I was John Wayne’s driver

Review of John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman
Simon & Schuster, pp.512, £25, ISBN: 978439199589

I’m not making a picture [The Green Berets] about Vietnam, I’m making a picture about good against bad. I happen to think that’s true about Vietnam, but even if it isn’t as clear as all that, that’s what you have to do to make a picture. It’s all right, because we’re in the business of selling tickets. It’s the same thing as the Indians. Maybe we shouldn’t have destroyed all those Indians, I don’t know, but when you’re making a picture, the Indians are the bad guys.
– Mike Wayne, producer of The Green Berets, starring his father, John Wayne

The words above appeared in a 1968 issue of Esquire magazine above a colour drawing of Wayne’s father in blue cavalry uniform and green beret, astride a stagecoach. A tiny Ho Chi Minh is shooting arrows at him from horseback. Michael Wayne signed it for me: ‘Charlie, It wasn’t said quite like this! Michael.’ To which his father appended, ‘Oh, yes it was, Charlie! With a son like him you don’t need an enemy. John Wayne.’
One of the few errors in Scott Eyman’s fascinating biography of John Wayne attributes ‘the Indians are the bad guys quote’ to pater Wayne. Otherwise, Eyman has dug deep, trawling records including the 1907 Iowa birth certificate of Marion Robert Morrison, and interviewing most of the people who knew him and are still alive. It borders on hagiography, but for Wayne fans like myself, and probably you – that’s no flaw.
I was a fan before I worked as his driver, first in 1967–68 as an after-school job and again full-time in the summer when I finished university four years later. It may be that no man is a hero to his valet, but Wayne was one to this driver.
Wayne’s mother dropped his middle name, Robert, when her second and favoured son, Robert Emmett, was born in 1911. Marion Morrison grew up in a succession of Iowa towns, a path determined by his father Clyde’s business failures, until the family moved to California in 1914. Former drug-store clerk Clyde bought 80 acres near Palmdale, about 60 miles north of Los Angeles, for $3,000 and set himself up as a farmer.
Young Morrison rode a mare named Jenny to school, until the farm went under. The family moved to the LA suburb of Glendale and acquired an airedale called Duke, prompting the local firemen to call the boy Little Duke. The name Duke stayed long after Marion Morrison became John Wayne. Prowess at American football led to a scholarship at the University of Southern California in 1925. Coach Howard Jones sent some of his players, including tackle Duke Morrison, to work as grips at Fox Studios. Morrison also appeared as an extra in various films. One, fortuitously, was directed by an up-and-coming director who had Americanised his name from Irish Jack Feeney to John Ford. Duke Morrison injured his shoulder body-surfing, costing him his football scholarship and sending him to Hollywood as scene-shifter, prop man and occasional extra.
What should have been his breakthrough role, as a frontiersman in Raoul Walsh’s 1930 The Big Trail, was a critical triumph but a financial catastrophe. By then, Morrison had become John Wayne, a name that both Walsh and Ford claimed to have invented. Wayne descended to low-budget B-westerns. He said that ‘the best advice I ever got’ came from cowboy comic actor Will Rogers: ‘You’re working, aren’t you? Just keep working.’
He married a patrician from Panama, Josephine Saenz, in 1933 and had five children. Josie Wayne, a devout Catholic, was much admired in our parish as a loving mother untouched by Hollywood scandal. While her husband was no womaniser, his affairs with Marlene Dietrich and other actresses ultimately doomed the marriage. He next married a Mexican named Chata, whom John Ford called ‘that whore’. Although Chata livened Wayne’s sex life, she nearly bankrupted him when the marriage collapsed.
Ned Depinet, head of distribution at RKO Studios, gave an assessment of Wayne’s box-office appeal that would surprise the moguls who made fortunes from Wayne movies: ‘[We] believe it would be a mistake to distribute John Wayne westerns, which have little prospect of gaining popularity … We believe we would be better to go ahead with George Smalley.’ Although Wayne was then seventh in popularity among cowboy stars, he was the only one to hit the big time. Wayne asked his friend John Ford for better parts. ‘Just wait,’ Ford said. ‘I’ll let you know when I get the right script.’ Ford cast him as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach.
Like The Big Trail, Stagecoach received rave notices, especially for Wayne, but did not make him a star. He went back to Republic Pictures and two-reel westerns for a journeyman’s wages. In fact he never had a breakthrough. He just became more and more popular. During the war, to his later shame, he made great films while other actors were in uniform. He made the top ten for box office in 1949 and stayed there, often at the very top, until 1974. Some of the films were classics, like The Searchers, while some are best forgotten. One of the latter was The Green Berets, on which I worked.
Something that emerges in this biography, as well as in the more critical John Wayne’s America by Garry Wills, is that, in addition to being a fine actor, Wayne was a very nice guy. Eyman quotes a college friend: ‘He could have been a great football player, but he never wanted to hurt anybody.’ Tom Kane, story editor at Wayne’s production company, Batjac, told me that he and Wayne saw the actor Alan Ladd, who stood only 5′ 6” to Wayne’s 6′ 3¾”, walking towards them. Wayne hid to avoid embarrassing Ladd in front of his fans. I witnessed a similar occasion at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1972, when Cesar Romero was signing autographs. The fans looked at Wayne and forgot all about Romero. Romero, deprived of his audience, said without enthusiasm, ‘Hi, Duke.’ Wayne praised Romero and made sure the ladies knew the old Latin lover was still a big star.
Eyman relates an encounter between Carl Foreman, director of High Noon, whom Wayne and other right-wingers had helped to blacklist in the 1950s, and Wayne in a Los Angeles restaurant years afterwards: ‘The two men looked at each other, then quickly embraced as if they were old friends.’ Foreman explained to his mystified English wife, ‘He was a patriot. I was a patriot. He didn’t do it to hurt me.’ I checked this story with Foreman’s son, Jonathan, who swears it’s true. He’s another Wayne fan.
Whenever I was walking to the car with Wayne in some part of Los Angeles, people would stop him for autographs. He was happy to sign. Older men would say, ‘Mr Wayne, I joined the marines because of you.’ He would lean back as if a punch were about to follow, and the veterans would laugh.
Eyman quotes the actor Robert Walker, Jr: ‘John Wayne? I had the pleasure and honour of working with him.’ I am happy to say the same.