He was ugly, strong, and had dignity — Uncovering John Wayne’s hidden treasure
Entertainment journalist Michael Goldman revisits a sampling of salient archival discoveries pertaining to American original John Wayne in an exclusive interview debuting today.
Nearly 40 years after the Duke succumbed to stomach cancer at the UCLA Medical Center, Ethan Wayne, the cowboy’s youngest son, granted Goldman access a few years ago 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 .
New York Times Bestseller status arrived in short order for John Wayne: The Genuine Article , 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 larger-than-life individual.
Get comfy as Goldman reveals the outrageous story of the “Fighting Seabee” riding an armored tank into Harvard Square to receive the Harvard Lampoon’s inaugural Brass Balls Award, whether the actor attended an Elvis Presley concert, his musical appreciation for costar Glen Campbell, how his children contributed to The Genuine Article, whether the legend’s archives should become a museum, and what the writer would have asked the icon if their paths had intertwined. That merely scratches the surface.
The Michael Goldman Interview
Is it accurate to define your role as a biographer?
Co-winner of the prestigious 2014 Will Rogers Gold Medallion award in the “Western Biographies & Memoirs Category,” a lot of the reviews and notices have called The Genuine Article a biography and me a biographer, and it’s not really that in the classic sense. There’s not a technical term. I’m the guy who got to go into the archives, snooped around, and read all John Wayne’s stuff [laughs]. In other words, I explored his personal life and world.
I went past the icon and the world-famous movie star to learn what his personal story was. If you’re going to use the term “biographer,” maybe I’m the biographer of his personal side in that sense. I’m not telling the story that’s already been told — I’m telling the story that’s not been told.
What is it like to be a normal guy under the constant, unrelenting glare of international fame to the point that you can’t even go to the hardware store without being mobbed? That was the constant dichotomy in his life, and that’s what I tried to explore.
His surviving children told me how they would resent it when they would go out to the supermarket or be eating a steak dinner. He would be bothered, and it would really bug them. He’d tell his kids, “Knock it off. These are the people who pay our bills.” He had a wide respect for the people who supported his movies and admired him.
Before you began John Wayne: The Genuine Article, had you written anything about the actor?
Not in-depth. I’m a trade journalist. I have written for many years about filmmaking, and I was the former senior editor at Millimeter Magazine, a long-respected film trade journal, which is now defunct.
In 2007 I wrote a technical article about the digital restoration of the 3D print of Hondo , which remained unavailable to the public for at least 40 years. The movie is owned by the other side of the family — Michael Wayne’s widow, Gretchen — because she inherited Michael’s assets — i.e. the Batjac production company.
At some point in time Gretchen decided to have the 3D version of Hondo restored, and I interviewed her for an article titled “Return of the 3D Duke.” You might say that was my initial introduction to writing about John Wayne’s film career.
I made an acknowledgment in The Genuine Article that I was particularly grateful to Wayne Warga, one of my journalistic ancestors, so to speak, whose material I discovered in the archives. Warga had attempted to help Duke write his aforementioned biography, which was later scrapped.
Warga did the kind of work that I had been doing in the last several years in an entirely different era. He had all kinds of material that I would have wanted to generate had I worked with or interviewed Duke, but by the time my journalism career started, Duke had just passed away actually. Even though I never met Warga, I was grateful for his work, and I thanked him in my acknowledgments.
Duke’s attempt to write his own biography was unknown to most people, including Duke’s family, and had not seen the light of day for over 40 years. That archive material also helped inform my approach to writing Duke’s early story the way he intended to tell it.
How did John Wayne: The Genuine Article originate?
It came about in a bit of a roundabout way. I had done history stuff related to Hollywood icons, and I did a book on the history of the USC film school in 2009 called Reality Ends Here: 80 Years of USC Cinematic Arts. It was commissioned by the university in commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the school and had a forward by George Lucas.
