There aren't many figures bigger than John Wayne. One of the most iconic leading men of his era, there was no one else in Hollywood like him—but there was a chilling darkness to this legendary figure. His infamous Playboy interview is just the tip of the iceberg, so buckle up and let's dive into the dark history of John Wayne, the Duke himself.
John Wayne was larger-than-life from the moment he came into this world. Born in 1907, little Marion Robert Morrison of Winterset, Iowa managed to get his name in the local paper because his was no ordinary birth. Little Marion wasn't so little, apparently: The Winterset Madisonian reported that he weighed 13 pounds at birth!
He'd make many more headlines before he left the world—and not all of them would be so adorable.
We glossed over this point, but it deserves mentioning: John Wayne's name was really...Marion. If you think that name sounds a little funny for a big tough cowboy like Wayne, you aren't the only one. Terribly insecure, Marion Morrison utterly despised his feminine name. He was ready to jump on any other name that came along—which leads to the surprisingly sweet origin of his famous nickname.
Marion Morrison was a big softie at heart, and he never went anywhere without his best friend: A huge Airedale Terrier named Duke. Every day while he was walking to school, he walked past a fire station. One of the firemen noticed this little kid walking his big dog to school every morning and took to calling the boy "Little Duke". Once he grew up, he dropped the "little," but he still loved the "Duke" part.
Even as a boy, John Wayne was an ardent patriot, and he dreamed of serving his country. When his time came, he applied to the US Naval Academy—but there was a problem. Wayne was a boy scout in many ways—joining the Latin Society, the debate team, the football team, and contributing to the school newspaper—but his grades were terrible.
The Naval Academy rejected him. Wayne was heartbroken, and fell back on pre-law at USC—but even though it was a consolation prize, his university days still ended in disaster.
Clearly, academics weren't the Duke's strong point, so at USC, he focused on sports. He joined the football team under the coaching of the infamous Howard Jones. Jones went on to become one of the most famous coaches in the history of college football—but not because he was nice. He got results, but he was an absolute terror to his athletes.
So when Wayne had a terrible accident, he didn't know what to do...
John Wayne showed up to football practice one day with his arm in a sling. He'd broken his collarbone. Jones interrogated him about it, and Wayne just made something up—he was far too terrified to tell his coach that he'd snapped his collarbone bodysurfing on an off day. Well, it's not like it made a difference in the end: Wayne's injury ended up derailing his entire life.
Again, John Wayne wasn't much of an academic, so I doubt it'll surprise you to learn that he was only at USC on an athletic scholarship. He couldn't play with his broken collarbone, so the scholarship went out the window. Out of funds and out of options, Wayne was forced to leave USC. But just because he didn't get a degree, it doesn't mean he didn't get anything out of college...
Coach Howard Jones might have been a frightening figure, but he saw something in Duke Morrison, the tall, strapping Iowa boy who definitely didn't break his collarbone bodysurfing. And it turns out, Howard Jones was a good man to know. Some of Hollywood's best and brightest were USC fans and went to the coach for tickets to games.
So when movie star Tom Mix came to Jones looking for tix, Jones made a deal. I'll give you tickets, if you give the Duke a job. Marion Morrison's life was about to change forever.
Losing out on a football career isn't so bad when you're working on John Ford movie sets in Hollywood. Wayne was only a prop boy when he started out, but after dropping out of university, he was just happy to be there. Then one day, he was wandering the lot when he bumped into one of the most famous lawmen in the world: Wyatt Earp. Earp happened to be good friends with Tom Mix, and he spent a lot of time on set.
Wayne would later credit almost his entire persona to Earp. But Earp wasn't the only person he bumped into. It was high time John Wayne discovered his greatest vice: Women.
Just as John Wayne's career was starting to take off, his love life did too. Around 1926, he went on a date with a young lady named Carmen Saenz. Sparks didn't quite fly, but someone else caught Wayne's eye: Carmen's 16-year-old sister, Josephine. Wayne, always a hopeless romantic, fell for her instantly—but not everyone was happy about it.
John Wayne and Josephine Saenz came from two different worlds. The Saenz family was well off, and the thought of their daughter marrying a dirt-poor, corn-fed country boy like Marion Morrison horrified them. That didn't stop Wayne, though. He was head over heels and wanted to prove he could take care of their daughter. He just needed his big break—and it was coming.
You've all seen John Wayne: The guy is a movie star, no question about it. Well, director Raoul Walsh saw it too. He saw Wayne moving furniture on set one day and thought, "That guy should be on camera". Wayne had had some bit parts before, but Walsh cast him for the starring role in his upcoming picture The Big Trail. But here's the thing: Duke Morrison? That's just not the name for a movie star.
