Happy birthday to my friend John Wayne
Iain Johnstone celebrates the centenary of the ‘Duke’ and recalls a memorable holiday off the Mexican coast with the toupee-less Hollywood legend Had he lived, John Wayne would have been 100 on Saturday. I knew him. In the spring of 1976 he invited me to go on holiday with him on the Wild Goose, his converted minesweeper. The plan was to cruise up the Pacific coast of Mexico.
He told me to go to the Acapulco Hilton and he would call me when the ship was ready to sail. It was a heady time in Acapulco: Howard Hughes, who had been bed-ridden in the penthouse of the Princess Hotel, was rumoured to be dying and there was a chase on as to whether the Mexican police could get the body and the death duties or whether Hughes’s henchmen could smuggle it out of town. They did.
My chum Alan Riding, the New York Times man in Mexico, had flown down to cover this and there was the usual mordant humour among the American and Mexican correspondents at dinner: ‘Howar Hugh?’ ‘Very well, thank you.’ Duke — as he insisted I call him — invited me over for a lunch of lobster and Chablis and I told him what had been happening. ‘I’m surprised anybody can have a friend who works on the New York Times,’ he growled, ‘left-wingers.’ It was a form of joshing I was to get used to over the next week and, indeed, he relented and told me that Bosley Crowther, the legendary NYT film critic, was the first to give him credence as an actor.
I had almost failed to recognise Duke when I came onboard; for the first time in our seven-year acquaintance he wasn’t wearing his toupee and his uncapped brow anchored him firmly in his 70th year. Once when I had been filming him at the Hasty Pudding Club in Harvard a student had shouted, ‘Mr Wayne, is that real hair?’ ‘Yes, it’s real hair,’ Duke assured him. ‘It’s not my hair, but it’s real hair.’ He had been fond of Howard Hughes, who had employed him at RKO in the 1940s. Wayne confided that Hughes would fly him down to Mexico in his plane where the star had a ‘casa chica’ (love nest). The two men were united politically by a shared lack of affection for ‘goddam commies’.
There were eight of us on the cruise: Wayne’s three youngest children, Marisa, Aissa and Ethan (named after his character in The Searchers), his PA (Pat), my PA (Marcia) and his chum, Danko. Plus the captain and crew.
When Duke showed Marcia and me to our cabin we were somewhat surprised to find it had only a double bed — we were not romantically involved — but I suppose he thought that all real men slept with their PAs. He certainly did. As it happened, the nights on the Pacific were so warm that most of the younger people slept on deck.
Danko and Duke played poker in the evenings and consumed industrial quantities of tequila, something he encouraged me to do with the reassurance, ‘It doesn’t hurt your head but it sure as hell hurts your back because it makes you fall over a lot.’ One night we put in at Zihuatanejo (the dreamed getaway in The Shawshank Redemption) for dinner with a friend of Wayne’s in the mountains. Duke decided to entertain us on the journey with surprisingly good imitations of ‘your fellow countryman’ Cary Grant. He then did an impression of Grant singing ‘Mad About the Boy’ which he insisted was his favourite song. When Marcia and I tried to persuade him this was a Noël Coward number, he insisted we were wrong and neither of us felt inclined to prolong the argument.
The next morning I was awoken by a roar from Duke: ‘That’s what happens if you don’t keep your cabin tidy.’ He had flung a small pair of pink pyjamas into the Pacific. Little Marisa, who was only ten, boldly dived in to retrieve them. Fortunately the ship was at anchor at the time.
But, for the most part, he was in good humour, regaling us with stories of ‘Pappy’ Ford, his undoubted mentor. When they were in County Galway making The Quiet Man, Ford called ‘cut’ at the end of a scene and the crew prepared to move on. But the Irish actor, Jack MacGowran, wasn’t satisfied with his performance as Ignatius Feeney in the take and asked Mr Ford if they could do it again. There was an audible hush but the legendary director agreed. ‘Did you prefer it that time, Jack?’ Ford asked MacGowran afterwards. ‘Much better,’ he pronounced. ‘Well, you can have it to keep,’ said Ford, opening the camera and handing the unprocessed footage to the Irishman.
It was on the same film that a Time reporter overheard Wayne say to his co-star, Maureen O’Hara: ‘Maureen, you’ve got to give it some more, it’s your big moment.’ ‘Dook, I was going 50-50,’ she replied. ‘No,’ he insisted, ‘it’s your scene, you take it’ but, as he turned away, the reporter heard him mumble ‘if you can.’ I arose early on our last day at sea as we were being invaded. Ten Mexicans in uniform, armed to the gills, boarded us and resolutely took up position on the deck. ‘Who are they?’ I whispered to the captain. ‘The drug squad.’ It did seem to me that the person least likely to be smuggling drugs back to the States was John Wayne. I was correct. ‘They’ve just come to get his autograph,’ the captain assured me.
I first met Wayne in February 1969 in Durango in the north of Mexico. He and the director Henry Hathaway had bought a ranch with a fine view over the valley there to shoot The Sons of Katie Elder in 1965, and Wayne returned to make Chisum. I had seen a preview of True Grit back in London and it seemed his Rooster Cogburn might at last win him an Oscar. So I went to film him for a BBC documentary.
On the day I arrived he was telling the director, Andrew McLaglen, that he refused to do a scene where he eavesdropped on a young couple — although it was clearly a relevant plot point. I asked him why. ‘John Wayne would never do anything mean or petty or small,’ he informed me.
He had an acting rulebook of his own, such as breaking up his sentences with an inserted caesura so the audience would wait for the point or draw attention to himself in the background of a scene merely by cracking open his rifle to see if it was loaded.
That first night he asked me to dinner and personally barbecued the steaks. ‘These Mexican steaks are really tasty,’ I said. Duke drew himself up to his full six foot four. ‘These steaks came from the United States of America.’ As, indeed, did he. Like no American before — or since.