90 Minutes with the Duke
Author and historian
Scott Eyman tells the heartfelt story of his chance meeting with legendary actor John Wayne.
A true story: In 1972, I was 21 years old, living in my native Ohio, and had come to the conclusion that if I wanted to write about the movies I probably should begin talking to people who actually made them.
I started at the top – I wrote a letter to John Wayne asking for an interview. Two weeks later I received a reply from Mary St. John, Wayne’s secretary of nearly 30 years, who informed me that should I come to California she would see what she could do about arranging some face time with her employer.
Eight weeks later, I arrived in Los Angeles for the first time and called John Wayne’s office at Paramount Pictures. Mary St. John told me that her boss was shooting a TV special at CBS in a few days; I should show up around 1 p.m.
I found Wayne sitting in front of his dressing room mirror, looking rather glumly at his reflection while his makeup man worked away. He was smoking a little cigar, which took me aback – it was well known that Wayne had lost a lung to cancer eight years earlier.
He stood up, held out a hand the size of home plate and introduced himself. “John Wayne,” he said – the most unnecessary introduction of my life.
At 6-4, he was only an inch or so taller than me, but he gave the impression of a huge mass, like the football lineman he used to be. A normal sized man could have stood behind him and never been seen.
For the next 90 minutes, I sat in John Wayne’s dressing room and we talked about the movies. Although my hair was undoubtedly longer than he liked, he seemed glad to be able to talk about something besides cancer and politics. I was surprised by his manner – quiet, reflective, thoughtful. He responded to my own seriousness about John Ford, Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway with sober considerations of how they worked and how they differed from each other.
When I asked him if he’d ever read the Eugene O’Neill plays that were the basis of John Ford’s film “The Long Voyage Home,” he could have blown me out of the water for my assumption of his ignorance, but instead he simply looked at me and quietly said, “I’d been to college; I’d read O’Neill.”
The Personal Side of John Wayne
He was both the man you saw on the screen and someone else – quieter, more reflective and far more courteous than his screen image. In retrospect, the fact that he was open to spending so much time with a kid with almost no prior credentials speaks to his openness and his innate gregariousness, the flip side of which was his dislike of being alone.
When he was called to the set to go to work, he let me come to the stage with him and take some pictures, in spite of the obvious discomfort of CBS publicists. When I had to leave, he came up and shook my hand in farewell: “I hope you got what you wanted,” he said. “I’m not such a terrible right-wing monster, am I?”
There was one more meeting, on the set of his last film “The Shootist.” It was only a little more than three years later, but Wayne had aged greatly. He had been quite ill with a lung infection, and “The Shootist” had closed down for two weeks, a fact which had somehow been kept out of the trade papers, less its star became uninsurable.
Wayne looked at me and nodded in recognition, although his legendary blind spot with names would have precluded anything more specific. I watched him work in a scene in a barbershop, before which he instructed the prop man on how to do his job correctly. Wayne, who had begun his movie career as a prop man, was right.
He Was a Nice Guy, Pilgrim
I have thought often about those 90 minutes, and the kindness and courteousness a world-famous man showed to a green kid. Stimulated by the meeting with Wayne and others in those first years visiting California, I have written a dozen books in the intervening years, but I always harbored the idea of one day writing about Wayne, simply because none of the (very few) serious books about him that emerged after his death in 1979 got anywhere near an accurate portrayal of the man I met that day. None of them captured the emotional size that accompanied his physical size, and none of them noted the fact that he didn’t feel the need to dominate his every surrounding. The most that could be said about any of them was that they were accurate but not true.
The seed planted that day more than 40 years ago has finally born fruit in “John Wayne: The Life and Legend” just published by Simon & Schuster. It is, I think, an honest book, reflective of its subject’s huge strengths and equally huge weaknesses. He would have expected, and deserved, no less.
And no, he wasn’t such a terrible right-wing monster at all.