By the time I published Clint Eastwood: Master Filmmaker at Work three years later, Insight Editions — the publisher of the USC book — had been talking to Ethan Wayne about doing a book featuring the John Wayne Enterprises Archive. Ethan Wayne was naturally concerned that they have the right author. Insight suggested my name, and Ethan asked to meet me around the start of 2012.
The publisher called me and said, “Would you like to meet Ethan? They’ve got all John Wayne’s stuff down there in the archives.” I replied, “They’ve got all John Wayne’s stuff?” “Yeah, just about.” “Sure, who wouldn’t want to check out all of John Wayne’s stuff?” [laughs].
On the trip to meet Ethan I remember having a few concerns: ‘What would the book be like? There have been so many biographies. Is it going to be yet another one? Does Ethan want to do some sort of sanitized, cookie-cutter thing praising how great his dad was?’
My concerns were completely unfounded. I was pleasantly surprised because Ethan gave me almost no restrictions beyond the general guideline that it be a personal book about the guy he knew as his dad.
Ethan said that anything we discovered could go in there as long as it was in some way relevant to who the guy really was and not a tangent or a distraction from the main point of the narrative. We clicked in that regard because that was the sort of thing that I wanted as well.
Once Ethan gave me the approval and once I could make a deal with the publisher, the project was greenlit. Since I live in Los Angeles and the archives are in Laguna, I had to go down there about twice a week and comb through materials. Ethan’s team would photocopy the documents I was interested in using and send me home with a thumb drive containing watermarked PDF’s.
After the first few trips and some conversations with Ethan, I eventually worked up an outline that was not a strict biographical tale, but rather a narrative of subjects chapter by chapter that were of interest to Duke — things he cared about that we could largely tell in his own words or through the words of those who knew him closely.
We started with Duke’s early story and then segued into his development of his show business career, rise into a star, relationships, family and kids, vacations, life on his beloved Wild Goose yacht, love of the Old West, business ventures, involvement in politics and national affairs, love of the military, battle with smoking and subsequent fight with cancer, and then we circled back to a biographical ending — Duke’s final days.
After each trip, I’d go through the new material, pull out stuff, update my outline, and keep writing whatever sections I felt I had enough material for. It was a non-linear, ongoing process. I’d research one section while writing another. Later I’d return and adjust or edit earlier material and so on for many months.
Has Ethan told you what convinced him that you were the right person for the job?
I think the initial meeting gave him a comfort level, Nevertheless, Ethan had to select somebody. He couldn’t have a perfect level of certainty any more than any of us could on anything until you actually see some work.
He got even more comfortable after he saw some early work. When I wrote the introductory chapter, I pulled out some material from Warga’s notes in which Duke had told Warga on the set of The Cowboys an anecdote about Ethan.
Ethan had been on Easter vacation visiting the set, and Duke decided to let him stay there an extra week even though school was back in session. Warga asked, “Why isn’t the kid going back home for school?”
Duke replied, “I have two older sons — Michael and Patrick. When they got to be close to 18, they kinda went away from me. They didn’t really come back until they were about 30 — grown men. I’m a lot older now, and I’m probably not going to be around when Ethan is 30. I have to love him now.”
Which was indeed the case — he died when Ethan was 17. I discovered Warga’s note relating the story, and I quoted it in the introduction. Ethan was very touched because his dad had said this about him, and he didn’t know until forty-odd years later.
He told me that’s when he knew that I understood that this was a personal book, I was on the right track, and I wasn’t trying to do a biography. I was trying to do a personal book, and Ethan felt very comfortable that he had made the right choice with me. At a couple of the book signing events, he publically told people that I took really good care of his dad.
How much input did the Duke’s other children have in the project?
I interviewed all his surviving children except for Aissa who declined to participate in the project. According to her brother, she never explained why [Aissa did publish her own memoir, John Wayne: My Father, in 1991].
Everyone else was great and gave me great interviews, as did his wife Pilar, who he separated from, but never divorced. She is Ethan’s mother.
