John Wayne in the film “Stagecoach” — 1939.
- On screen he played the action man who could be shy with women
- But off-screen he had affairs with Marlene Dietrich and Maureen O’Hara
- He had an uncanny ability to guess a woman’s dress size on sight
Pressed by a close friend during a night of heavy drinking to describe his greatest sexual escapade, the usually private and polite John Wayne eventually gave in and smiled. ‘Rome. The Excelsior Hotel. Dietrich,’ he said. ‘I took her on the staircase.’
Hardly the answer of a gushing romantic, but John Wayne — Hollywood’s iconic taciturn cowboy — was a star who made a career out of saying as few words as possible.
And, 35 years after his death, his allure still lives on. The cowboy hat worn by Wayne in six of his Westerns, including El Dorado and The Undefeated, is expected to sell for over £17,000 at a Los Angeles auction next week.
On screen, he played the action man who could be shy with women. But off-screen it was a different story, a new biography of the star reveals.
Wayne’s affair with Marlene Dietrich, with whom he starred in three films, lasted three years. His romance with longtime friend Maureen O’Hara — so it is claimed by biographer Scott Eyman in John Wayne: The Life And Legend — lasted considerably longer.
Whether he was storming up the Japanese-held beaches at Iwo Jima, defending the Alamo with a raccoon skin on his head or taking on a line of gunslingers, you almost always knew exactly what you were getting with a John Wayne film. No other star came to symbolise cherished American values as he did.
The actor was often accused of simply playing himself. That wasn’t really true, he admitted: ‘I’ve played the kind of man I’d like to have been’.
The real John Wayne — or Marion ‘Duke’ Morrison, to give him his actual name — was a genial, straight-talking and humble man whose hot temper was usually reserved for directors who crossed him.
He certainly had his flaws — heavy drinking and serial infidelity among them. But none of these weaknesses bothered Wayne as much as what he regarded as the real stain on his character — his failure to fight in World War II.
Big gun of Hollywood: John Wayne epitomized masculinity such as in the 1965 hit The Sons of Katie Elder
The screen warrior’s decision to put his career before his duty haunted him for the rest of his life. Anxious to make amends, he became a flag-waving, Right-wing patriot who alienated liberal Hollywood, says Eyman.
Wayne epitomised rugged masculinity in his roles and that was certainly no act. A pharmacist’s son whose promising American football career was cut short by injury at university, he worked as a film studio prop man until a director spotted the cinematic potential of his good looks and 6ft 4in frame.
John Wayne in The Searchers
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Even as a star, he sought out the rough-and-ready company of stuntmen, who taught him how to ride, rope a steer and twirl a Winchester rifle.
Wayne may have been a man’s man, but he had a feminine side. He possessed an uncanny ability to correctly guess a woman’s dress size on sight. If they were friends, he loved to pore through clothing catalogues and order them outfits he liked.
Photo Caption: Actors John Wayne and Mexican film actress Esperanza Baur applying for marriage license in Los Angeles, Calif., 1946. Source: Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library. Copyright Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
John Wayne in “Hondo”
Catalogues were his favourite reading matter after the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and Winston Churchill, the latter an idol of Wayne’s whom he could quote ad nauseam.
Sons of Katie Elder
The actor’s on-screen characters rarely stayed with a woman for long before saddling up and riding into the sunset. But, in real life, he had three wives, all of them of the trophy variety.
Wayne’s stunned friends considered each of them wildly unsuitable for a man who loved nothing better than a game of chess and a passionate debate about politics.
Walking the walk: The star told a friend he ‘took’ Marlene Dietrich on the staircase of a hotel
His first wife, Josephine Saenz, was a Panamanian businessman’s well-heeled daughter. She was a convent-educated, strict Catholic who refused to use contraception, and Wayne’s friends believed she withheld sex once they got to four children.
Not that he was faithful but, his pals insist, he was not as compulsive a womaniser as most Hollywood leading men. Wayne ‘would occasionally stray but he always felt so guilty about cheating on Josephine he usually broke it off as quick as he could’, said old friend Paul Fix.
In August 1941, while visiting Mexico, he met Esperanza ‘Chata’ Baur. Wayne would say he preferred Latin women because they liked the ‘simple things’ such as marriage and family.
John Wayne and Patricia Neal in Operation Pacific
But friends were horrified when he fell heavily for Chata, the ‘courtesan’ daughter of a brothel keeper who had blotchy skin and an even heavier drinking habit than Wayne’s.
The actor had soon installed her in Hollywood with a non-existent job at his film studio.
But he was also having an affair with Dietrich at the same time. Film director Tay Garnett had introduced the German actress to Wayne in 1940 as a possible co-star with her in the aptly-named film Seven Sinners.
After eyeing Wayne up, Dietrich whispered in Garnett’s ear: ‘Daddy, buy me that.’ When she invited Wayne into her dressing room, he asked nervously: ‘I wonder what time it is?’ For reply, she lifted her skirt to reveal a garter with a watch attached. ‘It’s very easy, darling. We have plenty of time,’ she purred.
They hardly tried to hide their affair: whenever Wayne arrived on set, Dietrich — six years his senior — would leap into his arms and wrap her legs around him.
Mrs Wayne had tolerated his previous dalliances, but the combination of Dietrich and Chata proved too much. She asked an Irish priest to visit their home and counsel her straying husband.
