When Nikita Khrushchev made his historic visit to the United States in 1959, the Soviet premier made two requests upon arriving in California. One was to visit Disneyland, that fantasy-inspired mecca of American capitalism; the other was to meet John Wayne.
Security concerns prevented Khrushchev from meeting Mickey Mouse, but the world's most powerful Communist did get to meet one of America's most outspoken anti-Communists.
For years, write the authors of a new John Wayne biography, the Soviet premier had enjoyed pirated copies of John Wayne movies. And at a Hollywood gathering, a beaming Khrushchev took Wayne by the arm and walked him over to the bar.
"I am told," Khrushchev said through his translator, "that you like to drink and that you can hold your liquor."
"That's right," Wayne drawled, as he and Khrushchev went on to compare the virtues of Russian vodka and Mexican tequila, then proceeded to match each other shot for shot.
Three months later, a large crate arrived at Wayne's Beverly Hills office. The actor roared with laugher when he opened it to find several cases of the finest Russian vodka and a note: "Duke, Merry Christmas. Nikita." Wayne reciprocated by sending Khrushchev a couple of cases of Sauza Conmemorativo tequila signed, "Nikita. Thanks. Duke."
That a world leader--and a Communist at that--would seek out a meeting with John Wayne underscores the worldwide popularity of a man who remained Hollywood's top box-office draw longer than any other actor and whose cowboy/soldier screen image is one of the most enduring American icons of the 20th Century.
In the process of starring in more than 150 movies in a 50-year career, Wayne became an outspoken defender of the American way of life--particularly during the 1960s, when the concept of mom, apple pie and, well, John Wayne, were out of favor.
It's that combination of superstar, conservative political figure and American icon that prompted two university history professors to write a "serious" biography of the craggy-faced movie legend who lived his last 14 years in a bay-front home in Newport Beach.
"John Wayne: American" by Randy Roberts and James S. Olson (Free Press; $27.95), weighing in at a hefty 738 pages, provides a detailed chronicle of the larger-than-life man President Jimmy Carter eulogized in 1979, after cancer dealt Duke a fatal blow, by saying: "In an age of few heroes, he was the genuine article."
Kirkus Review calls the book "very likely to be the definitive Wayne biography for years to come"; less enthusiastic is the New York Times, taking the good professors to task for writing about "their man with the devotion and indulgence of the doting parents he never had," and for not being above serving up typical celebrity bio "dish" such as Wayne loved to shop, liked mashed potatoes and was "fastidiously clean, well-groomed and had great taste in clothes."
In what Entertainment Weekly calls "a remarkably lively and sympathetic portrayal of a complex and fascinatingly flawed man," Roberts and Olson offer up a Wayne who was "loyal to alcohol, steak, cigarettes, and, most of all, friends"--a man's man who felt at best in the company of pals like director John Ford and actor Ward Bond.
Hollywood's biggest celluloid war hero of all time, however, never escaped his guilt over avoiding military service during World War II.
At a time when Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and other leading men enlisted, Wayne did not. A series of deferments, including one in which he was "deferred in support of national health, safety, or interest," kept him safely at home where he would star in 13 pictures between Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima.
When he was not working, the authors write, "the absence of a uniform gnawed at his self-respect and sense of manhood." After the war, according to Roberts and Olson, he attempted to atone for his lack of a war record by becoming an outspoken "superpatriot."
"In all the biographies I've written, I've always been interested in ones that intersect with national concerns, that have some sort of political aspect to them," Roberts, a professor of history at Purdue University, said in a phone interview. "To me, John Wayne is a movie star, yes, but his image and own personality far transcended the movies. He became a controversial political figure as well."
Toward the end of Wayne's career, Roberts said, Wayne became kind of a whipping boy for liberals.
"He was attacked viciously, and we're seeing some of the same things with the biography. People are attacking the biography because we are not saying he was a hypocrite or a terrible human being. There are still liberals [for whom] the fires still burn pretty intensely."
When "The Green Berets" came out in 1968, Roberts said, "the New York Times attacked that movie as though John Wayne had caused the war in Vietnam. Wayne felt if you stand for something, certain people are going to attack you."
Since his death, Wayne's third wife, Pilar, his daughter Aissa and former secretary Pat Stacy have each written memoirs that provide their perspectives of Wayne. As for previous biographies, Roberts dismisses them.
"Most of the biographies written about Wayne were kind of like what I'd term 'star bios' written around the time he died by journalists," he said. "I don't mean this to sound pejorative, but they were written fast. What we wanted to do was treat John Wayne like historians would treat a president or other historical figure."
Roberts and Olson began their research more than five years ago by searching archives and libraries "from one end of the country to the other." They poured over thousands of magazines, journals, newspapers and books. They also tapped several hundred unpublished oral histories by those who knew Wayne, and conducted 75 interviews on their own.
One of their most invaluable sources was the late Mary St. John, Wayne's personal secretary for 35 years.
St. John, who has since died, had returned to her home state of Missouri and was living in Kansas City when Roberts and Olson located her.
"Nobody had really done an extensive interview with her," Roberts said. "The first thing she said was, 'I don't know if you want to come here. I don't know what I really have to say.' "
It turns out she had a lot to say. When Roberts and Olson sat down to talk to St. John, the interview began at 9 a.m. and didn't end until 1 a.m. the next day. "She talked the entire time, and we talked scores of times after that," Roberts said. "She just really opened up and said, 'Here's what happened.' "
Wayne's longtime friend, actor Harry Carey Jr., whom the authors also interviewed, told them, "Whatever Mary says, that's true. She remembers everything."
"A lot of people close to Wayne gave us real good information and real insight," Roberts said. "One of the things a biographer goes through is you're kind of following the footsteps [of your subject], and you almost feel maybe if you go fast enough you can meet him. Of course, you never can. But in talking to his friends, you feel like you knew him."
Roberts said researching Wayne's life was enjoyable yet "hard in the sense that Wayne had such a long career. One of the things that interested me about Wayne is he broke into films at the end of the silent era" and kept working for 50 years. Wayne was, after all, 63 when he won an Oscar for his portrayal of the one-eyed federal marshal in "True Grit."
"Watching the industry change was interesting," said Roberts, who grew up watching John Wayne movies but never considered himself a John Wayne fan.
"I wouldn't say I liked him. I didn't know him. All I knew were the movies and some stories. I think I went into it with a pretty open mind. In the end, I liked him a lot. Did he have failings? Sure, he did. I think he was a lousy husband. He expected his wife to follow him on the set. Like a lot of people from broken homes, I'm not sure he had a good idea of what goes into making things work [in a marriage]. He was a man who was obsessed. That might be too strong a word, but what mattered to him the most was his work."
One of the interesting things that came out of their research, Roberts said, is how much failure followed Wayne.
"His mother and father ended up divorcing, so it was kind of a failed childhood in terms of family relations. He goes to USC on a football scholarship, hurts himself and drops out. He goes into the movies; his first big movie is a huge failure. He spends 10 years on Poverty Row trying to get into the big leagues. His first marriage--and second and third marriages--are failures. And he basically lost a fortune twice in his life through business failures.
"A lot of people may have quit, given up, after the first movie," Roberts continued. "I hate to use the phrase, but you talk about a man with true grit. He just kept going."