The Cowboy and the Columnist, or Joan Didion ♥ John Wayne

Back when she was a regular Post contributor, author Joan Didion had a chance to meet one of her childhood heroes. The result was "John Wayne, A Love Song."

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A recent Harris poll gave the names of America’s ten most popular movie stars. Every actor on the list was alive and working—except for the one who hadn’t made a movie since 1976: John Wayne. It didn’t surprise the pollsters; Wayne has made this Harris list every year since 1964. But it might surprise younger movie fans who wonder why the Duke’s popularity has outlived those of his contemporaries such as Bogart, Brando, Grant, and Gable.

Partly it was his roles. Wayne always played heroes who showed integrity, fairness, and courage—virtues prized by a generation that had confronted a depression, a world war, and a cold war. But it was also his talent for giving these roles credibility. His gestures, his walk, his speech—whether on- or off-screen—all seemed to intensify his heroic charisma.

No less a writer than Joan Didion (renowned “new journalist” and author of Slouching Towards Bethlehem) felt this charisma. She and Wayne had first met in 1943 when he was a cowboy in a black-and-white two-reeler and she was a nine-year-old kid on a sun-baked air base where movies were the only entertainment. She described their meeting for the Post in “John Wayne: A Love Song.”

In the darkened Quonset hut which served as a theater… while the hot wind blew outside… I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, “at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.”

I tell you this neither in a spirit of self-revelation nor as an exercise in total recall, but simply to demonstrate that when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and very probably through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.

In John Wayne’s world, John Wayne was supposed to give the orders. “Let’s ride,” he said, and “Saddle up.” “Forward ho,” and “A man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.” “Hello, there,” he said when he first saw the girl, in a construction camp or on a train or just standing around on the front porch waiting for somebody to ride up through the tall grass.

Didion wrote those words in 1965 after visiting Wayne on a movie set. In person, he seemed larger than life while giving the impression of a decent, unassuming guy.

There was Wayne, in his 33-year-old spurs, his dusty neckerchief, his blue shirt.”You don’t have too many worries about what to wear in these things,” he said. “You can wear a blue shirt, or, if you’re down in Monument Valley, you can wear a yellow shirt.”

There was Wayne, in a relatively new hat, a hat which made him look curiously like William S. Hart. “I had this old cavalry hat I loved, but I lent it to Sammy Davis. I got it back, it was unwearable. I think they all pushed it down on his head and said, “O.K. John Wayne. You know, a joke…”

(That hat, and several others, went up for auction this past week in Los Angeles, as Wayne’s family finally acceded to fan’s request to purchase some of their father’s movie memorabilia.)

Didion also noted several moments of pure, unrehearsed “Duke.” For example, when Michael Anderson, a young member of the cast, was given his own chair with his name on the back, he hurriedly brought it to Wayne’s attention.

“You see that?” Anderson asked Wayne, suddenly too shy to look him in the eye. Wayne gave him the smile, the nod, the final accolade. “I saw it, kid.”

There was also the moment when the crew, during a lunchtime break, discussed what they’d do to anyone who threatened their lives.

[Director Henry] Hathaway removed the cigar from his mouth. “Some guy just tried to kill me he wouldn’t end up in jail. How about you. Duke?”

Very slowly, the object of Hathaway’s query wiped his mouth, pushed back his chair, and stood up. It was the real thing, the authentic article, the move which had climaxed 1,000 scenes on 165 flickering frontiers and battlefields, and it was about to climax this one, in the commissary at Estudio Churubusco outside Mexico City.

“Right,” John Wayne drawled. “I’d kill him.”

Later, when Didion and her husband had dinner with Wayne and his family, she felt how his charm could fill an entire restaurant.

For a while it was only a nice evening, an evening anywhere. We had a lot of drinks, and I lost the sense that the face across the table was in certain ways more familiar than my husband’s.

John Wayne, photographed in 1978, shortly before his death.

And then something happened. Suddenly the room seemed suffused with the dream, and I could not think why. Three men appeared out of nowhere, playing guitars. I watched Pilar Wayne lean slightly forward, and John Wayne lift his glass almost imperceptibly toward her… We all smiled, and drank… and all the while the men with the guitars kept playing, until finally I realized what they had been playing all along: “Red River Valley” and the theme from The High and the Mighty. They did not quite get the beat right, but even now I can hear them, in another country and a long time later, even as I tell you this…

In a world we understand early to be characterized by venality and doubt and paralyzing ambiguities, he suggested another world, one which may or may not have existed ever, but in any case existed no more—a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it; a world in which, if a man did what he had to do, he could one day take the girl and go riding through the draw and find himself there at the bend in the bright river, the cottonwoods shimmering in the sun.

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  1. This is still a great article, and just re-read it now. I still agree with my comments from 10 years ago, but NOT the spacing! I’m shocked I didn’t have it broken up into at least 2 (or even 3) spaced-apart paragraphs. Geez.

  2. No doubt John Wayne (Marion Morrison) was one of a kind on and off screen. This country could use more people like him;but let’s not sell Roy Rogers or Gene Autry short change. They may not have ever had his acting skills nor ever made movies of the same quality but as real people in the real world both Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were great men who contucted themselves off screen with examples for all Americans to follow. Check them out they were amazing guys.. One thing for certain on screen John Wayne was most memorable.

  3. The Duke was always my Hero and always will be. He s not gone hes just waiting for us to saddle up and go for a ride with him. I remember the first time I saw his movie I was a little girl and from that moment on he was my one and only Cowboy. forget about Autry and Rogers they didn t hold a candle to him the DUKE will always be my HERO. LOLY

  4. Items worn in films by John Wayne
    Came to an auction to be sold.
    Rio Lobo boots of aged grain.
    El Dorado holster worn old.
    Big Jake favorite cowboy hat
    (Loaned to Sammy Davis who did
    Return it unwearably flat.)
    The Green Berets beret – best bid,
    Setting a record for price paid
    For head costume in movie goal.
    True Grit eye patch the Duke displayed
    In his one Oscar winning role.

    Millions of dollars paid for stuff
    That made John Wayne look rough and tough.

  5. This is a great article on John Wayne who certainly deserves the admiration and respect he commands to this day. I remember buying the Post issue with the cover pictured at the top. This was in the days when the Post was still in the traditional large size, too. It was certainly the right size for a star of Wayne’s stature who’s always been one of my favorites. Interestingly, I’m among only a small handful of Americans who was born on John Wayne’s 50th birthday—May 26, 1957! It’s a fact I’m very proud of even though it was just a wonderful fluke. 5/26 is also James Arness’s birthday too, another great reel life cowboy (Gunsmoke) we lost a few months ago. Thank you for this article on this wonderful man Jeff. John Wayne would not be happy with what’s happened to his beloved America. We desperately need people in positions of power who have his values to get our country back on track. Let’s collectively channel our thoughts for the U.S. to be what the Duke would be proud of again.

  6. John Wayne was more than a movie star, he was part of America and he still is. That is why he still is on the Harris list more than thirty years after his death. He was also a very good actor, richly deserving of the Oscar for “True Grit” but equally deserving for “The Quiet Man”, “The Searchers”, “Sands of Iwo Jima”, “The High and the Mighty” and many others.

  7. Thank you, Mr. Nilsson, for this article. John Wayne will always be a favorite of mine. Sincerely, B Follansbee

  8. After reading this article I wish I would have spent more time watching John Wayne’s movies. Miss Didion did him proud in her writings. It was very interesting to read.


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