The grave--high on a hilltop overlooking Newport Harbor--remains unmarked.
It is an ironically low-profile final resting place for a larger-than-life man who spent a lifetime in the public eye.
But that doesn’t stop John Wayne’s loyal fans from making a pilgrimage to Pacific View Memorial Park, in Corona del Mar, to pay their respects to the actor, who died of cancer at the age of 72 in 1979.
“We don’t have a steady parade of people; I’d say we get probably a half-dozen families a month,” said John Vibert, president of the memorial park. “We still have people who ask to leave some type of floral tribute. We suggest they leave it at the foot of the flagpole.”
When visitors ask where Wayne’s grave is, Vibert said, “we just tell them if you drive by the mausoleum, you have passed by maybe 50 feet from it.”
Vibert hasn’t noticed any increase in the number of fans visiting on the anniversaries of Wayne’s death, and he doesn’t expect any increase on Tuesday, the sixth anniversary.
“I don’t think that’s as important to his admirers as the memory of the man himself,” he said. “He was a latter-day hero, there’s no doubt about it. And he was greatly admired by so many people.
“He’s definitely not forgotten.”
From the heroic-sized, 9-foot-tall bronze statue at the entrance to John Wayne Airport to the Sheriff’s Department’s two new helicopters, dubbed Duke I and Duke II, it is clear that Orange County hasn’t forgotten that he made it his home the last 14 years of his life.
Home was a sprawling bay-front house in Bayshores, an exclusive Newport Beach community where Wayne and his family moved a year after his 1964 lung cancer operation.
Although it was sold in 1980 for $4.5 million and has been extensively remodeled, the house that Ringo Kid-Hondo Lane-Big Jim McLain-Rooster Cogburn once called home has lost none of its allure.
Six years after Wayne’s death, visitors to the gate-guarded community still ask where the Duke lived.
“That happens daily almost,” said Jack Riley, who lives two houses from the former Wayne residence. “They stop out in front of the house and ask all the time, especially workmen. It’s surprising how many people know he lived here. I have to explain to them the house is nothing like he had it.
The new owners tore down three-fourths of it and completely rebuilt it.”
Riley said he isn’t a John Wayne “fan.”
“Oh no, I’m not a fan of any movie star,” he said. “But I always liked John. I just remember the nice, casual acquaintance everyone had with him. He was good friends to the whole neighborhood.
“The reason he loved Bayshores is because nobody bothered him. As he’d go in and out, he’d wave to us or say ‘hi,’ but, normally speaking, the people in Bayshores didn’t pay any more attention to him than the other neighbors.”
That wasn’t the case, however with the tourists on the harbor cruise boats that regularly passed by Wayne’s house. When Wayne was alive, the house with the green-and-white-striped awnings was the harbor tour’s most popular attraction. For many, it still is.
“A lot of times, people come down here just to see John Wayne’s house,” said cruise boat skipper Vance Severance, who remembers how, during the 1970s, passengers frequently caught a glimpse of Wayne sitting out on his red-brick patio.
“He’d see the boat go by and see everyone taking pictures and he’d always go out of his way to wave at everybody,” recalled Severance. “It was just a sight most people would never see in a lifetime.”
“Most of them were thrilled to see him,” agreed cruise boat skipper Thom Isensee. “It was basically hero-worship, and it still pretty much is.”
“Oh, I like John Wayne,” acknowledged Lori Palmer, a visitor from Michigan who had just taken a harbor cruise. “I just like the person he was--everything about him, really: the way he talked, the way he acted, the way he looked. Everyone says he was a man’s man, but I think men and women liked him the same.”
As for seeing the Duke’s former domain, Palmer smiled and said, “It was neat seeing something you had heard about. I’m always impressed seeing famous people’s homes. Just knowing that he lived there . . . It would have been nice if he could come out and wave now.”
Standing on his patio with members of a documentary film crew and a local journalist one sunny morning in 1977, a still-healthy John Wayne was asked whether he found much privacy in Newport Beach.
