They met on a movie set on the edge of a Peruvian jungle in 1952.
She was Pilar Pallete, an exotically beautiful young Peruvian movie actress with one movie to her credit and a failed eight-month marriage to an American airline executive behind her.
He was John Wayne, the ruggedly handsome, middle-aged American movie star who had come to Peru to scout movie locations while seeking a respite from a bitter divorce battle with his second wife.
Barefoot and wearing a low-cut Gypsy costume, Pilar had just finished filming a dance scene in the firelight. She was still flushed and out of breath when the director introduced her to Wayne, who towered over her.
"That was quite a dance," he drawled, giving her an admiring head-to-toe glance.
"Pleased to meet you," she gasped in a quavering voice, impressed by his piercing turquoise eyes and his sense of strength.
It may read like the script for a Hollywood melodrama, but the casual meeting marked the beginning of a 27-year relationship between the man whose screen roles would make him a living legend in the minds of millions of Americans and the woman who became his third--and last--wife and the mother of three of his seven children.
Since John Wayne's death of cancer in 1979 at age 72, a spate of books has been written about the Academy Award-winning actor who was eulogized as a national hero. Now Pilar Wayne has written her own book, "John Wayne: My Life With the Duke" (McGraw-Hill, $17.95), with Irvine free-lancer Alex Thorleifson.
The book chronicles the good times and the bad times during their long relationship, including John Wayne's bouts with cancer and Pilar Wayne's revelation that she had an abortion in the months before their marriage in 1954. Although they never were divorced or legally separated, Pilar Wayne moved out of their waterfront home in the exclusive Bayshores area of Newport Beach six years before John Wayne's death. She makes a point of emphasizing, however, that "we were married until the day he died."
Still wearing the 15-carat diamond engagement ring the Duke gave her, she says she received many offers over the years to write a book about their marriage. She always declined.
"First, I didn't think I could do it, and I never kept diaries or anything like that," she said. But she changed her mind when other writers, some of whom had never met John Wayne or knew him only peripherally, began writing biographies. ("Fine writers, but with very large imaginations," she said.)
She wrote her book, she said, "to protect his image and to do it for my kids, so they know the real story."
Pilar, who is in her 50s, had just returned home after completing the first half of a five-week nationwide book promotion tour, a tour sponsored by the National Enquirer, which paid $50,000 for serialization rights to the book.
She said she was not upset when she learned that the book would be excerpted in a supermarket tabloid best known for the celebrity libel lawsuits filed against it, noting the Enquirer's millions of readers and the fact that Bill Cosby and the Rev. Robert H. Schuller have had their books excerpted in it.
As for appearing in a television commercial for the Enquirer to promote the book serialization, she explained, "I thought it would be a good idea. As long as I was going with them, why not go all the way?"
Sipping a glass of 7-Up served by her housekeeper, Wayne said she was exhausted from the tour and glad to be home.
Home is a palatial, elegantly furnished, two-story Country-French house overlooking upper Newport Bay, built "from scratch" four years ago.
The house, complete with an adjoining tennis court reached via an indoor spiral staircase, is currently on the market for $5 million and is, she says, "worth every penny."
But even though it is too large for her now that her children are on their own--and she spends summers in her oceanfront mobile home in South Laguna--she says she's not sure she wants to sell.
"I got back and fell in love with it all over again," said Pilar, whose actor son Ethan, 25, appears on the soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful." Her daughter, Marissa, 21, is studying acting; and daughter Aissa, 31, is in partnership with her mother in a Mexican-based import business.
Pilar, who was provided for financially through a generous trust fund established by John Wayne, was remarried briefly in 1984 to Municipal Judge Stephen Stewart. ("You don't need to mention that," she said. "It was a two-week mistake, I call it.")
Dressed in black, her dark hair permed into what she jokingly calls her "Cher hairdo," she retreated to her den to talk about her life with the Duke.