Like so many young actors, once Marion Morrison landed a role with a studio, they instantly wanted to change his name. Walsh suggested Anthony Wayne after a Revolutionary War general. There's a world where this would be an article on famous Western movie star Anthony Wayne—but the studio rejected it for an incredibly stupid reason. The chief of Fox Studios vetoed the name because it sounded "too Italian".
They finally agreed to swap out Anthony for John, and a star was born—though Wayne himself wasn't even present for the discussion.
John Wayne's first years in show biz were a whirlwind. His name was above the title, but he was no movie star just yet. He had to WORK for his money. Wayne appeared in about 80 low-budget Poverty Row Westerns in the 1930s. Eight. Zero. Who said being an actor was easy? But, at some point in those 80 movies, Wayne started to come into his own. He had a rough side—and audiences wanted to see it.
Before John Wayne came around, the heroes in Westerns were all pristine good guys. Well, Wayne knew Wyatt Earp, so he knew that cowboys were a lot more sinister than that. Taking after Earp, Wayne brought an edge to his performances. He fought dirty. He threw chairs and kicked people while they were down—and he always won.
John Wayne was a movie star unlike any audiences had seen before, and they loved it. But just as his career was kicking off, disaster struck.
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, dragging America into WWII. For a patriot like Wayne who'd spent his life dreaming of serving the country he loved, this was his chance to prove his worth. He immediately went to the registry to help. But when Wayne went to sign up for the effort, he received some devastating news.
His entire life, John Wayne carried one great shame with him, wherever he went: he was too old to enlist, so he never got to fight in WWII. Most people would have jumped for joy; Wayne was heartbroken. He desperately tried to get them to take him, but to no avail. He called his failure to serve one of the most painful parts of his entire life—and it eventually sent him down a dark path.
But for now, he was too distracted to worry about it—his love life was also going up in flames, and it required his attention.
Josephine Saenz married the young, up-and-coming John Wayne in 1933—but now it was the 40s, and Wayne was a bona fide movie star with lots of better things to do than be a good partner. Saenz saw less and less of her husband, who worked constantly on sets around Hollywood. But Wayne's absence was nothing compared to his betrayal.
I'm sure Josephine sat at home and worried about her husband spending all his time with Hollywood's most glamorous actresses. Well, her worries would have been well-founded. In 1940, Wayne starred in the film Seven Sinners—and during production, he began one of the most intense and ruinous affairs of his entire life.
John Wayne had reached the big time, and that meant he shared billing with some of the biggest actresses in the game—such as Marlene Dietrich, his Seven Sinners co-star. Before they'd even met, director Tay Garnett thought the pair of them might have chemistry, so he introduced them. Dietrich looked the Duke up and down like a piece of meat, then leaned over to Garnett and said, "Daddy, buy me that!"
Wayne landed the starring role in the film—and he got a LOT more than he'd bargained for.
Marlene Dietrich offered John Wayne the glamorous Hollywood lifestyle that he'd only dreamed of before. He had a wife and three children back home, but they just couldn't compete with a firecracker like Dietrich. She was exactly the kind of woman Wayne adored: She was gorgeous and feminine, but would also accompany him to football games and on hunting trips.
For years, Wayne lived two lives: A simple, family life back home, and the life of a movie star with Marlene Dietrich. Something had to give.
John Wayne came home one day to find a strange man in his home. His name was Father McCoy, and Josephine had invited him to provide marriage counseling. By now, Josephine was well aware of her husband's affairs; Marlene Dietrich was just one of many. She begged him to change his ways and come back to her—but there was no saving their marriage now.
Wayne and his first wife had a fourth child in 1940—well after his affair with Dietrich had begun—but their marriage couldn't recover. They divorced in 1945. By then, Wayne had already moved on from Marlene Dietrich and had a new girl. He didn't realize it yet, but this was the girl who would nearly shoot him in just a few short years.
The moment that John Wayne laid eyes on Esperanza Baur, or "Chata," as he called her, he fell in love. He was still married to his first wife at the time, and meeting Chata was the final nail in the coffin. Chata started calling him at home—the home he shared with his wife and children. For Josephine, that was the moment she decided enough was enough.
Wayne came home (likely from a liaison with Chata herself) to find all of his things strewn about the lawn. Josephine had kicked him out of the house. They divorced soon after, but Wayne didn't mind too much. He married Chata almost immediately. He was in love and ready for his happily-ever-after. Little did he know, his new wife had a disturbing side he had not seen yet—but he was about to.
