Duke: Family Man, First and Foremost
By Michael Goldman
Thanksgiving is family time, of course. Such occasions were particularly important to John Wayne. The annual Thanksgiving cattle sale and turkey dinner he presided over at his beloved 26 Bar Ranch in Arizona for many years remain etched in the minds of surviving family and friends to this day. But, in fact, few topics were closer to his heart than his own family, and the importance family plays in keeping one’s personal compass heading true north. This is not just a general observation. I learned this first hand in 2012 while digging through boxes of Duke’s personal papers doing research for the book, John Wayne: The Genuine Article, and came across a pad of notes written by the late journalist Wayne Warga—notes from an interview with John Wayne on the set of The Cowboys in 1971. I was struck by one observation, in particular, and showed it to Ethan Wayne, Duke’s youngest child. Ethan, then a youngster, had been present on the set of The Cowboys at the time.
Warga wrote that he asked John Wayne why he was letting his son miss an extra week of school following Easter vacation to hang out on set with his dad. Duke replied, “Ethan’s nine and I want to be with him. He’ll be fourteen before I know it and something happens. They start to drift away and they don’t come back until they’re thirty. At thirty, they realize what fatherhood is. My oldest boys are in their thirties now, and they’ve come back. But with Ethan, I won’t be there when he’s thirty, so I’ve got to love him now.”
His prediction was correct—John Wayne died when Ethan was just 17. Ethan had never seen the note, was deeply moved, and wrote about it in the preface to my book. It precipitated a section of memories from Ethan and three of his surviving siblings about family moments, values, and life lessons imparted from their dad. For Duke’s kids or grandkids, John Wayne, family man, is the one who dominates their memories. For them, Duke wasn’t much different than any other dad, just more famous. He never stopped teaching, setting expectations, showing appreciation, having fun, and providing for his clan. That is the John Wayne they all will be remembering this Thanksgiving.
Marisa Wayne, for instance, might be thinking of the dad who could, occasionally and with some justification, get ticked off over one offense or another, and feel the need to initiate a consequence or two for her actions. But typically, Duke would be exceptionally quick to forgive, telling her to “get over here and give me a hug. He wasn’t one to let things stew for hours,” she recalls.
Ethan remembers countless lessons in responsibility. “If you were on the boat, there were chores. If you were on location, there were chores,” he says. “If you wanted to ride a horse, you had to take care of it.”
Melinda Wayne Munoz insists this was all just par for the course. What dad wouldn’t be, as she says “very interested in our behavior,” as John Wayne was? “And he always expected us to get good grades,” she emphasizes proudly.
Still, John Wayne was a fun dad. Marisa fondly remembers the many times when “he and I would get in the station wagon and stop at Orange Julius on the way to play Skee ball at the Bay Arcade” [in Newport Beach].” And, of course, Duke routinely took his family on vacations on the Wild Goose, leading to unforgettable adventures.
Aissa recalled fondly a fishing trip in Alaska, and getting into “a helicopter that could land in water. Dad and I would suit up in long fishing pants and fishing wardrobe and take the heli up, and land on untouched lakes filled with salmon. We would walk out knee deep in the water and throw out our lines, and fish would bite, one after another.”
On extended trips to shoot movies, Duke sometimes took all or part of the family with him, and moved them into temporary homes on location to keep them close. Once, while filming Brannigan in England, he rented a big house for the family in London, and Marisa remembers a practical joke he played on her sister while living there.
“He put [Aissa] and her friends on the top level, saying [the house] was haunted,” she recalls. “In the middle of the night, he would go up there and move stuff around and tilt paintings on the wall, to make it look like there was a ghost doing all this. She would come tearing down the stairs, telling us all of this, and he’d just roll his eyes, saying she was imagining things. Then, he’d give me a quick wink.”
Such memories exist because John Wayne saw to it. But they didn’t just revolve around vacations. Simple family dinners were particularly important to John Wayne because, according to Ethan Wayne, “meals are what brought us all together.”
And so did holidays. Ethan remembers Duke’s passion for home decorations every Yuletide season, for instance. “He really got into it,” Ethan recalls. “A tree decoration was something fun that we all did together. He would buy the old-fashioned foam you would spray on windows, and go through many cans, getting it to look like it snowed outside our house.”
The point to these tales is to contextualize the fact that John Wayne really was a family man first—a married father working to support four kids as he entered his 40’s by the time he hit stardom. His priorities were set long before he ever became an international star, and never wavered. His wife, Pilar, has said “he always wanted his family around him.” His daughter, Melinda, insists “he taught us to love our family and keep them close.” And his oldest surviving son, Patrick, points out that, to John Wayne, “values were a pretty basic thing. Loyalty, trustworthiness, true friendship—those are key elements in any successful relationship. He always believed that.”
As you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner this year, these are values that might be worth contemplating. And so might the advice John Wayne said he learned from his father, Clyde Morrison, over the years. “He told me to always keep my word and never insult anybody. And he told me not to go around looking for trouble.”