In 1975, I went down to Newport Beach, California to interview John Wayne at the rambling seaside bungalow where he had lived for ten years. Wayne promptly pumped me full of tequila, a drink I had never had before, and have never had since.
I suffered accordingly the following day.
He was sixty-eight when I met him and had just starred in a now-forgotten police thriller called Brannigan. Watching him move gracefully and comfortably through his memorabilia-filled living room, it was hard to imagine the iconic western hero in a cowboy hat, a six-gun strapped to his waist, riding a horse.
But otherwise, he was everything you might imagine: blustery, outrageous, bigger-than-life, and vastly entertaining. Out on the patio overlooking the harbor and an old wood-frame pavilion across the way, he told a story that’s in my new book about
how he used to go dancing there as a kid, laughing that these days he and the
pavilion were all that was lit up at night.
The Duke, as everyone called him, plays a small but pivotal role in my new Tree Callister mystery thriller, The Sanibel Sunset Detective Returns.
As I wrote about him, I kept seeing that moment on the patio, the Duke, wearing a blue blazer, not as tall as I imagined, and looking a bit like someone had pumped him full of air. I understood even way back then that I was meeting one of the most iconic figures in American movies, and that the moment was fleeting, and I had better mark it carefully.
Certainly it was not difficult to see the history of talking pictures standing right there in front of me. He had started out as gofer on silent films, graduated to the talkies and become the biggest star the movies ever produced. No other star made as many films or lasted as long (over fifty years) or remained so popular.
No one was quite like him before he came along, and certainly there has been no
one like him since. As someone points out in The Sanibel Sunset Detective Returns, his kind of rugged masculine individuality has disappeared from the screen.
One doesn’t want to make too much of this, but looking around, it’s hard not to conclude that it is a movie world full of Justin Timberlakes and Robert Pattinsons, instead of a celluloid universe dominated, as it was when I was growing up, by the likes of John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper, and James Stewart (my favorite, probably because I identified most closely with him).
Mind you, even as I rushed to see their movies every week (begging my mother to allow me to see Coop in The Hanging Tree, even though it was rated, gulp, adult entertainment), I was becoming aware that those veteran stars were being replaced by a new generation that included Brando, Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift, and Steve McQueen, who saw the world in a more complicated way than did my aging heroes.
Nonetheless, guys like the Duke, Fonda, Coop, Peck, and Jimmy Stewart exercised a vast influence on me as I was growing up. I wanted to be like them, and so I tried to emulate them in ways that, I believe, have served me well my entire life.
They stood strong and resolute in the face of adversity; they had a simple, unwavering sense of right and wrong, and they tended to live by a code of honesty they would not break.
Watching these rugged men go about their movie business had a tremendous effect on me at the time, and looking back, I think they actually made me a better person–or at least I tried to be that better person having had them as role models.
By the time I met him, John Wayne had become a lightning rod for protests against the Vietnam war, and his comments in favor of that war were not always insightful or even particularly articulate. His image on the big screen had suffered as a result, particularly with my generation, less interested in an aging cowboy than it was in listening to John Lennon and giving peace a chance.
Still, I must admit, I was transfixed by John Wayne that long ago night. He was who he was, and he didn’t try to hide anything–can you imagine a major star today inviting a reporter into his home and getting drunk with him? The Duke didn’t even try to hide his collection of toupees–they were laid out in wire baskets on the counter in the bathroom.
Thinking back on that long ago evening was curiously comforting as I wrote The Sanibel Sunset Detective Returns, from time to time replaying Wayne’s old movies (particularly The Searchers), marveling again at how good he could be on the screen when he was working with a John Ford or a Howard Hawks.
He gave few intimations of mortality that night, merrily holding forth with a glass of tequila in his hand. But the next day,suffering, he admitted, a monstrous hangover, he was slightly more reflective.
“Now I have yachting friends and tennis friends,” he said of his life in Newport Beach. “I try not to get caught up in a little group where–where it really hurts to lose
someone. When (silent western star) Harry Carey died, that was a great loss. I
was a younger man then, and it was a shock to find that people die.”
“But now we know they do.”
We know all too well. But John Wayne lives on, long since freed from the shackles of his Vietnam-era notoriety, his movies allowed to stand on their own, his presence on the screen in the face of the modern competition, more dominating than ever.
Sitting here writing this, I think back on how that evening at John Wayne’s house ended. Full of the booze he had poured down my throat, I abruptly turned to him as I left and blurted, “Would you mind if I gave you a hug?”
He squinted at me as though I had just tried to steal his cattle. “No,” he said flatly. And I suddenly felt as drunkenly stupid as I have ever felt in my life.
“I’ll tell you what, though,” he added, his face softening. “I’ll give you one.”
And he did.
The Sanibel Sunset Detective Returns has just become available on Amazon. To order your copy click HERE.