Patrick, Duke’s oldest surviving child, was invaluable because he gave me the deepest and most important insight into Duke’s youth, mother Mary Morrison, brother Robert Morrison, and first marriage to Josephine Saenz.
Melinda, Duke’s daughter from his first marriage, was also great. At the time she was not in the greatest health. She was suffering from emphysema and later, after the book was published, she ended up having a lung transplant. I’m told she’s doing really well. She gave me some wonderful anecdotes about being in high school when her dad was famous.
Marisa was amazing. She is only four years younger than Ethan. She talked about being a little girl on the movie sets with her dad. She realized that she might lose him as a young girl. The anecdote about her hitting Duke in the head with a golf club while filming Rooster Cogburn was priceless [laughs].
They were all helpful, but I really dealt with Ethan most intimately. Patrick would be the guy that I would go to if Ethan didn’t have the answer. Everyone was supportive of the project.
Many books about Duke have been written by professional journalists, and then there were some from people who cobbled together stuff from magazine articles, hangers-on who might have worked for him for an hour or visited the Wild Goose, family members…everyone has their own plan and reason for doing things. A highly publicized biography was released in 2014 — John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman — that the Wayne family was not formally involved with.
The Genuine Article was meant to be Duke telling his own story. That’s why the only interviews we did were with family members, plus one of the guys who worked a long time on the boat by the name of Bert Minshall, who knew Duke very well. Minshall traveled with him on vacation on the Wild Goose and often took care of Duke’s kids.
Terry Leonard, one of the stunt men who worked with Duke for years on the movie sets, added quite a bit. We also have comments from filmmaker Ron Howard about working with Duke during his final film, The Shootist. In other words, people who knew him intimately in his own environment.
There were a couple of others that we wanted to talk to, but they were too old or frail or otherwise unavailable, like Maureen O’Hara — she since passed away on October 24, 2015, but was alive when I did the book. We also tried to arrange an interview with character actor Harry Carey, Jr., for years the lone surviving member of director John Ford’s stock company. Unfortunately, he passed away in December 2012 and was in no shape to do an interview in the weeks preceding his death.
The goal was not to inform the book from their point of view. It was only to use them to fill in the areas where we needed a perspective other than Duke’s or where we didn’t have his comments.
There was a treasure trove of unexplored research just waiting at their feet for decades.
If you read my introductory chapter in the book, I explain a little bit about the archive run by John Wayne Enterprises, what was in there, and why it hadn’t been explored until now. For many years the archive and John Wayne Enterprises were controlled by Michael Wayne.
After Michael passed away in 2003, the family eventually put Ethan in control of it. However, it took a number of years for them to look around and realize much of the archive had not been examined since Duke’s death in 1979.
The family eventually went through the material more than it ever had been, and a few years ago they pulled some material out for a charity auction. That mainly involved possessions, not documents.
There was a certain percentage of documents that had been out in the ether before. Biographers and others discovered letters that he had written to famous people, like various presidents, so those letters had been found in their respective archives.
Things that people wrote to Duke and his copies of letters that he wrote to people had simply been set in boxes, however. Those documents had never been foraged through.
In fact, Ethan tells the story about how when his dad passed away, Michael Wayne and the executors of the family packed up the whole house. Ethan was living there, and Duke was separated from Ethan’s mother, Pilar. Paperwork and anything that wasn’t pressing at that moment were thrown into the boxes.
Many of them were not opened until the last few years. Some not even until I got there. Some were labeled but many weren’t until the John Wayne Enterprises team started examining them in recent years when Ethan decided they had to start being catalogued.
Like, ‘What’s in here?’ ‘Oh, this is a box of letters from Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan. This is correspondence on the Panama Canal Treaty, The Alamo, or The Green Berets.’ Things like that. No one had really dug all the way through these historical letters from Duke.
On the bottom of one of them was the manuscript on onion skin type paper. As I mentioned, Duke had attempted to write his own biography with Wayne Warga, who was a well-known journalist and author of that era.
