John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman, Simon and Schuster, 658 pages ($32.50). In the grand, ongoing game of Musical Beds that has – among many other things – characterized Hollywood in the American mind, consider these unlikely players as reported in Scott Eyman’s great new biography of John Wayne: “the first time (Marlene) Dietrich saw (John) Wayne was in the commissary at Universal. She leaned over to director Tay Garnett and said ‘Daddy, buy me that.’… Wayne had been trying to be a better husband, but he made an exception for Dietrich, as many did.”
Sex and unexpected couplings, obviously, are by no means the only subject in which Eyman’s superb second crack at writing a book about Wayne is determined to be fair and thorough about one of the specimen lives of American film. Wayne’s conservative politics – which made him a generational symbol of conservative obduracy in the Vietnam era and later – are handled carefully and exhaustively here with the idea that “in his own mind, Wayne was a true democrat, if not a Democrat, but at the same time he was oblivious to matters of terminology and tone. ‘His language reflected his background and his class’ said novelist (and Wayne interviewer) P.F. Kluge ‘but that wasn’t him.’ ”
It is as plain as day here that the biographer of Marion Robert Morrison likes his subject no matter what turns up. “One on one, he was immensely likable,” Eyman says in fact in the publicity material about his interview with Wayne for an earlier, shorter Wayne study that appeared in the heyday of film culture.
“He loved making movies, loved everything about the actual process which many find a trifle boring – all that waiting around. He was a demon chess player, not quite tournament caliber, but very strong and aggressive. He knew literature, had a surprising gift for interior decoration and loved nothing more than to shop out of catalogs.”
This is a great biography of a complicated man who cultivated an image of simplicity. It’s as credible and likable and well-written enough to be definitive sitting next to Garry Willis’ “John Wayne’s America.”
– Jeff Simon