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Contradictions of The Duke

In his masterful (and juicy) biography John Wayne: The Life and Legend, Scott Eyman juggles the contradictions of America's most enduring movie star.

"John Wayne: The Life and Legend" by Scott Eyman.
"John Wayne: The Life and Legend" by Scott Eyman.Read moreFrom the book jacket

John Wayne

The Life and Legend

By Scott Eyman

Simon & Schuster. $32.50. 512 pp.

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Reviewed by Carrie Rickey

In his masterful (and juicy) biography John Wayne: The Life and Legend, Scott Eyman juggles the contradictions of America's most enduring movie star. 

Among Wayne's paradoxes: He was "a deeply conservative man who believed in freedom of speech," "a fierce patriot who didn't serve," and "a fine actor unwilling to step outside his comfort zone." He was also a "man with a father he adored who spent years looking for a father substitute," and "a man who loved family but couldn't sustain a marriage."

Alone among the great movie stars, Eyman writes, "Wayne dared to show us the most perilous as well as the most moving of the seven ages of man." That's a sweeping claim, but the author supports it in a book of more than 500 pages that takes the man born Marion Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, in 1907 to the one buried as John Wayne in 1979 in Newport Beach, Calif. You can call him Duke. Everyone did.

Marion was born big: 14 pounds. He got his nickname, Duke, from the family Airedale, itself named for the canine sidekick of Tom Mix, movie star of westerns. Money was tight; it would be for years.

His parents, Clyde and Mary, split up when he was 14. He stayed with his father; his younger brother Robert moved with their mother. Duke was a Boy Scout, diligent student, devoted reader, deliverer of newspapers, and a moviegoer who idolized Douglas Fairbanks. An athlete with a 94 average in high school, he received a football scholarship to the University of Southern California. At the end of Duke's freshman year, his football coach secured him and his teammates summer jobs on the Fox lot.

He worked as an extra, in the prop department, and even herded geese. On that gig, Duke met John Ford, who goaded him and soon became the surrogate father Duke had been searching for.  "He kept you on your toes," Duke said admiringly of Ford, who hired the strapping actor for bit parts. As Eyman tells it, the story of John Ford and his protégé is much like that of Pygmalion and Galatea. Their professional marriage bound them through 24 films.

But it was Raoul Walsh (The Thief of Bagdad) who rechristened Duke "a real pioneer type," and gave him his first starring role in the wagon-train western The Big Trail (1930). "Wayne" was for Revolutionary War general "Mad Anthony" Wayne. "John" gave the nom de film an Everyman quality. Eyman, sticking to the narrative that it was Ford who made Wayne, writes off Trail as "awe-inspiring visuals and often stilted acting." It would be the last A-movie Wayne starred in until 1939. For several years, Eyman says, Ford "cut Wayne dead," probably because another director cast him in a major film.

He spent the better part of the next nine years making serials and westerns at Poverty Row outfits such as Mascot, Monogram, and Republic. During this journeyman period he was making regular money and wed Josephine Saenz, his longtime girlfriend, in 1933. In seven years, they had four children.

With Ford's Stagecoach (1939), filmed among America's oldest skyscrapers, Monument Valley, Wayne came up to the majors. "Ford rode him mercilessly," Eyman says. Behind Duke's back, Ford predicted, "He'll be the biggest star ever, because he's the perfect Everyman."

He was a man's man but also catnip to women. When Marlene Dietrich walked into the Universal commissary and saw Wayne, she whispered to director Tay Garnett, "Daddy, buy me that." Garnett didn't have to. Soon Dietrich and Wayne "had quite a thing going," according to director Henry Hathaway. Their chemistry was good box office: Their three films were hits.

Wayne's rise as an actor coincided with the dissolution of his marriage and the onset of World War II, which he fought onscreen but not in life. He was not a "war wimp," Eyman writes. The actor applied for a position at the Office of Strategic Services but never received a response. Wayne wrote Ford, a commander in the Navy, for advice about what to do next. Wayne wanted a commission as an officer. It appeared he would have had to go in as a private, and he "took a dim view of that." Wayne's longtime secretary said he suffered "terrible guilt and embarrassment over his lack of service beyond a soundstage and USO tour." Eyman forgives. Many of Wayne's severest critics will remain unmoved.

Eyman comes neither to bury Wayne nor to praise him, but to understand him in all his contradictions. The actor served as president of the anti-Communist (and, some say, anti-Semitic) Motion Picture Alliance, which was responsible for the blacklist. Yet his agent Charles Feldman was a Jewish liberal, and Wayne was friends with the politically liberal Orson Welles. "For Wayne, personality always trumped politics," Eyman writes. "If he liked you, he was willing to overlook your ideology." As an actor, though, he would play only men who mirrored his own self-reliant beliefs.

    "There is always the sense with most commentators on Wayne, even the favorable ones," Eyman writes, "that his politics are regarded as an embarrassment in relation to the power of his acting." For Eyman, "Wayne's acting is not a thing apart; it is, rather, constantly informed by his politics." Wayne's "personal stubbornness and the authority of his belief system are the foundations" for his most beloved, and most obstinate, heroes, the patriarchal cattle-driver Tom Dunson in Red River (1948), the racist Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956), and rancher/shootist Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Without trying, Wayne was an actor who projected strength and decisiveness.

Eyman is a thoughtful and erudite biographer, acutely aware of his subject's strengths, weaknesses, and innate sense of honor. It's an excellent bio, and a great cultural history starring the man who embodied America's cultural dominance and sense of itself in the middle of the 20th century.