He was ugly, strong, and had dignity — Uncovering John Wayne’s hidden treasure

Jeremy Roberts
27 min readJan 11, 2017
John Wayne, then a strikingly handsome 46-year-old star, is captured during the June 1953 filming of “Hondo” in Camargo, Mexico. The image accompanied a Look magazine article entitled “Big John,” and the 3-D movie, a first for Wayne, had began shooting on May 28, 1953. Photography by Maurice Terrell / Shorpy Historical Photo Archive

More than 40 years since John Wayne succumbed to stomach cancer at the UCLA Medical Center, entertainment journalist Michael Goldman revisits salient archival discoveries pertaining to the Duke. Ethan Wayne, the cowboy’s youngest son, granted Goldman access to a treasure trove of personal letters and rare documents, most of which had accumulated dust in unopened boxes hastily packed away in the hectic days following the naturally gifted actor’s tragically unfair demise. The only edict from Ethan — craft a portrait harnessing his dad’s own words.

Not a traditional biographer per se, but rather a self-professed “guy who got to go into the archives, snoop around, and read all John Wayne’s stuff,” Goldman first earned good notices for his searing portrait of Clint Eastwood: Master Filmmaker at Work [2012].

New York Times Bestseller status arrived in short order for John Wayne: The Genuine Article [2013], a lavish coffee table book documenting the venerable cowboy’s life and career. Passages taken from an unfinished memoir that the Duke started and then halted in the early ’70s, and which sat, typed on onion skin paper, undiscovered for decades at the bottom of a box until Goldman found it as he rummaged through the Wayne archives, provides an authoritative account in John Wayne’s own words of his life and career up to Stagecoach.

Featuring a foreword by none other than President Jimmy Carter, envelopes within The Genuine Article contain full-page reproductions of correspondence — sometimes salty, always riveting — between the prolific letter-writing Duke and his legion of fans, U.S. Presidents, director John Ford, the president of the Harvard Lampoon, and Steve McQueen, among others. An amusing letter from the King of Cool thanks his buddy for inadvertently supplying him with a year’s worth of Baskin-Robbins ice cream. Documents, including the actor’s birth certificate, various passports, drivers’ license, and marriage certificate illuminate his fascinating life and career.

For a gentle giant who humbly stated in a 1970 interview that his tombstone should bear the Mexican epitaph, “Feo, fuerte y formal” — roughly translated as “he was ugly, was strong, and had dignity” — The Genuine Article serves as a fine tribute to a…

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Jeremy Roberts

Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ something fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net