John Wayne put it best when he said that his marriage to Esperanza Gaur "was like shaking two volatile chemicals in a jar". Their love ran hot—and it didn't take much for it to boil over. Wayne loved Chata's fiery side, but it came at a price. She was manipulative and jealous. She hated it when he went to see his kids, and she lived in constant fear that he was cheating on her.
To be fair, he was already married when they started going steady, so she had reason to be worried. That doesn't mean her response wasn't absolutely deranged.
Wayne could be a great husband and father—when he felt like it. However, the allure of the Hollywood lifestyle was always there, and when he didn't feel like playing house, he went out partying with his movie star friends. One such night, Chata sat at home stewing, imagining her husband was out sleeping with one co-star or another.
She worked herself into a frenzy, and by the time Wayne came home, she had snapped.
That night, a tipsy John Wayne stumbled into his home in the early hours of the morning. He opened the door, and found chilling sight waiting for him. There was his wife, awake in the middle of the night—and she had a firearm pointed right at him. No one knows for sure how the rest of that night played out, but suffice it to say, Chata didn't actually end up pulling the trigger.
John Wayne was still alive and kicking. His marriage, though, was another story...
After nine fiery years, John Wayne's second marriage burned out. The whole "pointing a pistol at him" thing was a bridge too far, I guess. They filed for divorce—but if Wayne was hoping for a nice quickie split like he got with his first wife, he had another thing coming. Chata was clearly not one to go quietly. What followed was one of the greatest scandals of John Wayne's career.
John Wayne was an intensely private man—but Chata wanted to make sure all of his dirty laundry saw the light of day. Chata publicly accused him of unfaithfulness, emotional cruelty, and "clobbering". Wayne fought back, calling his wife a "drunken partygoer who would fall down and then accuse him of pushing her".
But while Chata went into the proceedings hoping to take Wayne for everything he had, she didn't realize that the Duke had a secret weapon.
Though John Wayne was one of the most beloved men in the country, Chata did everything in her power to ruin his good image. But, if you're going to dish it out, you've got to be ready for the backlash. During the divorce proceedings, it came out that Chata had been having an affair of her own—with womanizer socialite Conrad Hilton, Jr.
After this total mess of a divorce, you'd think Wayne would sit back and enjoy the single life for a while—but the Duke wasn't much of a bachelor, and he already had his eyes on his next trophy wife.
When you're going through a divorce like THAT, work feels like a vacation. Wayne traveled down to Peru to scout locations for a film. He toured some local film sets, and on one of those sets, someone caught his eye. A gorgeous woman in a low-cut costume filmed a sultry dance scene by firelight. When the cameras stopped rolling, the director introduced her to him.
He looked at her up and down and said, "That was quite a dance". The rest of that night is lost to history, but use your imagination.
Her name was Pilar Paquette, and John Wayne knew he'd found his next wife the moment he saw her. Though very much still married to Chata, Wayne began a torrid affair with this Peruvian dancer. He knew she was the one for him, and the very day that his divorce from Chata became final, the two of them tied the knot.
Paquette must have thought she was living a fairy tale: One of the biggest actors in Hollywood came to Peru and swept her off her feet. Little did she realize, this was more like a horror story.
Pilar Paquette quickly learned that there's a big difference between dreams and reality. She may have dreamed of moving to Hollywood, but actually doing it wasn't quite as magical as she imagined. The cultural shift overwhelmed her with stress, and she began having trouble sleeping. She began taking sleeping pills—unaware that she was taking the first step down a dark path.
Paquette soon became addicted to the sleeping pills—and it didn't help that Wayne insisted she remain at his side always. He dragged her from location to location, set to set, and it quickly took its toll. Finally, it reached a disturbing climax. While on location in Louisiana, Paquette took too many pills, began hallucinating, and slit her own wrists.
She had reached rock bottom—and Wayne's reaction didn't help.
Any of John Wayne's wives would tell you: Work always came first with him. His wife was clearly in dire straits, but Wayne had a movie to film! He hired some nurses to accompany his wife back to California, then kept on filming as if nothing had happened. John Wayne might have been a romantic, but he was no Prince Charming.
He had his fair share of bad habits, too.
John Wayne denied his second wife's accusation that he was a mean, abusive drunkard—but she wasn't the only one saying it. Directors knew that they had to shoot as many of Wayne's scenes as they could in the morning. By the afternoon, he'd be well into the sauce—and being around John Wayne after a few too many wasn't fun for anyone involved.
