From Marion Morrison to John Wayne—the roots of an icon in the making.
Written by Constance Dunn
When people saw young Marion Morrison walking around the town of Winterset, Iowa, it’s likely they would call him “Duke.” That was the name of a family dog, and it also become a nickname for the lad—one that would last the duration of his life and become synonymous with John Wayne the Star, as he became known around the globe. Born Marion Robert Morrison in 1907, Wayne was the son of Clyde Leonard “Doc” and Mary “Molly” Morrison, née Brown. He also had a brother, Robert, who was four years younger and lavished with his mother’s attention. When Robert was born, his mother borrowed her eldest son’s middle name to name her youngest; Marion’s middle name was then changed to Mitchell after his paternal grandfather, a Union soldier in the Civil War.
Finances were often shaky in the Morrison household. Father Clyde was a sometimes pharmacist who undertook different career ventures, including farmer and pharmacy store owner, that more often than not, didn’t pan out. Marion’s career longevity, based in disciplined hard work and preparation, along with a conscious adherence to what film audiences really wanted to see, were perhaps rooted in making sure such wavering conditions were not replicated in his own life. Determined and independent, no matter how modest their home life or how scant resources might be, Mary was sure the boys were always well-groomed and presentable. She was also active in local politics, which may have also planted a seed in young Marion, whose personal activism, from politics to cancer prevention, started in early adulthood and lasted until his passing in 1979.
It was Clyde’s health that ultimately called the family out West when Marion was 4 years old. The family eventually settled in Glendale, California, and that’s where he attended high school, a place where his athleticism and resolute work ethic propelled him to star football status. This early accomplishment would serve as a crucial first foothold of success for Marion, since it earned him a football scholarship to nearby University of Southern California (USC)—a place where he would meet his first wife and lay more of the groundwork on his way to becoming John Wayne.
To see more of John Wayne by the decades, visit the John Wayne: An American Experience exhibit at the Fort Worth Stockyards in the National Historic District of Fort Worth, Texas. Located in the Historic Exhibits Building on the corner of Exchange Street and Rodeo Plaza at 2501 Rodeo Plaza, Fort Worth, Texas, 76164. Open 7 days a week from 9AM to 6PM.
Photographs courtesy of JWE. On the home page: Marion Morrison with his brother Robert and family dog.