The Woes of John Wayne

This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in the in the October 27, 1962, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. You can read the complete original article in the flipbook, below.

This article and other features about the stars of Tinseltown can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Golden Age of Hollywood. This edition can be ordered here. 


John (Duke) Wayne had just come back from his annual checkup at the Scripps Clinic in Southern California. Considering his age and, as he put it, “the pounding you have to take in this business,” the world’s number-one box-office movie star was in passable shape.

The eyes that once glared hate for a movie critic who wrote of his pictures, “It never Waynes but it bores,” still had the chilly blue glint through their slitted lids. The face that has stonily ignored more enemy six guns than Wyatt Earp was red-blotched from the sun. Although the once handsome head of hair has receded so far that Wayne now must use a partial toupee on-screen, his deeply furrowed brow, forever linked with bloody wars, fires, floods, fist fights, doomed planes and countless other celluloid crises, still suggested unflinching pluck.

As he talked, frequently cussing and using the same grim drawl that has cowed badmen from Fort Dodge to Tombstone, he compulsively lighted one cigarette after another. “So maybe it’s six months off the end of my life,” he said, opening the day’s fifth pack, “but they’re not going to kill me.”

Although he may not be worried about his health, his twilight years — he is 55 now — are turning up other hazards. At an age when most big-money actors, tired of the grind, are managing motels and oil wells bought for them by farsighted managers, John Wayne is still tenaciously playing heroic leads in action pictures because he desperately needs the money.

Such singleness of purpose, while limiting artistic achievement and ruling out such honors as Academy Awards for acting, has given Wayne a sort of immortality. He has been paid as much as $666,000 a picture, and his 161 films have grossed about $350,000,000, a record that Hollywood historians expect to stand for all time. “Most films are money in the bank,” one associate says, “when you’ve got good ol’ Duke in there banging away.”

But if Duke does well for others, he has trouble doing well for himself. The recent deaths of three close friends have sapped him, and despite the small fortune he has made, Wayne today is just barely breaking even. His distress extends to the world at large, which he considers to be run by a band of fuzzy minds who probably would have sneaked out a back archway at the Alamo.

Possibly to dispel the gloom brought on by those thoughts, Wayne absorbs a formidable amount of alcohol without getting drunk. In every angry moment he risks a flare — up from the ulcers that plagued him in earlier days, and he is so sensitive about the printed word that he now insists — though it did not apply to this article—on approving every line written about him before granting an interview.

A Rough Reputation

One time, Frank Sinatra had hired screenwriter Albert Maltz, one of the “unfriendly 10,” who served jail sentences for contempt of the J. Parnell Thomas House Un-American Activities Committee, and reporters called Wayne for an opinion. Wayne snapped, “I don’t think my opinion is too important. Why don’t you ask Sinatra’s crony, who’s going to run our country for the next few years, what he thinks of it?”

Wayne’s dig at President Kennedy appeared in print and generated so much heat that Sinatra was forced to fire Maltz. Shortly afterward at a Hollywood benefit show, Sinatra stalked off the stage when Wayne came up to the microphone.

“Frankie,” Wayne said to Sinatra later, “What the hell did you walk away from me for?”

“Well, you cried,” Sinatra said. “You blasted off your mouth.”

“You mean the Maltz thing?”

“Yes,” Sinatra replied.

“You want to talk about it?” Wayne asked him in reply.

“Some other time,” said Sinatra. “Duke, we’re friends, and we’ll probably do pictures together. Let’s forget the whole thing.”

This is typical of Wayne. Although he sits on the far right, he has many friends among Hollywood liberals. When Robert Ryan’s wife and children received a bomb threat last year, because Ryan had read part of Robert Welsh’s John Birch Society “Blue Book” on a Los Angeles radio station, Ryan and Wayne were in France, working on the Longest Day. Wayne was the first to offer help. He wanted to rush home and help Ryan find the would-be bombers and beat them to a pulp.

In recent years, Wayne has indeed had many things on his mind, most of them calculated to bring on insomnia. Although he shouldn’t have to worry about being overdrawn at the bank, Wayne claims his millions have mysteriously slipped away in the night.

“I suddenly found out after 25 years,” he said sadly, “that I was starting out all over again. I just didn’t have it made at all. Until last year I had a business manager who didn’t do anything illegal, but we were involved in many unfortunate money-losing deals. I would just about break even if I sold everything right now.”

Wayne says he invested $1,200,000 of his own money — all the cash he could scrape up — in producing the ill-fated Alamo. Friends, including Texas millionaire Clint Murchison, also invested huge sums of money. Wayne is confident they won’t wind up losers, but the picture must gross $18,000,000 before there is a profit, and Wayne’s chances of getting all his money back are about the same as falling an inside straight.

