Nuanced sides of the Duke revealed
Michael Goldman’s book John Wayne: The Genuine Article opens with two prologues. The first is from Ethan Wayne, the Duke’s youngest son. The other is from President Carter, who’s long been one of the most hated political figures among the right-wing circles of which Wayne was a proud member.
If the latter author seems surprising to Wayne fans, it’s the first of many unexpected shadings that the book provides to the seemingly straightforward cowboy icon. (Upon Carter’s election, Wayne sent the new president a congratulatory telegram from the “loyal opposition” — he had sent similar missives to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as well — and he later also supported him on the Panama Canal Treaty, breaking with his friend and fellow California Republican Ronald Reagan.)
The genesis of the book came during a charity auction of some of Wayne’s personal items. Assembling the lots, Ethan Wayne stumbled upon boxes and boxes of his father’s letters, essays, speeches and articles — not to mention an abandoned attempt to write an autobiography — that mostly hadn’t been opened since Wayne’s death in 1979. Goldman pored through the archives, constructing a first-person account of Wayne’s life, all assembled into a sort of cinephile pop-up book, with replicas of Wayne’s passport, driver’s license and annotated scripts scattered throughout.
The Wayne that emerges in the book is one that might confuse those with binary views of liberals and conservatives, taciturnity and effusiveness, masculinity and femininity. Fortunately for Goldman, he also seems like a man who would have taken well to the modern age of social networking, maintaining voluminous correspondences with fans, family, friends and several decades worth of American presidents.
“He used to write John Ford letters to apologize for missing his phone calls,” Goldman notes, as well as some very funny, friendly baiting of character actor Ward Bond — “much like you might write an email making fun of your friend who got snookered last night.” He also finds examples of Wayne writing fans on topics that range from dead-serious advice (in one, he urges a teenage girl not to run away from home) to the best spots on L.A. for authentic cowboy boots (the late Nudie’s of North Hollywood).
Of course, Wayne’s defiantly right-wing politics were divisive at the time, and largely remain so today. Yet it’s likely he would have been dismayed with the sectarian nature of modern political discourse, as so many of Wayne’s closest friends (and frequent pen pals), like Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman and even mentor Ford, tended to inhabit the leftward end of the spectrum.
“There was one point where I was going through his date book from the mid-’70s,” Goldman says, “and I noticed he’s having all these lunches and dinners with (famed cinematographer and Medium Cool director) Haskell Wexler, who had never worked on a John Wayne movie before. It struck me as ironic, as Haskell was, and remains, such a fierce Hollywood liberal.”
Goldman called the 91-year-old Wexler to ask how such politically active, politically opposed men could have been so cordial during the divisive aftermath of the Vietnam War: “His take on it was both that Wayne kind of mellowed as he got older, and also that he had a healthy respect and regard for anyone who was as passionate as he was about the things he believed in. Therefore he could have a fundamental disagreement with you about something very important to him and yet still love you to death.”
More than Wayne as an actor, icon or political firebrand, the clearest side of Wayne that emerges is of an often unabashedly sentimental friend and father.
“We have this very macho image of him,” Goldman observes, “but he referred to his relationship with John Ford, for example, as a ‘very fine manly love.’ He would say, ‘I’ve never loved a fellow man as much as I love you.’ He was a very emotional guy, who poured his heart out regularly.”
Yet perhaps the biggest find of Goldman’s research was the onionskin manuscript of his unfinished autobiography with Los Angeles Times writer Wayne Warga, in which Wayne details his unlikely transition from USC dropout and stagehand to global star.
“It really has the way he wanted to tell his early story,” Goldman says. “It doesn’t always match up to what the biographies say — and it doesn’t mean the bios are wrong, but this is how Wayne wanted to present his own history.”