John Wayne: The Life and Legend

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9781439199589: John Wayne: The Life and Legend

Drawing on interviews that author Scott Eyman conducted with John Wayne before his death and more than 100 interviews with the actor’s family, co-stars, and close associates, this revelatory biography shows how both the facts and fictions about Wayne illuminate his singular life.

John Wayne was one of Hollywood’s most famous and most successful actors, but he was more than that. He became a symbol of America itself. He epitomized the Western film, which for many people epitomized America. He identified with conservative political causes from the early 1930s to his death in 1979, making him a hero to one generation of Americans and a villain to another. But unlike fellow actor Ronald Reagan, Wayne had no interest in politics as a career. Like many stars, he altered his life story, claiming to have become an actor almost by accident when in fact he had studied drama and aspired to act for most of his youth. He married three times, all to Latina women, and conducted a lengthy affair with Marlene Dietrich, as unlikely a romantic partner as one could imagine for the Duke. Wayne projected dignity, integrity, and strength in all his films, even when his characters were flawed, and whatever character he played was always prepared to confront injustice in his own way. More than thirty years after his death, he remains the standard by which male stars are judged and an actor whose morally unambiguous films continue to attract sizeable audiences.

Scott Eyman interviewed Wayne, as well as many family members, and he has drawn on previously unpublished reminiscences from friends and associates of the Duke in this biography, as well as documents from his production company that shed light on Wayne’s business affairs. He traces Wayne from his childhood to his stardom in Stagecoach and dozens of films after that. Eyman perceptively analyzes Wayne’s relationship with John Ford, the director with whom he’s most associated and who made some of Wayne’s greatest films, among them She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers. His evaluation of Wayne himself is shrewd: a skilled actor who was reluctant to step outside his comfort zone. Wayne was self-aware; he once said, “I’ve played the kind of man I’d like to have been.” It’s that man and the real John Wayne who are brilliantly profiled in Scott Eyman’s insightful biography of a true American legend.

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About the Author:

Scott Eyman has written fifteen books, three of them New York Times bestsellers, including John Wayne: The Life and Legend. His most recent book is Hank and Jim. He has been awarded the William K. Everson Award for Film History by the National Board of Review. He teaches film history at the University of Miami and lives in West Palm Beach with his wife, Lynn.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

John Wayne: The Life and Legend PROLOGUE


The scene had a problem, and the problem was the gun.

Dudley Nichols’s script was specific: “There is the sharp report of a rifle and Curly jerks up his gun as Buck saws wildly at the ribbons.

“The stagecoach comes to a lurching stop before a young man who stands in the road beside his unsaddled horse. He has a saddle over one arm and a rifle carelessly swung in the other hand . . . It is Ringo . . .

“RINGO. You might need me and this Winchester. I saw a coupla ranches burnin’ last night.

“CURLY. I guess you don’t understand, kid. You’re under arrest.

“RINGO (with charm). I ain’t arguing about that, Curly. I just hate to part with a gun like this.

“Holding it by the lever, he gives it a jerk and it cocks with a click . . .”

John Ford loved the dialogue, which was in and of itself unusual, but the introduction of the Ringo Kid needed to be emphasized. Ford decided that the shot would begin with the actor doing something with the gun, then the camera would rapidly track in from a full-length shot to an extreme close-up—an unusually emphatic camera movement for the period, and an extremely unusual one for Ford, who had grown to prefer a stable camera.

Since the actor was already coping with two large props, Ford decided to lose the horse. He told his young star what he was planning to do: “Work out something with the rifle,” Ford said. “Or maybe just a pistol.” He wasn’t sure.

And just like that the problem was dropped in the lap of his star, a young—but not all that young—actor named John Wayne, better known to Ford and everybody else as Duke.

Wayne ran through the possibilities. Every actor in westerns could twirl a pistol, so that was out. Besides, the script specified a rifle cocked quickly with one hand, but later in the scene than what Ford was planning. In addition, Ford wanted him to do something flashy, but it couldn’t happen too quickly for the audience to take it in. All the possibilities seemed to cancel each other out.

And then Yakima Canutt, Wayne’s friend and the stunt coordinator on the film, offered an idea. When Canutt was a boy he had seen Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. As the overland stage raced around the arena, a messenger trailing behind the stagecoach had carried a rifle with a large ring loop which allowed him to spin the rifle in the air, cocking it with one hand. The crowd went wild. Canutt said that it had been thirty years ago and he still remembered the moment. More to the point, he had never seen anybody else do it.

Wayne sparked to the idea, as did Ford, but first they had to make it work. Ford instructed the prop department to manufacture a ring loop and install it on a standard-issue 1892 Winchester carbine. After the rifle was modified, Wayne began experimenting with the twirl move as Canutt remembered it, but there was a problem—the barrel of the rifle was too long—it wouldn’t pass cleanly beneath Wayne’s arm.