Couple that with Wayne's pack-a-day nicotine habit, and it was only a matter of time before his vices came back to bite him.
It was the smokes that got to Wayne first. In 1964, he learned he had lung cancer. The prognosis wasn't good. The cancer had progressed to a late stage before doctors identified it, and they needed to take drastic action. In the end, surgeons had to remove four ribs and Wayne's entire left lung—but it worked. Doctors declared Wayne cancer-free just 10 days later.
And if you think this brush with his mortality was going to slow him down, you don't know John Wayne.
John Wayne could do with one lung what most of us couldn't do with four. He kept on puffing like a chimney. He kept working as much as before too, immediately flying off to Mexico to start filming a new movie after surgery. In fact, though Wayne was now nearing 60 and down a lung, the best years of his career were still ahead of him.
John Wayne may have been Hollywood's biggest movie star, but one accolade still eluded him—he wanted that golden statue. Well, in the late 60s, the role he was born to play came along. The movie was True Grit, and Wayne would star as grizzled US Marshal Rooster Cogburn. With a role like that, the Academy finally gave Wayne his Oscar—the only one of his entire career.
Not all of Wayne's movies were as much of a slam dunk as True Grit. The year before, Wayne directed and starred in The Green Berets, the only pro-Vietnam War film that Hollywood produced. Bucking the counterculture of the time, Wayne essentially made it as a propaganda film to support the war effort. It wasn't a good look—but little surprise, given Wayne's disturbing role in one of Old Hollywood's biggest scandals.
Anti-communist sentiment swept the nation at the height of Wayne's career, and no one waved the flag more than Wayne himself. Wayne ardently supported Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee—the witch hunt that baselessly ruined lives in a bout of xenophobic panic. But John Wayne didn't just support the HUAC vocally—he did a lot more than that.
Today, Wayne's movie The Green Berets doesn't hold up particularly well—but it's a whole lot better than his 1952 picture Big Jim McLain. In it, the Duke played a heroic HUAC investigator who had to travel to Hawaii to undercover an insidious communist plot. Movies like that didn't make Wayne many friends among the liberal Hollywood elite—but he did much worse than make a silly film.
Wayne's worst activities with the HUAC remain a dark stain on his legacy.
Throughout the 40s and 50s, Hollywood had a dark secret that no one wanted to talk about: The Blacklist. Studios denied employment to anyone they thought might have Communist sympathies, whether they had proof or not. The Hollywood blacklist shaped American cinema for decades—but it only worked thanks to stars like John Wayne.
Wayne's ardent refusal to work with anyone who'd been deemed "Un-American" kept the Blacklist going strong. To the patriots back home, this made him even more beloved—but Wayne's passionate hatred of communism got attention from the wrong kind of people.
John Wayne was maybe the most prominent anti-communist in the entire world. Joseph Stalin even allegedly tried to plot his assassination, though nothing ever came to fruition. Clearly, politics were something that meant a lot to the Duke—so much so that he nearly became a whole lot more of a movie star.
Even back in the 60s, Republicans were outnumbered in Hollywood. But red state voters could at least take solace that John Wayne, the coolest, toughest actor in town, was on their side. It was only a matter of time before someone asked him to run for office. Nowadays, that seems like a surefire win, but Wayne just laughed when his friends asked him.
He told them that the American public would never be able to take an actor seriously in the White House. Welp, John, you can't be right about everything...
John Wayne never hesitated to share his opinions—unfortunately, they tended to be ridiculously ignorant. Take his 1971 Playboy interview, for instance. He started by expressing his support for the Vietnam War. He then quickly veered into disastrous territory.
The magazine asked Wayne to speak on the social issues pressing in America at the time—and boy, did they get an answer. In a matter of sentences, Wayne said that he believed in white supremacy, and claimed that white people only took America from the "Indians" because they were "selfishly trying to keep it for themselves".
These quotes have resurfaced in recent years, calling into question Wayne's legacy as a movie star. His defenders claimed the quotes were taken out of context—but if anyone would like to tell me what context might make those quotes hold up, I'm all ears.
By this point, it should come as no surprise that John Wayne was a tad...old-fashioned in his views. But, with his full library of xenophobic quotes, many people found it odd that Wayne only seemed to go after Latin American women—at least, as far as marriage material. Wayne denied that he had any kind of type, but one of his friends believed he knew the real reason why the Duke always ended up with Latina women.
