John Wayne was buried on an ocean-view hillside in Newport Beach more than 24 years ago, a private service from which dozens of fans were turned away by security guards.
For nearly two decades, Wayne’s final resting place remained nearly as private: The actor’s grave, on a grassy slope next to a sturdy shade tree, was left unmarked until 1998.
Even today, fans who drive to Pacific View Memorial Park in Corona del Mar are told that, out of respect for the family’s privacy, the cemetery will not disclose the location of his grave.
Without detailed directions, fans of the actor -- whose 50-year Hollywood career made him an icon of the Wild West -- would have a difficult time finding the place to pay their respects. Anyone with access to the Internet, though, can find a step-by-step map.
And that’s just fine with his family.
“I personally think it’s wonderful that people want to go see him,” said Ethan Wayne, a 41-year-old actor and one of John Wayne’s seven children.
“He was a public person. He had a relationship with his family. But he also had a relationship with his fans. His fans allowed him to lead his lifestyle.... He spent probably three to four hours a day just answering fan mail. Every letter got answered. They like him. If they want to go see him, I think it’s wonderful. He had a tremendous impact on people.”
Wayne had a close link to Orange County and to Newport Beach in particular. He spent a large part of his final years at his home on Newport Bay, where he kept his prized boat, the Wild Goose. Not long after his death in 1979, Orange County Airport was renamed in his honor.
The hilltop where he is buried provides views of Newport Bay, the Pacific Ocean and airplanes flying into and out of John Wayne Airport, about six miles away. The grave does not dominate the 35-acre cemetery. It’s marked by a simple bronze plaque with a picture of Wayne riding a horse, a U.S. flag flying in the wind, desert plains in the background.
“You want him to rest in peace. We didn’t want to make a shrine,” Ethan Wayne explained. “It’s more out of respect for the people that are out there. They don’t want their loved ones’ graves trampled on.”
An official at Pacific View Memorial Park declined to say how many people visit Wayne’s grave -- or even confirm that he’s buried there. Ethan Wayne said he’s found flowers at the grave when he’s come to visit and assumes they’re from fans.
Several neighbors at an apartment building one block from the cemetery said they had no idea that the “Duke,” who starred in more than 100 movies and won an Academy Award in 1970, is their neighbor.
“He’s right there with everyone else? That’s cool,” said Justin Dressler, 19, a student at UC Irvine.
Fans curious about Wayne’s final resting place can find directions to it on the Web site www.seeing-stars.com. The site posts numerous details about Hollywood celebrities: where they eat, where they live, where they shop and where they’re buried.
“In the same way that people want to visit the grave of a loved one to pay their last respects, people who fondly remember a celebrity often have a similar desire to visit or at least see their final resting place,” Gary Wayne, the site’s founder, said in an e-mail. “I get a surprising amount of e-mail from people telling me how happy they were to locate the grave of a particular star during their trip to Southern California.”
Jim Tipton, who operates www.findagrave.com from his home in Salt Lake City, said he started the site in part because of his hobby of tracking down celebrities’ graves. He said that in a recent six-week period, more than 7,000 people viewed his page about Wayne’s grave. Many people, it turns out, share his hobby.
“It’s not some ghoulish, morbid thing. It’s more about remembering the person as they lived. You go there because you respected the person and their life,” Tipton explained.