Although Wayne converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, the intervention wasn’t appreciated at the time. According to Wayne’s daughter-in-law, the actor later told her: ‘I was a young man, I thought [infidelity] was part of the contract.’ Wayne’s chauvinism was one of his less endearing qualities.
The Waynes divorced, and when suggestions of her coldness in the marital bed were made in court, she pointed to their four children as evidence to the contrary. ‘Yeah, four times in ten years,’ drawled Wayne.
His 1946 marriage to Chata, who barely spoke any English, was another disaster. Their sex life was everything he could ask for but she had a vicious temper. Once, when she was drunk she gouged his face, leaving him with an ugly gash on his cheek.
Screen legend: But Wayne’s 1946 marriage to Chata, who barely spoke any English, was another disaster
Her equally alcoholic mother moved in with the couple and Chata was soon complaining loudly that the workaholic Wayne was only in love with ‘thee beezness’ of making films. The stress of their relationship caused him to lose weight dramatically, while her drinking accelerated.
Duke — as he liked to be called — finally called time on his marriage to Chata when, one day in May 1952, he sat on their bed lacing his shoes and noticed a Hilton Hotels jacket pin on the floor.
He realised it belonged to Nicky Hilton, the hard-partying hotel heir and, until the previous year, husband of Elizabeth Taylor.
But in the divorce court, Chata accused Wayne of having an affair with actress Gail Russell while they were shooting a film.
He hit back, telling the court that after Nicky Hilton had spent a week at his house, he had found a sheet of paper on which his wife had doodled how her name would look as the new Mrs Hilton. After making the upsetting discovery, ‘I went into the bathroom and vomited’, said Wayne.
A second heavy divorce payout didn’t deter the hopelessly sentimental star from getting wed again. He met wife number three, Peruvian beauty Pilar Palette, while scouting filming locations in Peru for his blockbuster The Alamo. She swiftly divorced her husband and moved to Hollywood with Wayne.
When she became pregnant while he was still technically married to Chata, Wayne didn’t hide the fact that, if she had the baby, the scandal would ruin his career. She had an abortion and, she admitted later, it ‘almost destroyed’ her.
Life didn’t get much better for her when they married. Permanently stressed by the huge cultural shift from Peru to Hollywood, she became addicted to sleeping pills.
Hallucinating one night while on location with Wayne in Louisiana, she slit her wrists. The workaholic Wayne, typically, hired nurses to accompany her back to California but stayed on to make the film.
They had three children together but separated after 19 years, and Wayne became romantically involved for the rest of his life with his former secretary, Pat Stacy.
Lothario: John Wayne, pictured right with actress Lana Turner, did try his best to be a family man, say some
Wayne ‘tried to be a family man and mostly succeeded’, insists Scott Eyman. However, one of his biggest failures on the fidelity front, according to friends, involved the Irish actress Maureen O’Hara.
They became good friends and starred together in three films, including The Quiet Man. She has denied any romance, but a close friend of Wayne told Eyman they had a ‘long’ affair before and during his marriage to Pilar Palette, and would meet at Wayne’s Arizona ranch.
Robert Mitchum’s son Christopher — who worked with them both — claims Wayne was ‘truly in love with that woman’. Asked why they never married, he said: ‘Because Maureen was strong and tough . . . He married women he thought he could control. Then he found out he couldn’t.’
World War II was career gold for Wayne, who made 13 films during the conflict, exploiting the lack of competition for roles as other actors enlisted. He was exempted from the call-up due to his age, 34, but older stars such as Henry Fonda and Clark Gable enlisted anyway.
Eyman is unconvinced by the various excuses that Wayne and his family have made for his military cop-out over the years, such as his large number of dependants and a recurring ear infection.
Wayne told friends he wanted to serve and was interviewed personally by the head of the OSS [Office of Strategic Services], the forerunner of the CIA. But even then, Wayne stressed he had three films he needed to make first. He didn’t even bother much with entertaining the troops or working at the Hollywood Canteen, a club for servicemen where stars volunteered to wait, cook or clean.
Although servicemen forgave their favourite star as he churned out a string of patriotic war films in later years, his family and friends say Wayne felt ‘terrible guilt and embarrassment’ over his lack of military service.
‘For the rest of his life, Wayne would compensate by being as much of a red, white and blue patriot as the most ardent Marine, slaughtering freedom’s enemies on the screen,’ says Eyman.
John Wayne with wife Pilar and children, Aissa, Ethan and Marisa in the late ‘60s.
Dogged by cancer — he used to smoke six packs of cigarettes a day — Wayne was a very sick man by the time he made his last film, The Shootist, in 1976. He was still bullying directors and protecting his screen image, insisting he had never shot a man in the back in more than 250 films and wasn’t about to start now.
He died aged 72 in 1979, having endured years of pain that became so excruciating at one point he implored his son to hand him his .38 revolver so he could end it all.
Hollywood’s great and good — even those who had hated his die-hard conservatism — trooped to Duke’s hospital bed. Almost all left in tears, stunned by the uncomplaining courage of one of the silver screen’s most iconic superstars.
John Wayne: The Life and Legend, by Scott Eyman, is published by Simon & Schuster at £25.
“Deathbed Conversions” features John Wayne and others. By Karen Edmisten.
John Wayne in the film “Greatest Story Ever Told”
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