“Oh hell, we have the tours,” he said, mimicking a cruise boat skipper: “That’s John Wayne’s house!”
“Hell,” groused Wayne, “I have to wear my wig--I can’t even come out in my front yard.”
His visitors laughed and Wayne grinned.
“No, it’s wonderful,” he went on. “They have kid tours: ‘Hi, Mr. Wayne! What did you do with your horse?’
“I canned it--you’ll eat it tomorrow!”
“He loved it down there in Newport Beach,” said Michael Wayne, 50, the late actor’s eldest son. “He loved the sea. He liked the people down there, too, but I think the sea was the big lure.”
Michael Wayne is president of Batjac Productions in Beverly Hills. He said he devotes a major part of his day to Wayne Enterprises, a limited partnership that owns the merchandising rights to John Wayne’s name and likeness. Product royalties are donated to the John Wayne Cancer Clinic at UCLA--about $1.7 million so far, according to Wayne.
“Our cancer clinic is one of the finest research and treatment centers in the United States,” Wayne said. “I’m very proud of that, and it makes the whole family proud.”
Items that have received the Wayne family’s blessing are limited-edition John Wayne Winchester commemorative rifles, a limited-edition, commemorative Colt six-shooter, a John Wayne holster and gun belt, John Wayne bronzes and fine-art prints. There have even been John Wayne collectible dolls, a John Wayne Paper Doll Book and John Wayne whiskey decanters.
The market also has been flooded with scores of unauthorized John Wayne items: belt buckles, knives, plaster figurines, clocks, lunch boxes and playing cards--"anything that anybody can slap his name on,” said Wayne.
Wayne Elementary School
Since his father’s death, Wayne said, not only was Orange County Airport renamed in John Wayne’s honor, but so has a marina in Washington state and an elementary school in Brooklyn. In addition, the actor’s birthplace in Winterset, Iowa--a four-room, frame house--has been turned into a tourist attraction and drew 7,000 fans the first year it was open.
As for the Wayne family’s proposed TV-movie biography of John Wayne, it has been stalled--despite two completed film scripts. “My father didn’t leap off the page,” explained Wayne, who now envisions someday doing a mini-series on his father’s life. “He had such a colorful screen career and personal life, I think it’s impossible to encapsulate it in three hours.”
The producers of another proposed TV-movie biography of John Wayne--an adaptation of Maurice Zolotow’s unauthorized biography, “Shooting Star"--reportedly have encountered a major snag: finding a suitable actor to fill the Duke’s sizable boots.
Of course, fans can see the real thing in old John Wayne movies that run frequently on television. Wayne, who has been called the biggest box office attraction in motion picture history, was named the American public’s favorite actor of all time and the most popular movie hero of all time in a 1984 Louis Harris poll.
There are, Michael Wayne believes, a variety of reasons why his father’s popularity remains undiminished six years after his death.
“Whether on screen or off, he was a man who lived by a code,” said Wayne. “I think people respected him because he was honest and he stood for something. He believed in America and he was outspoken about it, even when it was unpopular.
“He used to say about the United States that we have to nurture her strengths and strengthen her weaknesses. He didn’t say everything was perfect, but that we can’t always be negative and knocking things.”
During the last two decades of his life, John Wayne had been elevated to the status of a genuine American folk hero. His passing on June 11, 1979, prompted the London Evening Standard to call him “The Last Hero of the Wild West,” and President Jimmy Carter was moved to remark that “in an age of few heroes, he was the genuine article.”
Michael Wayne says his father “was a hero to his family for a lot of reasons.” But, he emphasized, “he was not a hero, he was a movie star. He became a hero, I think, because of his films.
“In a sense, the Western is our folklore. The cowboy was the hero of American folklore and my father became the symbol of the cowboy on screen. I think he possessed the qualities we attribute to the cowboy: honesty, courage, individuality--all these kinds of things. He was able to project them on the screen and in real life, and I think that, more than anything, is the reason people thought like that.”
