in Hollywood, and it doesn't come up. And it doesn't really have to because you're talking about making a movie. You're talking about the character. You're talking about where to put the camera and how to play a scene. You're not really -- there's a fairly narrow focus in making a film. So you can work very effectively with people that you might be diametrically opposed to politically.
REHMBut did he ever renounce those political views?
EYMANNo, no, no.
REHMIt was fascinating.
EYMANBut the interesting thing about Wayne is, is that he would agree with a lot of contemporary conservative politics, but he would not agree with the enmity that is so often a function of our politics. Because for Wayne, the personal always trumped the political. He had numerous, numerous extremely liberal friends. He worked very comfortably with a lot of liberal filmmakers.
EYMANHaskell Wexler, who's a great left-wing director and was on the trip to Hanoi with Jane Fonda -- You can't get any more left-wing than that -- directed a lot of Wayne's commercials at the end of his life when he was too ill and couldn't get insured to do a feature, but he was still doing some commercials for Great Western Savings Bank. They were directed and photographed by Haskell Wexler. And there's great material from Haskell in the book, about a real left-wing guy working with a real right-wing guy and what it was like. And he adored Wayne.
REHMBut, you know, going back to that moment when you were there with him, as you were leaving he said something like, "I'm not such a right-wing monster, am I?"
REHMWas that something of a pulling back, you think?
EYMANHe thought the press -- he had it all -- it almost like a bull. I mean, he was an actor. He had his political beliefs. And because he embodied what frontier values and this kind of race memory of manifest destiny for decades, people would ask him about politics and he would respond. It was like a reflex action.
EYMANHe couldn't stop himself. And I think he felt that an undue emphasis had been placed, partially by him, but certainly by the press, on his feelings and that he had been quoted out of context, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But he did feel that he was an actor and what he was was a movie guy. He was a professional movie guy.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an email from Joshua, in Washington, D.C. He says, "Please explain to those of us under age 50 what is the big deal about John Wayne. Seems to me he was a bad actor, in bad parts, in bad films, and furthermore a man with repugnant political views. We don't get why some older folks nurse his memory like an old flame. What was there really to like about John Wayne?"
EYMANI don't think Joshua's seen the right movies. I don't see how anybody could look at "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," or "The Searchers," or "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," or any of the four films he made with John Ford or Howard Hawks, and say that he was a bad actor and not worthy of our attention or respect.
EYMANNow, it needs to be pointed out that Ford and Hawks would push him further and harder than he would ever push himself. That when he was working for himself for his own company or often for more submissive talents, that he would rely upon his already established persona. But every movie star does that.
REHMBut, you know, the other factor has to be that acting today is very, very different. Movies today are very, very different from the likes of which John Wayne did back then. And I think for 20-year-olds or 30-year-olds to be able to sit through a John Wayne movie might be a very different experience from what it was for me when I was 20 or 30 and watching a John Wayne movie.
EYMANWell, there's always generational differences…
EYMAN…in enthusiasm in movie stars.
EYMANSure. That goes without saying. On the other hand, Wayne has transcended his own period in a way that other movie stars of his period -- when he became a star the biggest stars in the business were Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Mickey Rooney -- late, lamented Mickey Rooney. They were all much bigger stars than he was -- Gary Cooper. Much bigger stars than John Wayne. Nobody talks much about Tyrone Power.
EYMANClark Gable's remembered for "Gone With The Wind," and "It Happened One Night," and that is all. Wayne is remembered for those 15 movies he made with Ford, the movies he made with Hawks, but he's also remembered for being somehow deep in the American grain and what he represented is also deep in the American grain. And that's why he's lasted.
REHMScott Eyman. The book, "John Wayne: The life and Legend." Thank you so much.
EYMANThank you, Diane. I've enjoyed it.
REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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