John Wayne, by Scott Eyman *****

johnwayneWhen I was young, John Wayne was everywhere. His new movies were in theaters, and his old ones were on television. I remember him primarily as the quintessential cowboy—his most oft-played role—and particularly as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, for which he won the Academy Award. I also remember him as the first big celebrity to announce on television that “I licked the Big C.” And then, oh damn, he died of it anyway…but not for some time. And I read this biography to fill in the gaps, since I actually knew very little.

Thanks go to Net Galley for letting me read it free.

There are two popular assumptions made about Wayne, I think, that this biography does a thorough job of smacking down in the dirt where they belong. The first is that he was playing himself in those movies, a big, dumb galoot of some sort. In fact, he was very bright and well read. A journalist makes the error of talking to down to him, asking if he is familiar with the work of Eugene O’Neil. Wayne says that he has been to college, and yes, he has read O’Neil.

The second popular notion is that he emerged from nowhere as this enormous star, as some indeed did. Wayne did nothing to suppress such tales; in fact, he liked to pretend, our author says, that he was just doing props work and sort of fell into acting. But nothing could be farther from the truth. He wanted to act very much, and he put up with ten years of very hard work, in dust and heat and all kinds of environments, required to expend immense amounts of physical energy and strength (which he fortunately had). Ford, who most often directed him, was nasty and abusive toward most of the actors with whom he worked, including Wayne, who just took it. There was no stunt so dangerous that if his double was not available, he would not do it. But once he was in a position to do so, he went after the scoundrels in the business that underpaid him or cheated him in percentages that he was supposed to receive, but which they held onto for unconscionably long time periods.

His love life was as awful as his work was excellent. He was married three times, and all turned out badly. Like many people, he was married to his work, and the acting talent and magnetism that drew women toward him turned out to be one of the things that later alienated them. Hey, he was always at work!

I have to say I really enjoyed reading this biography, and I am glad someone put in what had to be an exhaustive amount of research to write it. I can’t imagine anyone doing a finer job.

Having said that, I must caution the reader that this is one long book, and it takes a similar attention span. That’s the joy of a well-researched biography: there’s a lot to put in it. It is well paced, with a zillion fascinating anecdotes, several of which I highlighted and then realized that since this is a galley, I can’t quote from them directly. But that’s all right; if you have the attention span to dive in and immerse yourself, it’s better to find those little treats along the way as you do so.

For the serious reader, highly recommended.

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