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Why was/is John Wayne still such a star? Scott Eyman shares his insights

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Acclaimed, bestselling Hollywood biographer Scott Eyman presents an engaging, revealing, and fully rounded portrait of one of America’s most enduring and controversial film icons in John Wayne: The Life and Legend (Simon & Schuster, $32.50). Drawing on unpublished materials, exhaustive research, and more than a hundred interviews with Wayne and many of his closest colleagues, friends, and family members, Eyman separates myth from fact as he chronicles the full sweep of Wayne’s five-decade career, and with it, a large part of the history of Hollywood itself.
Here, a conversation with Eyman about Wayne.

What drew you to John Wayne as a subject?
Two things. First, I was lucky enough to spend 90 minutes interviewing him in his dressing room at CBS, where he was shooting a TV special in 1972. He was gracious, thoughtful, kind and intelligent, and I was a green 21-year-old kid. He was a long way from his public persona. And secondly, in none of the books that were written about him after his death could I find the man I met. To conservatives, he was a demi-god because of his politics, and yet to liberals he was a fool and a hypocrite because of his politics. I wanted to get beyond all that to the actual human being, who existed in a realm that didn’t always include politics.

The subtitle of your book is “The Life and Legend”–how was his private life different from his public persona?
He was not the indomitable life force he played on the screen. He had a difficult childhood without any money or love from his mother, which marked him in all sorts of ways. He was quite idealistic, always willing to put his money where his mouth was in terms of his political philosophy, which in turn cost him a great deal of money over the years. He loved domesticity, but had difficulties sustaining a marriage; he was passionate about his country but never served in World War II. Contradictions make for interesting characters.

You interviewed Wayne before his death. What was that like?
One on one, he was immensely likeable. He loved making movies, loved everything about the actual process, which many find a trifle boring - all that waiting around. He was a demon chess player, not quite tournament caliber but very strong and aggressive. He knew literature, had a surprising gift for interior decoration, and loved nothing more than to shop out of catalogues (when he was a child, the height of luxury for an impoverished boy on the edge of the Mojave desert was the Sears Roebuck catalogue). I remember being stunned by the fact that he was smoking small cigars during our interview, this from a man who had lost a lung to cancer only eight years before.

Wayne was a star football player in high school and college. How did he transition into show business?
He was a star football player at Glendale High, and got a football scholarship to USC, which was the only way he was going to get into college – there was no money for tuition. After two years, he destroyed his shoulder in a surfing accident. He couldn’t block anymore, and since he was a lineman, he wasn’t of much use to the team. He lost his scholarship and went to work at Fox full time. He became part of John Ford’s crew, and was spotted by Raoul Walsh, who liked the way he looked and moved, and cast him in his first starring role in “The Big Trail.”

Wayne faced criticism for not serving in the military during World War II. What did you learn about why Wayne didn’t enlist?
He attempted to enlist in the OSS, but Wild Bill Donovan couldn’t see him fitting in. The rejection galled him. Republic, Wayne’s movie studio, kept filing exemptions for him, and he accepted the resulting deferments. (President Roosevelt had given the movie industry a heavy exemption from the draft for reasons of propaganda; almost every star and director who served in the war enlisted, because they weren’t going to get drafted.)

What did you learn about Wayne’s personal life, particularly his three marriages?
In his younger days, he was pretty randy, destroying his first marriage through his infidelities, including a long-running affair with Marlene Dietrich. He felt guilty about that marriage for the rest of his life, always calling his first wife, “the finest woman I’ve ever known.” In later years, he kept to his vows, but couldn’t manage to sustain the marriages, mostly because of his choices in women. As Harry Carey Jr. would say, he never married a woman that could be a good friend. Once the passion wore down, there was little to sustain the relationship.

Why do you think John Wayne remains one of America’s favorite movie stars so long after his death?
He was so completely American in his looks, his attitudes, his beliefs, and he didn’t shy away from infusing his characters with his own strong personality. As a result, even though he played many different kinds of men, from the surpassingly gentle to the terribly cruel, people have a mistaken idea that John Wayne was somehow uncomplicated, which was far from the case. It was my job to investigate the image and how it related to the man I met.

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