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John Wayne: He Found His Home Base

June 10, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Michael Marion Morrison--better known to a few billion people as John Wayne--and Orange County had to find each other. It took a while.

Wayne was 58 when he moved from Encino to the Bay Shores Estates home in Newport Beach where he spent the rest of his life. But when a reporter asked him a few years later where he would live if he had a choice of anywhere in the world, he answered without hesitation, "I'm living there."

He did too. The things that made him most comfortable and pleasured him most, he found in his Orange County home. The sea, and a place to dock his beloved boat. Warm cronies. Conservative political environment. Good schools for his children. A home base he could come back to gratefully from movie locations.

Wayne lived in Orange County. He shopped in its stores, walked along its streets, dined in its restaurants and involved himself--when he was so moved--in its social and political life. "People around home don't hassle me," he once told me. "They mostly respect my privacy. I don't restrict my movements around here. This is where I live. Hell, I go wherever I feel like going when I'm home."

Wayne's Bay Shores house--unimposing from the street, where only the garage and a grillwork entrance could be seen--was a large, rambling, waterfront ranch-style home with a magnificent view of the bay, a spacious trophy room in which 50 years of Wayne memorabilia was displayed and a fine collection of primitive art.

He was more likely to lunch out than dine out when he was home because, says an old friend, "it was kind of rough to go out to dinner and get all that attention. People do come over to his table all the time, and he always signs whatever they hold out to him--and stands up to do it if it's a woman. Then he makes excuses for people who--it seems to me--are bothering him."

One local project in which his association was more public than private was the John Wayne Tennis Club. Duke never had any interest in tennis, and his involvement consisted mainly of public appearances at ground-breaking ceremonies and occasional visits to the club card room. He did, however, frequently permit the use of his name--and sometimes his presence--at local fund-raisers, especially if an old buddy like Andy Devine was involved. Wayne's loyalties were firm and unswerving.

When his marriage to Pilar Wayne, the mother of his second set of children--in whom he had enormous pride--broke up in 1974 after almost 20 years, Wayne stayed on in the Bay Shores house that, he said, "the kids identify as home. Every minute I'm not working, I'm there--and the kids are over." (The "kids" are Aissa, now 32, Ethan, 25, and Marisa, 21.) "Not very many people," he once said, "get the chance to have two families. I was lucky. I've always loved my kids. They were it in my life--and always will be."

Wayne was 57 when what he called "The Big C" first attacked him. Cancer was the only opponent ever to lay him low--but he fought it off for 15 spectacular years.

"They found it in a routine examination before I went on location for 'In Harm's Way,' " he explained at the time. "In the two months I was gone, a tiny spot on my lung had grown almost to the size of my fist. If we hadn't finished the film two weeks early, they might not have found it in time."

But they did, and after surgery, his recovery was astonishing. Within three months, he was back at work. The only concessions he made to this brush with death were to stop smoking and to set up a work program that involved fewer films and shorter days on the set.

Thirteen years later, he made a film called "The Shootist," about a hired gun with terminal cancer who went out with guns blazing against a group of bad guys. When a connection was suggested with the star of the film, Wayne said: "That's ridiculous. I licked cancer 13 years ago."

But "The Shootist" turned out to be prophetic. Two years later, the 71-year-old Wayne entered UCLA Medical Center for what was supposed to be a routine operation to remove gallstones. Instead, Wayne was under the knife for 9 1/2 hours after the surgeons discovered cancer and had to remove his entire stomach. Once again, Wayne made a remarkable recovery (one of his doctors said, "This man has a tremendous will to live"), but even Duke's massive strength wasn't enough this time. Less than six months later, he was gone, but not before President Jimmy Carter--on Wayne's 72nd birthday--signed a bill authorizing a special medal, approved by Congress, to honor Wayne.

During the last 15 years of his life, I did half a dozen newspaper and magazine articles on John Wayne, some of them involving hanging out with him for a week or more. The more I saw of him, the more it became apparent that this man was not the simplistic, one-dimensional cowboy whose image Wayne seemed to court. When he was tired or abstracted--or sometimes just comfortable--he would drift away from that image to some rather surprising places.

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