“Maybe I should be in a position where I don’t have to work; but I’m not.” — 69 year-old-old John Wayne, three years before his death.
John Wayne, a.k.a Duke Morrison (he was nicknamed Duke after an Airedale dog that he owned during his youth) was arguably the most popular movie star that ever lived. Yet when it came to personal wealth he trailed far behind some of his contemporaries such as Cary Grant and Fred MacMurray. In addition to bad business management and three broken marriages, some of Wayne’s financial woes were brought on by his incredibly generous nature. His goodness shone during the making of the1953 western Hondo when Wayne arranged for some private detectives, who were trailing him, to be freed from a prison in Camargo, Mexico. Never mind that Wayne’s second wife Chata had enraged him by hiring the investigators to find incriminating information to use in their upcoming divorce proceedings. The local officials in Camargo were thrilled to have the revenue generated from a John Wayne picture being made in their town and were willing to use extreme measures to keep their top tourist attraction happy, but the Duke refused to let men rot in jail for simply doing their jobs.
Unlike most celebrities John Wayne didn’t immediately dispose of fan letters asking him for money. He read each request carefully, sometimes agonizing over them, to discern their legitimacy. Duke would send complete strangers cash so they could visit sick friends, or help finance a kid getting braces. Once, while hospitalized, Wayne got to know a less-well-off fellow patient; after Duke was discharged his new friend was visited by one of Wayne’s representatives who told him his medical bills would be covered.
In 1960 a burglar found Duke’s Encino, California address with a movie star map and broke into the home while its owner was watching TV. Reacting quickly, Wayne ran down to the basement and grabbed a shotgun. He chased the crook into the backyard and said, “Hold it. I got you covered.”
He yelled to his wife Pilar to call the police, which she had already done. The robber was cuffed and about to be taken off to jail when he asked to speak to his intended victim. “Mr. Wayne?”
“What do you want, punk?”
“Well, I came here in a taxi. My driver is still outside. He didn’t know I came to rob you. Could you take care of him, Mr. Wayne?”
The Duke swore under his breath, but after the police hauled the bad guy away, John went outside and paid the cabbie.
Duke would routinely walk into bars and exclaim,” Drinks for everybody on me!” Wayne stated different reasons for his grandioseness. He needed to diffuse any potential challenge from a drunk who might want to prove his manhood. (The six-foot-four actor claimed in an interview that he was never in a bar fight, even during World War II when he was heavily criticized in some quarters for not enlisting.) Wayne also maintained that is was necessary for him to be a big tipper, lest some bartender or waiter tell a reporter otherwise, and ruin the star’s reputation. When all was said and done, the Duke was a man who loved to raise a little hell; for the most part friends remembered him as a kindly drunk. Once, Duke got totally imbibed during a poker game with animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax. Rudd mistakenly assumed that an inebriated Duke would be an easy mark; soon Wayne owned Rudd’s car and his dog. The softhearted actor felt guilty and gave back the canine; in his later years Wayne may have more easily been able to afford retirement if he would have maintained ownership of Lassie.
On another occasion Duke’s pal, entertainment journalist and unabashed liberal James Bacon (It was exclusively through James Bacon that ultra-conservative John Wayne first revealed to the world that he had lung cancer) did an expose on the biggest drinkers in Hollywood. The far and away winners in Bacon’s informal contest were John Wayne, and his fellow movie cowboy Gene Autry. Wayne later chastised Bacon for inaccurate reporting. “How dare you say Gene Autry drinks as much as I do! Why that piker couldn’t carry my ice!”
James Bacon was not the only left-winger to admire and like the Duke. Katharine Hepburn admitted she loved leaning up against Wayne when they costarred in Rooster Cogburn (1975) and was thrilled when he playfully kissed her on the lips in front of some reporters. Gossip columnist Sheila Graham couldn’t stand to be in the same room with Duke when he forcefully put forth his right wing philosophy, yet loved how Wayne went out of his way to keep old friends employed, and wistfully wondered what it would have been like to be married to him. Lauren Bacall, who expected to clash with Duke over politics, found him to be warm and friendly, and was impressed that he was one of the first people to pay respects after her husband Humphrey Bogart passed away in 1957. Mark Rydell, who directed Duke in The Cowboys(1972) was shocked that Wayne was a far nicer man than many of Mark’s fellow liberals in Hollywood. Rydell delighted in telling the story of how one night he dined with Wayne and the icon came back from the restroom with sopping wet pants. Wayne resignedly explained that it happened all the time,” Some joker is standing next to me and says Oh my God, you’re John Wayne and then he turns . . .”
In 1959 Duke managed to have a civil encounter with Soviet Union Premier, Nikita Khrushchev. The Communist leader enjoyed meeting Wayne, admired his movies, stated he rescinded the order his predecessor Josef Stalin had given to have Wayne assassinated, and later sent Wayne a giant crate full of Russian vodka for Christmas, which Wayne’s secretary had nervously opened after determining it didn’t contain a bomb. An interpreter helped ease diplomatic relations between the world’s top red and America’s screen hero. Khrushchev had laughed when he heard the translator say Wayne would buy him a drink on the day the Soviet Leader ruled America. What the Duke, far from impressed by any Communist even the head one, actually said, with a smile on his face, was,” I’m going to knock you on your bleeping ass.”