The Duke: Father and Friend : Books: Larger-than-life screen idol John Wayne had his share of insecurities and gentle moments, says daughter Aissa in a loving memoir.
Picture this Southern California youth-culture scene from the early ‘70s: Seven teen-age girls are in the middle of a pot-smoking party when the mother of one unexpectedly bursts into the bedroom.
The girls are sent home. Their parents are told. For one participant, this means she’ll have to answer to a father who once warned her to toe the line, lest she ruin the reputation he had spent 40 years building.
But when the feared showdown came, the gentle side of her movie legend father came across.
“The people that give you that stuff, they don’t love you the way that I do,” John Wayne gently told his daughter, Aissa. “You can take their word that this stuff is good, or you can listen to me when I tell you it’s bad. Now whose word are you going to take--someone who’s known you and loved you all your life, or someone you met two days ago?”
To rephrase a line from “True Grit”: That’s sweet talk for a two-fisted tough guy.
It’s to show the private, sometimes gentle side of her bigger-than-life dad that Aissa Wayne has written “John Wayne: My Father” published last month by Random House. That’s not to say the Duke was a closet Robert Young, always knowing best and never raising his booming voice in anger.
Wayne had his share of insecurities and temperamental outbursts. And, as the book illustrates, he could be one old-fashioned, overprotective father, particularly when it came to his daughter:
Home by 11 on weekend nights, no dating until her senior year of high school and tone down that white eye shadow. As for going barefoot to the beach only two doors away from their harbor-front home in Newport, forget it. “My daughter doesn’t walk barefoot; my children wear shoes and socks.”
In an era of celebrity-bashing tomes written by ax-grinding offspring, Wayne’s book is, by and large, a loving memoir.
“Usually people write things because they’re angry and upset and they want the world to know. My book really was kind of driven by something else--more by affection,” says Wayne, 35, seated in the living room of her Newport Beach home, which is filled with pictures and sculptures of her famous father.
“John Wayne: My Father” is the third book written by an intimate of the actor since his death from cancer in 1979. Pat Stacy, Wayne’s former secretary and companion, wrote “Duke: A Love Story” in 1983; Pilar Wayne, his widow and the mother of his three youngest children, including Aissa, published “John Wayne: My Life With the Duke” in 1987.
The impetus for Aissa Wayne to write her book came two years ago in the wake of a brutal attack on her and her then-boyfriend.
At the time, Wayne and her ex-husband, Thomas A. Gionis, were embroiled in a custody battle. Gionis, an orthopedic surgeon, was accused of masterminding the attack on Wayne, but his trial ended in a hung jury. A retrial is pending. Wayne and Gionis share custody of their 4-year-old daughter.
“I think that having gone through that real terrible divorce, I was re-evaluating myself as a person and really appreciating the things that my dad did for me,” says Wayne, adding that her three children (two by a previous marriage) were getting older and starting to ask questions about the grandfather they never knew.
For Wayne, being the daughter of a movie legend whose stature grew to mythic proportions in his later years was a balance between positives and negatives.
The positives included appearing on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine wearing $850,000 in Cartier diamonds when she was 4, family vacations aboard her father’s 136-foot converted World War II minesweeper, bit parts in several of her father’s movies and a new yellow Porsche 914 when she was 16.
But there were negatives: her mother’s fears that Aissa would be kidnaped as a child, feeling safe but confined behind the 10-foot walls of her parents’ Encino estate and not knowing whether other children liked her for herself or for who her father was.
Later, at Newport Harbor High School--her first public school experience--Wayne would hear students whisper in the hallways, “There she is.” And classmates would mistake her shyness for snobbishness.
“I really didn’t want to be John Wayne’s daughter. I wanted to be Aissa Smith,” she recalls of that period. “For a long time, I would never say that my last name was Wayne. I just wanted to be a person.”
As a young girl in Encino, however, she was “Daddy’s little girl.” And, to her, Daddy “was the most wonderful thing in the world, like the Rock of Gibraltar. I just loved my father. He was strong and kind.”
But as a teen-ager in Newport Beach, where the Waynes moved in 1965, she would see the cracks in the rock. “My childhood relationship with my father was kind of magical. Then, the older I got, I think the personal relationship--the real relationship between two human beings--started.”
Her father “required ongoing proof” of her love. He would not let her pass by without kissing him and telling him she loved him. Wayne speculates in her book that her father, who was 48 when she was born, suffered tremendous guilt over not being present to raise his four older children from a previous marriage.
“I was very honest in the book to point out that he was human,” says Wayne, who witnessed her father at his most vulnerable when he and her mother separated in 1973.
“Our family was really the most important thing to him, so when that was going on, that was really one of the first times I saw my father cry and the first time I was ever consoling my father,” recalls Wayne. By the time her father was getting his life back together, “all of a sudden his health started failing him and he went through a period of anger over that.”
Wayne was 23 when her father died at 72 in 1979. But thanks to co-author Steve Delsohn’s research, her book includes material about John Wayne’s early life and career. Although there’s not much that hasn’t been in print before, even Wayne learned something about her father.
“I didn’t realize how hard he had to struggle to make it,” she says. “I thought he was kind of an instant star. In a way, (learning of his struggle) really gave me strength to say, ‘Hey, you don’t have to make it by the time you’re 25 or 30.’ There’s a struggling process.”
An awareness of her father’s personal strength and perseverance, she says, “is one of the things that . . . helped me through this rough period the last five years.”
During the custody fight, Wayne would seek solace by visiting her father’s grave on a hill overlooking Newport Beach.
Wayne, a onetime real estate agent who is now studying law at Western State University College of Law in Fullerton, still goes to the unmarked grave on her father’s birthday. This year, for the first time, she took her children with her.
“He worked hard to touch people’s lives, and he got a lot in return from his fans,” she says. “I’m so proud of him.”