Over at a library at USC, there were Warga’s own papers, including some of Warga’s notes from that project, as well as notes from his attempts to put together his own book after Duke’s death recalling his friendship with the actor.
Duke’s biography manuscript begins with his early years. It’s very useful because it informed my take on how Duke wanted to explain his early life. The biographers — some of them were schlocky, some of them were credible — had written that story before, but it had never been in Duke’s own words. Some of these documents correspond almost identically to what they had written, and some of it does not.
It suddenly ends rather dramatically when Duke finally becomes a big star in Stagecoach . I was like, ‘Why? What happened to the rest of the biography?’ I couldn’t figure it out until I traveled to USC and researched Warga’s notes.
Duke called Warga and told him he didn’t feel he had an ending for his own story, so the biography was called off.
Duke had been separated from his wife, Pilar. He was still working, having some financial setbacks, and starting to get ill. Duke didn’t really have the time, energy or desire to look back. He was looking ahead to what he was going to do next. He couldn’t settle back and retire. He still had obligations, stress and issues in his life. Duke simply wasn’t up to telling the rest of his story.
The set of The Shootist was the last time that Warga and Duke saw each other. By then Duke had already called the biography off, but I’m not sure of the exact date. It would have to be researched more completely, but I think Warga was attempting to shop a book proposal around when he got sick. Probably at that point he had bigger fish to fry — Warga succumbed to cancer in 1994 at age 56.
Were there any other published biographies that you used in compiling The Genuine Article, or did you focus specifically on documents from the archive, Warga’s account, and your exclusive conversations with the family?
I tried to stay away from the published biographies from outside journalists and others that were out there because of the fact that Ethan’s only real mission statement to me was that he wanted the book, as much as possible, to be in his dad’s own voice.
I didn’t want to be overly influenced by other biographers. There have been a lot of them, including Scott Eyman’s tome, done after my book was published — again an outside look in at his life as so many others have done already. I didn’t want their voice. I wanted Duke’s voice, and that’s what Ethan wanted. So, I stayed away from them.
I only flipped through one, in fact, and that was John Wayne: American by Randy Roberts and James S. Olson . That was only when I wanted to look up a name or some data to see if it corresponded to something that I found, and also because, as near as I could tell, they were the only biographers who interviewed Duke’s longtime secretary, Mary St. John, who was responsible for keeping copies of his correspondence, managing his datebook, and so on. When I wanted to know a bit more about her, their book was helpful in a couple places, although her relationship with Duke was mostly obvious to me by reading correspondence between them from when he was traveling. Mary was the primary person who kept Duke updated not only on how his office was functioning, but also events at home, when he was on the road. I didn’t read John Wayne: American cover-to-cover until after I completed my manuscript.
That was the reason why John Wayne: The Genuine Article was not meant to be a “biography” in the classic sense, although it has some biographical elements. If you read the book, the biographical elements are really the beginning and ending of the book.
I noted in the introduction that it was meant to be told in his voice according to the way he wanted it told. I purposely didn’t get into the discussion of whether this is the more factual way it all went down or the way the biographers have written about some of these episodes. We’re simply saying this is the way Duke wanted to say it.
A small example would be the classic story when he had his football scholarship to USC. The story always went that he suffered a body surfing accident in Newport Beach and separated his shoulder.
That’s what led to him losing his scholarship and why he ended up becoming a prop man at Fox Studios which led to his film career. If you read his manuscript, he doesn’t mention the body surfing accident.
Instead, he reveals at some point that he broke his leg playing football. He didn’t lose his football scholarship right away. He started working at Fox part-time during the summer and then eventually chose to quit school as the Great Depression was dawning. He needed a job.
We’re not saying one is right or the other one’s right — we’re saying that’s how he wrote it. Even Ethan and oldest surviving son Patrick thought the body surfing accident was true. It may be in fact the story, but that is not how Duke wrote it when he was attempting to tell the story.