The Winchester went back to the prop department, where they sawed an inch or so off the end, then soldered the sight back on the shortened barrel.1

With that minor adjustment, the move was suddenly effortless. Wayne began rehearsing the twirling movement that would mark his entrance in the movie he had been waiting more than ten years to make—a film for John Ford, his friend, his mentor, his idol, the man he called “Coach” or, alternately—and more tellingly—“Pappy.”

With any luck at all, he’d never have to go back to B westerns as long as he lived.



It’s the late spring of 1939, and you’re sitting in a theater watching Stagecoach. It’s a western, not the most admired genre, and the cast is made up mostly of reliable character actors. But the reviews have been more than good, and John Ford has already achieved a measure of fame among critics and moviegoers.

The first couple of minutes have already told you this is a movie made by filmmakers at the top of their game—precise, emphatic compositions, perfect editing that never leaves a shot on-screen for less time than it needs to be understood, unforced exposition that expertly delineates seven major characters inside of twelve minutes.

The story is basic. Seven strangers are crowded into a stagecoach, leaving a town called Tonto, heading through Indian territory to a town called Lordsburg. The seven people are traveling for seven different reasons, and the characters are deliberately contrasted in a way that goes beyond local color. A whore has a counterpart in a mousy, pregnant military bride; a pompous banker is balanced by a shady, dangerous gambler who can accurately gauge everybody’s bad character, especially his own. Likewise, there is a meek little whiskey salesman who has to fend off a raucous alcoholic doctor.

There is also a sheriff, a bluff, hearty man who seems to believe in appearances. And there is one other character we are told about but don’t immediately meet: an outlaw lurking somewhere out there, beyond Tonto, beyond civilization. He has escaped from jail, and he too needs to get to Lordsburg, for a private mission of revenge, a mission that the sheriff has pledged to prevent.

This collection of balanced opposites, the “respectable” confronted with the “disreputable,” populate the stagecoach, the vehicle through which John Ford will assert the moral equality of the outcast and restate his claim for the western as the seminal American film genre.

The picture is eighteen minutes old when we finally meet the Ringo Kid. There is a gunshot off-camera, there is a location shot of the stagecoach quickly pulling up. Cut to a tall, lean man standing against a process background of Monument Valley with a saddle draped over one arm and a rifle in his other hand. The camera rushes in as he twirl-cocks the rifle with one hand.

If you look at the rifle, it seems to be a tiny bit short, but nobody has ever looked at anything but the actor’s face. Midway through the camera’s rapid track-in, it loses focus for a half a second, then comes to rest in a huge, sharp close-up.

It is a good face—handsome but not pretty, assertive but not bullying. There are two beads of sweat coursing down his cheek, although whether that is a detail of character that Ford wanted or a result of the pressure of synchonizing a complicated physical movement with a complicated camera movement is lost to time.

The camera gazes for a few long seconds on the face, letting us examine the blue eyes that photograph gray on black and white film, the shadow on the right side, the suggestion of sweat on the brow, the strength of the features. As the camera lingers, the intimidating aura of the Ringo Kid as outlined by the other characters dissolves. What we see is not a dangerous outlaw but a boyish young man in bold relief—a gentle but resolute character.

The actor leaps off the screen in a way the character doesn’t in the script, and in a way the actor hadn’t in his previous movies. This is an actor you have probably seen before, in one movie or another, but never like this, never showcased with such elemental force. John Wayne has been around the movies for more than ten years, first as a prop man, occasionally as an extra, then fronting a great widescreen spectacle of early sound that lost a great deal of money.

Cast into oblivion by that film’s failure, he made his way through the Depression with large parts in tiny films and tiny parts in large films. Before Stagecoach, he has appeared in more than eighty movies—some good, most bad or indifferent.

But with this scene—no, with this moment—looks, temperament, talent, part, and presentation collide and unite. The audience sees, truly sees John Wayne for the first time.

“We are not a culture that readily associates ‘beauty’ with ‘manly,’ ” wrote the critic Michael Ventura about this moment, “but this face has that combination and something more: . . . an awareness of wilderness, a sense that here is a man meant to move in great spaces. That’s vague, but that’s the best I can do. Whitman has a line in ‘Song of the Open Road’: ‘Here a great personal deed has room.’ ”

To put it more bluntly: this is less an expertly choreographed entrance for an actor than it is the annunciation of a star. John Ford is telling us that this man warrants our attention in a way that transcends the immediate narrative of the movie.

For the next forty years, John Wayne continually proved Ford’s point. The literary theorist Roland Barthes wrote that “Mass culture is a machine for showing desire,” and successive generations desired John Wayne in a way shared by no other star of his generation.

This was . . . curious. Wayne was thirty-two years old when he made Stagecoach, and still possessed a youthful aura, but that was replaced by other things as he aged and expanded—from reminding people of their brother or son, he gradually assumed a role as everyone’s father, then, inevitably, as age and weight congealed, everyone’s grandfather.

None of that made much difference to his audience. For twenty-five out of twenty-six years—1949 to 1974—Wayne was in the list of top ten box-office stars. In nineteen of those years, he was in the top four. Thirty-five years after his death, he was still listed as one of America’s five favorite movie stars. (The others on the list, Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise among them, had the considerable advantage of being alive.)

Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, and Gary Cooper were all much bigger stars when Wayne began his ascent, but they have largely receded into the past. Wayne became more than a movie star for his time; rather, he became indivisibly associated with America itself, even if it was an America that was dead by the time he was born, and he was personifying a folklore easier to locate in the nineteenth century than the twentieth.

Stagecoach was a picture that could and in fact did fall apart several times before it finally got made, and it got made only because of the determination of John Ford, who believed in John Wayne more than John Wayne believed in himself. Ford was born John Martin Feeney in Maine in 1894, and by the time he met Duke Morrison in 1926, Ford—he took the screen name of his brother, the actor Francis Ford—had been directing movies for ten years and had already made his first great film: The Iron Horse.

In the succeeding years, Ford was drawn by the young man’s inexhaustible energy, his willingness to do anything asked of him. For Duke Morrison enthusiastically adopted the perpetual challenge of a big man with ambition—to do everything better, harder, longer than anyone else.

“On every picture, there is at least one day when nothing seems to go right,” Ford said. “When things are going wrong, Duke is a mighty fine man to have around. He will run half the length of the valley to tell the second unit that we are planning to shoot another take. He rarely asks a man to do a job he can do himself.”

Other co-workers concurred, and valued Wayne for his willingness to extend himself far beyond the limited portfolio of an actor. “I’ve seen him put his shoulder to a location wagon that was stuck,” said the cameraman Bert Glennon, “or hold a pair of shears and a comb for a hairdresser when she had to make a hurried change on one of the characters.”

This never changed. Thirty-six years after Stagecoach, he made The Shootist, his last movie. The scene: a dying gunfighter named J. B. Books goes to a barbershop.

As Wayne settled himself into the barber chair for the scene, a prop man began to cut thin strands of fake hair and arrange them around the perimeter of the chair. Wayne and Alfred Dennis, the actor playing the barber, began to run their lines. Wayne stopped and watched what the prop man was doing.

“That won’t work,” said the star.

“Sir?”

“You’re not cutting off enough hair. The camera is ten feet away. It won’t read the little hairs that you’re cutting off. Give it to me.”

Wayne grabbed the prop hair and scissors and began chopping off giant hunks of hair, four and five inches long, throwing them around the barber chair. Rationally, these chunks would come from a man with shoulder-length hair, but Wayne knew that when it comes to movies, the eye is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what the lens sees.

The young prop man didn’t know that Wayne began his career as a prop man, and wasn’t about to lower his standards. In all the reviews and analyses of the picture then and later, the huge hunks of hair at the bottom of the barber chair always go unnoticed.

John Wayne always knew what the camera would see; he always knew what the audience would believe.



John Ford was profoundly Irish in every possible way, and his character was accompanied by an assortment of more or less symptomatic demons. He was defensive, in total control of his art, if not his life, and he was some sort of genius. “He was talented, and he was intolerable,” was the succinct opinion of Maureen O’Hara.

Andre de Toth, a director whom Ford promoted, said, “He was not a social person. He kept to his boat, to the studio, and to his Jack Daniel’s. There wasn’t a lot of dialogue in his life, and there wasn’t a lot of dialogue in his movies.

“He was making motion pictures. He was sure of the art he wanted to make, but not much else. People put up with Jack Ford for one reason: he always told you what he thought was the truth. That’s what you see in a Ford film: honesty.”

In contrast to the largely impenetrable and essentially solitary Ford, Wayne had few obvious demons. He drank—but never allowed it to control his life or interfere with his work. He smoked incessantly, ate what he wanted, enjoyed the company of women, adored the company of men. He was like his mentor in one way only: he invariably said what he thought.

Ford had bought Ernest Haycox’s original story for Stagecoach in 1936 and circled the idea of making his former prop man the star of a western. After flirtations with a couple of other actors, he made up his mind: Duke would be the Ringo Kid.

“It isn’t enough for an actor to look the part and say his lines well,” said Ford. “Something else has to come across to audiences—something which no director can instill or create—the quality of being a real man.”

Wayne embodied one other quality Ford needed: “He was the only person I could think of at the time who could personify great strength and determination without talking much. That sounds easy, perhaps. But it’s not. Either you have it or you don’t.”

Like all excellent directors only more so, Ford was a manipulator, a man capable of thinking on three or four levels at once, and he enjoyed Wayne because the actor was completely different than he was. Wayne was a creature of spontaneity, with a bubbling enthusiasm for every new project and for life itself, and little interest in the contemplation of mistakes, of roads not taken. The most important movie of Wayne’s life was always the next one.

“Duke has always been able to enjoy life . . . to swallow and digest it in big, unchewed pieces. Depending upon the circumstances, he can be a roughneck, or a perfect gentleman. He’s my boy, always has been; always will be.”

Just before they began production on Stagecoach, John Ford took the young man aside and told him that he had a great future ahead of him.

He had no idea just how right he was.

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