Despite it all, Wayne continues to live well. His home is a five-acre estate in Encino, where the hot San Fernando Valley sun warms an Olympic-size swimming pool and vast reaches of green grass. An electric eye controls the gate into the long, curving driveway to the big ranch-style house. Inside, Wayne and his third wife, former Peruvian actress Pilar Palette, are waited on by three servants, also from Peru.

To keep up all the payments, Wayne works in picture after picture. Recently he has been making them at a rate of three a year. In the past 12 months he has appeared in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Hatari, and The Longest Day. He has just finished Donovan’s Reef for Paramount, and he will make three more pictures in 1963. He has also joined the cast of The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Wayne’s frenetic filmmaking may eventually cure his money ills, but his deeper woes defy remedy. Gone are three of his closest friends: actor Grant Withers, who committed suicide; actor Ward Bond, who dropped dead of a heart attack in 1960 at the height of his TV fame in Wagon Train; and Bev Barnett, Wayne’s longtime press agent. “Oh, God,” Wayne said of Barnett’s death, “that’s a tough one.”

The deaths of these close friends, the near death of his 74-year-old mother, Mrs. Sydney Preen of Long Beach, in an auto accident, and two wrenching divorces have drained some of the violence out of Wayne. In the early days of his career Wayne’s muscular figure (six feet four, 220 pounds) was a challenge to folks who thought they could lick him. “I found out once,” he says, “that some of the toughest men I knew, when they really get mad, have a little smile and a look and they’re talking low. This is the way I get mad. But it happens very seldom anymore. I really like people. Unless people go out of their way to insult me, they’re going to have a hard time having any trouble with me. My last street fight was with a couple of boilermakers, but that was years ago.”

Some subjects still trigger a flare-up. One is politics. Television is another. “Television,” Wayne says, “has a tendency to reach a little. In their westerns they’re getting away from the fact that those men were fighting the elements and the rawness of nature, and didn’t have time for this couch work. For me, basic art and simplicity are most important. Love. Hate. Everything right out there without much nuance.”


John Wayne page
Click to read the original article, “The Box-Office Woes of John Wayne” by Dean Jennings, from the October 27, 1962, issue of the Post.


This article and other features about the stars of Tinseltown can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, The Golden Age of Hollywood. This edition can be ordered here. 

The Making of an Athlete

Whenever I mention kayaking in Hawaii, or whitewater rafting in West Virginia or hiking in Death Valley, people ask if I have always been athletic.

My husband Wayne, a very patient person, always lets me respond with whatever half truth pops into my mind – phrases like “dawn workouts” and “endorphin rush” pepper such statements — before he interrupts and I can graciously end by adding “but it’s important to ease into it.”

See, I was athletic at one time. Okay, maybe until age 12. Then there was a bit of a, well, gap. A 17-year gap, give or take a few years. So, yeah, I eased in. A lot.

The idea of restarting my athletic engine surfaced when I met Wayne at the University of Rochester where I worked and he attended graduate school. He spent downtime playing softball, rock climbing, canoeing, biking, running, and whitewater rafting.

My idea of athletics was speed walking to the neighborhood pizzeria – owned by a mother and daughter who gave customers a free cookie with each slice — so I could grab dinner and return to my apartment to watch a DVD of All About Eve, or another classic movie. Suffice to say we knew going in that we had our differences.

But we fell in love fast and were married three months after we met. In our haze of love, Wayne and I brushed away the concerns of others. We jibed on major things — kids (no interest), money (a grad student and an under employed writer? Uh, yeah, interest), politics (He was very involved; I was agnostic), religion (I was fairly involved; he was agnostic), lifestyle (casual but trendy).

We both loved old movies, wine tastings, literature and dinner parties with our easy-to-merge group of friends. And the different interests — especially his athleticism — intrigued me. It was like thinking I should make time to study French whenever I heard a friend speak it. Plus I was 31 and he was 29. We weren’t children. We could work out everything else.

Sure, we hit some bumps. But as Wayne and I kept reminding ourselves, patience was important. I tried to overlook the throat-clogging dust in his home office. He tried to understand that I always run late. We were easing into the whole marriage thing.

It was going so well, in fact, that I was ready to bump things up a level, to show Wayne we had more in common than even he knew. For our first anniversary, I had happily suggested we indulge in some sports fun in Virginia Beach.

“Are you sure? Are you really sure?” he asked several times, as I passed him hotel brochures, shopped for swimwear and scoped out activities. “I know that you’re really not into the beach or sports.”

Hey, what kind of rube did he think I was? I had plenty of happy childhood memories water skiing, swimming and frolicking with my family at the Finger Lakes. I was ready.