The other biographical section is basically the ending of the story where he gets sick, goes to the hospital, and succumbs to stomach cancer. Marisa discussed seeing him shortly before his death on June 11, 1979.
Marisa talked very personally to me about how her father, shortly before the end, expressed to her his regrets that he wouldn’t have the opportunity to be at her wedding, since she was only 13 years old at the time. Personal things like that are what permeate the book.
How would you describe the contents of The Genuine Article to someone who has never read it?
The book’s format isn’t linear, movie by movie, or year by year. The format was based on what we found in the archive. That’s important to distinguish. It’s meant to be more about subjects that were important to him.
His family, boat, vacations, relationship with John Ford — obviously the motion picture industry. Not just in terms of being a movie star, but in terms of the work and the effort he put into it, his love of the industry, how he developed his Western persona and learned onscreen fighting technique — riding, roping, guns, stunts, etc.
His great interest in American fighting men, the Wild West, politics, and relationship with important people and conservative causes. How he broke with conservatives on the Panama Canal issue and befriended President Jimmy Carter, who wrote the foreword of the book.
His relationship with his fans and the infrastructure that he built so he could always correspond with them. His sensitive side and how he often took things very personally. How he wasn’t always that successful in money ventures. How he never could lick the smoking habit despite years of trying and the loss of a lung in 1964. Those were areas that we wanted to cover.
What are some of your favorite discoveries in the archive?
Of course, I focused on the documents. I could go on and on about some of the letters…the John Ford ones were amazing. Some of those had been read before because they came out of the Ford archive. Duke affectionately called him “Coach.” He adored Ford, who was his mentor and whom he initially hoped to emulate as a film director himself, as he wrote in his aborted biography. I found three different letters from three different time periods where Duke wrote Ford for the express purpose of apologizing to him for not returning his phone call, believe it or not.
There were letters between Duke and numerous notable political figures — i.e. Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan, who he called “Ronnie.” Lots of goofing around and stuff like that.
I also enjoyed those letters, and there’s an anecdote in the book about his trip to Boston to promote the movie McQ in January 1974. He was invited by the Harvard Lampoon to debate the liberal kids at Harvard University who challenged him and his conservative ideology.
They were intent on mocking him, but he stepped up to the challenge and rode into Harvard Square on an armed personnel carrier that the National Guard provided him. These kids asked him questions, and he good naturedly goofed around with them.
There’s letters where he later wrote to Jim Downey, president of the Harvard Lampoon at the time. Downey later became a celebrated writer on Saturday Night Live beginning in 1976. Duke wrote the kid that he had really enjoyed the experience and had a blast.
His daughter Melinda told me that he was really invigorated by that event and that rather than deflating those kids for being liberal punk kids, he stated that he really admired them for being interested in national affairs and for having a sense of humor. He was already having heart trouble at that point, and I was told it greatly lifted his spirits.
There was also a letter sent to the head of the local National Guard thanking him for the ride in the armored personnel carrier. Duke also mentioned that he had heard a rumor that he was in trouble because it was not official business. Duke felt really bad about that, and that if there was anything that he could do to get the guy out of trouble, to let him know.
There were letters between Duke and Lloyd M. Bucher, the commander of the USS Pueblo, which was the ship taken over by the North Koreans in 1968 — and we have an anecdote in the book about this. That was a controversial event because the commander surrendered the ship and had allegedly talked to the North Koreans.
Duke stuck up for the guy — he didn’t want him court martialed. When they invited him to a welcome home party for the crew, Duke not only attended, he ended up paying for the party. There are letters and pictures regarding that party in the archive, among other things.
He also wrote Barbara Walters to get off Patty Hearst’s case. After all, the young lady had been kidnapped and abused. Those letters were quite interesting.
Although Duke has been criticized for some controversial public interviews and comments, his private letters always have a sense of seeking to be fair to people, whether or not he agreed with them.