John Wayne once told a friend, “the great thing about Latin women was that they liked the simple things—marriage, family, children, a home". That's certainly in line with what he told his wife: “I don’t care if you go to work, just as long as my dinner is on the table when I get home". To Wayne, this was totally normal—but going off and sleeping with American women for fun, then expecting your Latina wife to have dinner ready on the table when you get home? Very classy, John. No wonder all his marriages burned out before long.
Though John Wayne remained married to Pilar Palette until the day he succumbed to stomach cancer, they had separated several years earlier. Wayne spent his last years with his former secretary, Pat Stacy, by his side. He just didn't bother with the whole "divorce and remarrying" thing. Palette still cared for her husband though, and after he passed, she published a memoir to set the record straight. She claimed he was 80% a good man—but it's that 20% that we're interested in.
Though Palette retained great love and respect for her departed husband, she wasn't going to sugarcoat things: Being John Wayne's wife was no walk in the park. Though he went off to carry on affairs whenever he felt like it, he expected his wife and kids to be ready at his beck and call at all times. He dragged them around the world, uprooting their lives constantly, just because he insisted they stay by his side always.
But anyone who knew John Wayne knew he could be demanding and difficult. That was nothing new—but Palette's book did contain one shocker that no one saw coming.
Remember how Wayne married Palette on the day of his second divorce? Well, I guess Wayne was no Catholic, because long before the divorce was final, Palette came to him with exciting news: She was pregnant! However, she did not get the reaction she was hoping for. John Wayne feared having a child out of wedlock would ruin his career, so he convinced her to have an abortion.
Palette never held the abortion against him, but she held onto that secret for over 20 years before finally revealing it in her memoir. But, as far as John Wayne's wives go, Palette got off easy. Remember Chata, the wife who nearly shot him? She suffered the most disturbing fate of all.
Esperanza "Chata" Baur does not seem like she was the most...stable person in the world. Maybe it was the "trying to shoot her husband" thing, or the messy divorce, but that's at least the impression that WE got. Clearly, she had some issues—and it seems like John Wayne was the only thing that kept her grounded. After the divorce, Chata started spiraling.
She eventually found herself in a Mexican hotel, where she locked herself in her room and drank herself to the grave. She was just 40 years old.
John Wayne was obsessed with his image and he worked tirelessly to keep the sordid details of his personal life from getting out. However, in the decades since his passing, his dirty secrets have started to come to light. His affair with Marlene Dietrich had long been public knowledge—but there were far more scandalous trysts than that.
John Wayne's affair with Merle Oberon has created one of Hollywood's most shocking legends. Allegedly, the pair of them made a film together, but not some studio affair. No, their film was much more personal...and much more adult. Hollywood insiders have long insisted the film exists, and many have claimed to have seen it, but thus far, it has never seen the light of day.
Most people assumed that Marlene Dietrich was John Wayne's most passionate affair, but maybe that was just the one we'd heard about. According to Robert Mitchum's son Christopher, who worked with Wayne on a film, the real love of Wayne's life was another starlet: Maureen O'Hara. Mitchum claimed that Wayne was "truly in love with that woman," and that they were inseparable on set.
But, whether it was Merle or Maureen or Marlene, Wayne knew they weren't wife material. They were far too independent to allow him to control them, so he stuck to fooling around and never married any of them.
So who was the love of John Wayne's life? Was it Pilar, his last wife? Chata, the erratic spitfire? Maybe it was Maureen O'Hara, as Christopher Mitchum claimed? Wayne was never so gauche as to say it outright, but as he grew close to the end of his life, he did have this to say: "There were many beautiful dames in my life, and Marlene Dietrich was especially glamorous".
Throughout his life, John Wayne made a lot of...questionable decisions. But in terms of regrets, one stood out above the rest. If anyone ever asked him about the movie The Conqueror, he would visibly shudder. In it, he played Temujin, the man who would become Genghis Khan. Later, Wayne would say the moral of the film was "not to make an [jerk] of yourself trying to play parts you’re not suited for".
Take a look at screenshots of the movie—I'd say he was right on the money with that one...
When Edward VIII’s baby brother Prince John died of severe seizure at only 13 years old, Edward’s response was so disturbing it’s impossible to forget.
I had an imaginary friend named Charlie. My parents asked what he looked like, and I always replied “a little man.” When we moved away, Charlie didn't come with us. My mom asked where he was, and I told her that he was going to be a mannequin at Sears—but that wasn’t even the most disturbing part. The years passed by and I’d forgotten my imaginary friend, but when someone told me a story about my old house, I was chilled to the bone.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
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