Klavan On The Culture

A Great Biography of John Wayne

I just finished John Wayne:  The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman. What a wonderful book. Really terrific.  My son-in-law gave it to me for Christmas. I have so much work reading to do that I was just going to skim it to be polite. But the second I opened the book, it was like a hand reached out of the pages and dragged me into it, leaving only my shoes lying mysteriously on the floor.

Wayne, of course, is a titanic figure in the history of American entertainment, probably the single greatest movie star of all-time. Plus he’s an icon to those of us who believe in things like freedom and manhood and being able to load a repeating rifle by spinning it around in one hand. But I’ve read other books about him and they were nothing like this. The credit is with Eyman. He does a wonderful job of bringing the man to life. His research and pacing are both nearly perfect, and he understands movies and acting as too few writers do.

Readers of this blog will be interested to hear how Eyman handles Wayne’s politics. He doesn’t seem sympathetic to the Duke’s conservatism, but he doesn’t attack it either. There’s a touch of that left-wing habit of trying to explain conservatism as a psychological phenomenon rather than understand it as a philosophy. But like almost everyone who met Wayne, even far leftists, the author is won over by Wayne’s sincerity and open-hearted kindness. He may not agree with him, but he doesn’t dismiss his ideas out of hand. He gives Wayne a chance to speak for himself. Fair enough.

Wayne comes right off the page as you read. You feel you know him and to know him is to be very, very impressed with both the actor and the man. Twice in my life, I’ve developed such an affection for a man through his biography that the account of his death made my eyes mist. One time, it was reading Juliet Barker’s wonderful collection, Wordsworth: A Life In Letters. This was the other.

As Wayne lay on his death bed, two chums came to visit, one a Jewish guy named Al. Duke’s son Mike — making a joke out of Wayne’s undeserved reputation for bigotry — said to them, “The reason Duke didn’t want to see you was because Al is a Jew.” The Duke smiled and pointed to the ceiling and said, “It’s the other Jew I don’t want to see.”

I have no doubt Duke’s with the Big Jew now, and I was moved and delighted to experience his amazing life through this excellent book.