He tried to write people to get jobs for folks in need, he debated politics with people he disagreed with and then expressed the hope they could have dinner soon and wished their family’s well — those sorts of things.
One guy wrote him asking about the first time he smoked. Duke replied that he broke apart a firecracker and tried to smoke the gunpowder. It was god awful, but he kept smoking anyway. There were lots of letters like that.
But when people wrote begging him to speak publicly against smoking, Duke refused, declaring that no doctor had proven to his satisfaction that smoking had been the cause of his lung cancer in 1964. However, he conceded that it was a ‘filthy’ habit.
Duke was often asked by fans for medical advice or prayers. He refused to give medical advice but was always giving prayers and well wishes and telling people to hang in there, that they could survive as he did in 1964 if they just toughed it out and refused to give up.
Duke’s movie costumes are in the archives, and his truck is there also. It used to belong to Patrick, and he gave it to Ethan who had it refurbished. It’s this gorgeous, vintage Ford pickup. I thought it was quite interesting that they had retained booze people had given him in crates. Even an old 1970s coffee maker was the same one my dad had.
But, of course, my primary interest was the documents. And I must say that there was so much material in there that we could easily go back and do a second go-round someday. It was quite interesting to be able to personally read so much history and then bring some of it to the public arena. I had a great time doing it.
The Duke proudly expressed his patriotic feelings on the spoken-word America, Why I Love Her, released on RCA Victor in February 1973. The album remained on Billboard for 16 weeks [№66 Pop, №13 C&W] and later received significant rediscovery during the aftermath of September 11th. Did you uncover any particular albums that he kept in his record collection?
I did not discover anything about his musical interests. I think there were some vinyl albums on shelves near some of Duke’s book collection. With our time so limited my focus was very much on documents more than other possessions.
Given Duke’s friendship with Sinatra and other Rat Packers and his age range, no doubt their kind of material was in the realm of his tastes. I know when they cast Glen Campbell in True Grit, Duke did not know Glen’s music at all. However, his daughter Aissa did.
Duke liked Glen instantly when they met and didn’t care that he had no acting experience at the time and pushed for him to be cast. So Duke was pretty open minded about some things.
Did you uncover any material pertaining to Elvis Presley? Los Angeles hairstylist and Presley confidant Larry Geller states in his book, If I Can Dream, that the Duke was in attendance at Presley’s November 30, 1976, concert in Anaheim, California. Incidentally, Patrick Wayne was introduced by Presley from the Las Vegas International stage on August 24, 1969.
I really didn’t find much on Elvis, beyond a picture or two at some event or another where many celebs were present including the two of them. No mention that I can recall of that 1976 concert, but again, there is more material there than I went thru in depth. It’s entirely possible that Patrick knew Elvis better than his dad, but you would have to ask Patrick about that. I know that Patrick knew George Harrison and other Beatles at one point.
You uncovered a June 12, 1970 letter from Steve McQueen to Wayne. On his way to Europe to begin filming the troubled Le Mans, the King of Cool regretted that he had missed the elder actor’s phone call and thanked him for inadvertently supplying him with a year’s worth of Baskin-Robbins ice cream. The “take it slow” hippie signoff is priceless. How would you characterize their relationship?
That was the only letter I found but there could have been others. I didn’t get too deep into asking about McQueen with Ethan or Patrick. Obviously they knew each other but I’m not sure what that letter may have been about.
Duke was in the habit of writing other big time actors to ask about projects or to see if they were interested in things together so there may have been something there, but that is conjecture on my part.
McQueen’s reply and joke illustrates they had a friendly relationship though and both were known for their humor. But beyond that, I don’t know much more unfortunately. Those were not topics that were major areas I learned about in my research.
Is the John Wayne Enterprises archive organized?
They continue working on organizing the archive and going through documents to this day. It’s an ongoing project. Bits of the material gets pulled out from time-to-time to be used in various issues of the John Wayne Collector’s Edition magazine that you can buy in supermarkets, book stores, drug stores, and other places — a publication I have contributed to and been quoted in a couple of times.
