by Scott Eyman
Simon & Schuster, 2014—
John Wayne had always cornered cowboy iconography, once saying, “I’m the stuff men are made of!” In Scott Eyman’s new biography, though, based on interviews with Wayne and his friends, as well as production company archives and family histories, what emerges is how much conscious artifice was actually involved in Duke’s image.
Marion Robert Morrison (also known as Marion Michael and Marion Mitchell) from Winterset, Iowa, might not be the first name you associate with heroic images of the American western, but Wayne transformed himself from that boy to the manly actor he became with some design.
Instead of the cursory gloss in most celebrity biographies, Eyman gives us a more personal, insecure side of the legend, from his never being able to please his mother to his unfortunate three marriages to pretending like he never took acting lessons to his death from stomach cancer in 1979. Not many know he was fluent in Spanish either, all three of his wives being Latina.
It is always difficult to paint an icon in a different light and not tell us what we think we already know about him, but while we get the requisite walk through his filmic career with all the anecdotal inside stories we crave, we also get something else, a different measurement of the great man. His life was an act in many ways, it had many acts, and yet he acted like it wasn’t a big deal. “I don’t act,” he said, “I react.”
Wayne is delineated richly here, as American biographies go, with endless nuanced detail, humanizing the myth, or perhaps mythologizing the human even more than he ever has been.