Asked to characterize John Wayne as a father, Michael Wayne paused momentarily:
“He had so many qualities, but for me, I guess (I remember) his extreme loyalty. If he was your friend, you could do no wrong. He had a great ability to see the good in people and overlook the bad.”
“I played the kinda person people wanted me to be, a fella with a code of behavior,” Wayne said in a 1979 interview. “A lot of people get some sort of security now , just from looking at me.”
“I watch his movies when I get a chance,” said John Wayne’s 19-year-old daughter, Marisa, who lives with her mother, Pilar, in Newport Beach. “It’s nice to watch them because it’s a reminder of him: I can still see him even though he’s gone.”
Marisa, who plans to follow her brother Ethan and half-brother Patrick into acting, said her father was “very family oriented--just really good, wholehearted and down to earth. I didn’t think of him as John Wayne, I just remember him as being my father. I loved him very much, and I miss him a lot.”
“When I think of my dad, I remember he had such personality,” said Aissa Wayne, 29, who lives in Corona del Mar with her two young children. “He was such a character and such a warm individual. On the other hand, he was real conservative--real conservative politically and real pro-American.
“But he was real fun to be around. He always wanted to go out on the boat or do something fun. He loved Orange County. Sometimes we’d just get in the car and drive around and look at all the houses.”
Aissa recalled Christmas holidays when “he’d have people over. There was tons of food, they’d drink all day long and watch all the football games. There was never a dull moment. He was just a warm, friendly, big-hearted guy.”
“The man was just a super human being,” said Pilar Wayne, Wayne’s third wife, who was separated from the actor at the time of his death. “He was never afraid to stand for what he thought was right, and he believed in honor and truth. He was funny and loyal . . . . He was just a marvelous man.
“We spent 22 years together, raising three children, and our life was mostly, ‘What’s for dinner? When are the children coming home? When are we going to take the boat on vacation?’ ”
Recalling their 1965 move to Newport Beach from a 5 1/2-acre estate in Encino, Pilar Wayne said, “The minute we moved down here we knew this was the place we were looking for.
“He loved Newport so much and I think Newport loved him, too. He liked meeting people, and he was kind to everyone. He’d go to the market and talk to the check-out lady. He was like the guy next door. People would say, ‘Hi, Duke!’ wherever he went.”
Remembered by Friends
Newport Beach car dealer Chick Iverson was one of Wayne’s closest friends.
“He was the dearest friend and greatest influence I ever had in my life,” said Iverson. “To me, he was just plain Duke. He was just the greatest human being who ever lived. (His death) left a great void in my life.”
Iverson often accompanied Wayne on film locations and took family vacations with the Waynes on the Duke’s yacht Wild Goose, a 136-foot, converted World War II minesweeper. Iverson said he met the star in the early ‘60s “and we palled around from then on, until the end.
“There was hardly a day that went by that I didn’t see him. His friendship was really what was important, not the fact that he was a celebrity. He was just my pal, that’s all.”
Iverson, whose office is filled with guns, cowboy boots and other memorabilia Wayne gave him, offered his thoughts on what made his old pal such a beloved figure to many Americans.
“His morals and values and his love of his country and fellow man certainly came across on the screen,” he said. “And he was no different in person. I’ve seen him miss planes to sign things for people. He was probably the most gracious man in the world.”
Another thing: Duke was not just a big cowboy, he was a very articulate man, and with wit beyond belief.
“He was such a marvelous man, none of us should lose memory of him.”
“I’ve had a helluva good life,” Wayne told an interviewer , standing at the water’s edge and gazing out at Newport Harbor several months after his open-heart surgery in 1978. “There’s no way anyone could have had more fun. I got no complaints. Even with all the things that have happened to me.” He paused. “There’s a saying they have in Mexico-- ‘Feo, fuerte y formal.’ It means, ‘He was ugly, was strong and had dignity.’ Yeah, that’s the kinda thing I’d like them to say about me . . . . “