But there is so much material down there, and John Wayne Enterprises has a modest staff and a lot of other projects going on, primarily revolving around their fundraising work in Duke’s name, so that material won’t be fully examined for a long time to come yet.
A large part of their work is whatever products they create or partnerships they have. A percentage of whatever revenue they create goes to the John Wayne Cancer Foundation or other projects to fight cancer. Also, they travel extensively doing events for the family — mainly cancer research. The exact status of the archive, though, is a question you should probably ask the team at John Wayne Enterprises.
Would you like to see the archives become a museum?
Possibly. John Wayne Enterprises’ goal is not necessary to profit as much as to raise money for cancer research because that was Duke’s dying wish. They want to preserve his stuff, though, for posterity — he was obviously a major historical figure.
It wouldn’t be a giant museum. The costumes, guns, hats, truck, stuff from the boat, books, magazines, and certain documents would be interesting for certain types of exhibits, but I have no clue at all whether that’s something that’s going to happen. Some of his possessions, of course, are at various Western heritage and Hollywood museums and in other collections around the world.
What are you currently writing?
I’m pretty busy with a couple of new book proposals out there since I co-authored a filmmaking textbook for first-year film students a couple years ago called Filmmaking in Action. I am a regular contributor to American Cinematographer magazine, CineMontage magazine, do a monthly filmmaking podcast for the Studio Daily website called “Podcasts from the Front Lines,” write a monthly technical newsletter for the Society of Motion Picture Television Engineers (SMPTE), contribute to Ventura Boulevard magazine, and a few others.
But, of course, I’m never very far away from Duke’s orbit — you can find me contributing most months a column to the John Wayne Journal blog at the John Wayne Enterprises website, where I periodically reminisce about writing John Wayne: The Genuine Article and periodically dig into Archive documents or other research materials that didn’t make it into the book.
Why is the Duke still a pop culture phenomenon nearly 40 years after his untimely death?
I’m no pop culture expert, but obviously certain icons in certain categories live on past their eras and their initial audiences. The Beatles, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth, etc. John Wayne falls into this category.
One reason, I suppose, is saturation. Duke starred in so much media, and so much of it was, and continues, to be replayed on television, in syndication, in theaters, in home video, on the Internet, and to be covered in books and magazines in various forms. So, logically, large volumes of people see and hear about the individual, and encounter them at some point, even decades after their death.
In Duke’s case, growing up, many people of younger generations no doubt have a parent or grandparent or uncle or aunt who was a fan, had some memorabilia, watched the movies with them, told them stories, etc.
The sales of The Genuine Article indicate this — it made the New York Times Bestseller list, and they greatly used social media to help market it. Obviously Duke’s original generation of fans are older and not the primary social media users. But their kids and grandkids are, and they were buying and sharing the book.
It remains on sale, I’m happy to say, and since it is not time sensitive, continues to do pretty well, especially around holiday time, events in Duke’s life, Father’s Day, and other big occasions.
So, like many things, I suppose it starts at the end of the day with family. If the icon was appreciated significantly at one level or another by one generation or another, that appreciation, to one degree or another, gets passed down.
If you had had the opportunity to meet the Duke, what would you have asked him?
The answer is far different now that I have researched and read his materials and written The Genuine Article than it would have been before I got involved with this project.
Before I got involved, my questions would have been more typical, more pedestrian: Why the love of Westerns? Where did you acquire that interest? What was it like being recognizable everywhere you went, never being able to travel privately, etc.
Now that I’ve done this project, though, I suppose my questions would be far different. Based largely on my interest in politics and national affairs, I probably would have asked him how he was able to enjoy such deep and abiding and personally satisfying personal relationships with people with whom he fundamentally disagreed on key issues, including with his best friend, John Ford.
I would probably have asked his advice on how to separate the passion for issues from the passion for people, since Duke seemed to do that so successfully. We could certainly use that advice in today’s polarized political climate.
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