My plan was to start out with a bang, so I had thoughtfully pre-booked some activities for our first morning there.

“Wow, they rent rollerblades here, too?” I said as we stood outside the bike rental tent right off the boardwalk. “Let’s reserve some of those for later!” Clearly my enthusiasm knew no bounds.

That faded after about 15 minutes of biking down the perfectly flat path not far from the ocean. I was shouting to Wayne, who was a few yards ahead, as I tried to steer with one hand while blindly grabbing the bottom of my T-shirt with the other in an effort to wipe the sweat from my eyes. He didn’t hear me. I just stopped. My guess is that when my locomotive-like huffing faded, he realized I was finished. He circled back.

“You know, we shouldn’t overdo it the first day,” I said, running my hands through my sweat-soaked hair. “Let’s head back. I’m really anxious to try those rollerblades.”

If nothing else, Wayne got a terrific workout from the rollerblades. “No, just hold me up a bit longer,” I said as he combined cradling and pushing to move me along for a few minutes until I assured him I had my sea legs and was ready to solo.

As he skated slowly away — backward of course — I felt my feet start to go out from under me as he swooped back to steady me.

“You know what? Why don’t I just go to that bench and wait for you?” I said, noting that there was likely something wrong with the skates I had rented. “I’m sure our time is almost up anyway.”

In fact, our one-hour skate rental still had 50 minutes to go, even after Wayne took a few solo spins.

“The fellow at the store said these things happen all the time,” Wayne said after dropping off the devil blades. “Don’t worry about it. We can try it later if you want. He gave us a credit. Let’s just go back to the hotel.”

It was while walking back that I saw the sign for the jet ski rentals. “Now that is something I’ve always wanted to do!” I proclaimed, desperate to make this work. “Please, please, please?”

Mind over matter sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? I was hot and tired and my legs ached, sure, but water spraying up from a jet ski would revitalize me physically and psychologically. I had seen people of all ages and sizes enjoying jet skis. The water, the salt air, the sea gulls. What’s not to like?

“Since your wife has never ridden a jet ski, I’ll go too, just as a precaution,” said the California-tanned instructor as he led us to two separate jet skis before he climbed into a small speed boat, pulled down his mirrored sunglasses, gunned the engine, and was off.

Poor Wayne. He started his jet ski and maneuvered right behind the instructor’s boat, slowed only when he looked over his shoulder to monitor my progress.

“Just GO!” I kept yelling as fear swelled in my throat and I mumbled profanities under my breath, truly wondering if I’d drown as water slapped my calf. And just how big were those swooping sea gulls, anyway? Images of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds floated through my mind. “I’m fine! Really! Go!”

It was maybe a minute later that I heard shouting from the dock. I later realized the bellows came from the fisherman whose lines I had severed when I drove too close. I wish I could tell you that I’m joking when I mention that I also severed the lines on my return trip. By then I was so terrified, I didn’t even notice their screams.

Little did I know Wayne was facing his own terror. A few minutes after I screamed at him to “Go!” he looked back and I was the one who was gone.

He had no idea I had retreated. He began to circle the instructor’s boat, shouting that they needed to return and find me.

I was near hysteria as Wayne glided up to my jet ski and tried to help me dock. The instructor shouted for him to move back, then jumped from his boat onto a floating tire and somehow pulled me in. Details of my rescue are a bit foggy, but I recall wondering if I had been too hasty in considering death as a negative outcome. I mean, people were stopping to look. Children were pointing.

I surely looked like a toddler taking her first steps — complete with red eyes, a runny nose, and messy hair — as I awkwardly dismounted my now silenced nemesis and wobbled, arms out, toward Wayne who stood waiting, towel in hand.

As Wayne consoled me — “Poor baby. I’m so sorry” — I caught the jet ski instructor rolling his eyes.

I was mortified but whatever. I just wanted out of there.

“We need to start you out slowly,” Wayne said as he guided me back to the car. “I think walking is really your sport for now.”

It sounds crazy, I know, but Wayne wasn’t kidding. And neither was I. While my enthusiasm, at least to that point, was high, my abilities were, well, what’s way beyond low? So we started out walking, then walking faster, than hiking. As I came to enjoy exercise, I tried more things. Some were right for me (cross country skiing, whitewater rafting). Others, like rock climbing, aren’t.

You know what’s funny? While we’ll never share all interests, we try to appreciate if not enjoy them. That was all part of easing into enjoying sports, and life, together after a rapid-fire courtship.

“You know, I just love being active,” I say to those who ask. And I always see Wayne smile when I do. After all, he knows how much I mean it when I say it’s important to “ease in.”