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Biography of John Wayne: Hollywood Hero to American Icon

Updated on January 31, 2018
DS Dollman profile image

Darla Sue Dollman, B.A., M.F.A., has 38 years experience as a journalist and editor. She also studied film, acting, and theater.

John and Pilar Wayne

John and Pilar Wayne at the John Wayne Theatre opening at Knott's Berry Farm in 1971.
John and Pilar Wayne at the John Wayne Theatre opening at Knott's Berry Farm in 1971. | Source

As a child, he rode his horse to school and spent lazy afternoons swimming in irrigation ditches when he wasn't clearing sagebrush with his father on their California farm.

But John Wayne's destiny was in Hollywood. So he said goodbye to his farmboy life and moved to the big city where he could develop his acting talents and reputation as a first-class director of western and military films. It took years of hard work and dedication, but after five decades, Wayne had managed to create unforgettable images that people worldwide would always identify as the American cowboy and the American soldier.

Marion Roberts Morrison

According to the Ronald L. Davis book Duke, on May 26, 1907, the legendary actor, John Wayne, was born in Winterset, Iowa to Clyde and Mary Alberta Morrison.He was named Marion Roberts Morrison after his grandfather, Marion Mitchell Morrison, who fought in the Civil War, but nicknamed “Duke” after the family's Airedale terrier who followed him everywhere. According to, the pair was known as Big Duke and Little Duke.

The Morrison family moved to Earlham in 1910 where Clyde Morrison owned a pharmacy. In 1914, the family moved again, this time to Lancaster, California. Wayne played football for the Glendale High School team. He also applied to the U.S. Naval Academy, but was turned down. He enrolled instead with the University of Southern California where he played football until he was injured and lost his scholarship.

"Sagebrush Trail"

Lobby card from the 1933 film "Sagebrush Trail."
Lobby card from the 1933 film "Sagebrush Trail." | Source

Wayne's Work with the Film Studios

As soon as he left college, Wayne started working in the props department at the local film studios. Fox Film Corporation hired him for $75 a week to play bit parts. He kept his childhood name, acting as Duke Morrison.

When Morrison was offered his first starring role in 1930s The Big Trail, studio executives decided it was time to change his name to John Wayne, but his childhood name, "The Duke," remained with him for the rest of his life.

Wayne was popular with audiences and studio executives recognized his potential as a Hollywood hero. They raised his pay to $105 a week to entice him to stay in the acting business. Unfortunately, The Big Trail was the first wide-screen movie and few theaters where equipped to handle the size of the picture.

The film was a financial failure and this failure had a substantial impact on Wayne's career, but the studio executives had little to worry about when it came to Wayne's interest in acting. According to numerous biographers, John Wayne enjoyed acting as much as he enjoyed Hollywood. Wayne continued his acting career playing bit parts in popular Westerns. His name was still "unknown" to audiences, but gradually, his face became familiar. He appeared in over eighty “horse operas” in a span of nine years.

"Shepherd of the HIlls"

John Wayne and Betty Field in "Shepherd of the Hills."
John Wayne and Betty Field in "Shepherd of the Hills." | Source

The Big Break in Hollywood Films

John Ford’s popular 1939 Stagecoach provided Wayne with a chance to showcase his refined acting skills and gave him a new start in Hollywood. Remarkably, John Ford was unable to finance the movie with Wayne as top-billing and Claire Trevor was given this position, but his years in horse operas proved to be more of a boost than he anticipated when critics made it clear they recognized Wayne as the true star of the film, a distinction he retains to this day.

In 1940, Wayne starred in the Universal film Seven Sinners with Marlene Dietrich, a woman he later described as "the most intriguing woman I've ever known," according to the Ronald L. Davis biography Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne. In the film, Wayne plays an American naval officer and Dietrich, plays the seductress.

The film was considered a vehicle for Dietrich, though it helped Wayne's career tremendously. It was also the vehicle that sparked an infamous affair between John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich.

Wayne's next film was The Shepherd of the Hills, which is based on the Harold Bell Wright bestseller. This film was Wayne's first in technicolor. Again, according to the Davis biography, Wayne felt the movie was the best he had ever seen "before the studio heads took over the editing of the film and ruined it."

Wayne and Dietrich then starred in The Spoilers, a 1942 film about the Klondike gold rush, which included a spectacular fight scene between Wayne and Randolph Scott. The film marked the end of the affair between the stars, an ending that Wayne apparently did not approve. He was obsessed with Dietrich. But Wayne was a conflicted man. While he adored Dietrich, he also loved his life as a father and a family man. The affair and inevitable rumors destroyed Wayne's marriage to his first wife, divided the family. He was eventually rejected by Dietrich, as well. According to the Davis biography, Wayne's obsession over the popular and flirtatious Hollywood star became painful and depressing at a time when he should have been celebrating his success.

"Reap the Wild WInd"

Trailer Screenshot from the 1942 film "Reap the Wild Wind."
Trailer Screenshot from the 1942 film "Reap the Wild Wind." | Source

World War II

The beginning of World War II inspired celebrities worldwide to serve their countries. Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Elvis Presley and many others appeared in short films in the theaters intended to inspire the American public. According to the Davis biography, Wayne would have been exempt from military service and the draft because he had four children at the start of World War II, but he felt it was his duty to enlist. He was rejected due to numerous injuries he received during the filming of his early western movies when he performed his own stunts.

Wayne also developed an inner ear problem during underwater filming scenes while making the film Reap the Wild Wind, which was Paramount's most popular film released in 1941, but a tremendous physical strain on John Wayne.

According to Wayne's daughter, Aissa, who also wrote a biography of her father, John Wayne was devestated by his inability to enlist. Studio executives encouraged Wayne to appear in military films in order to inspire the American public's views on the war, but Wayne was a proud man who hated the thought that anyone, particularly his competitors in Hollywood, would think of him as a coward because he did not fight in the war. He did endure some criticism about his numerous appearances in war films and lack of actual miliatry experience. When Audey Murphy, one of the most highly decorated soldiers in the U.S. returned from service and started his career in Hollywood the pressure on Wayne increased, but he could not convince military personnel to see past his physical injuries.

Wayne in "The Searchers"

John Wayne in a trailer screenshot from "The Searchers."
John Wayne in a trailer screenshot from "The Searchers." | Source

Working with John Ford

Eventually, John Wayne did find a way to serve his country during World War II in a Field Photographic Unit for the Office of Strategic Services with director John Ford. In his biographer, writer Ronald L. Davis tells of how Wayne contacted Ford and asked if he could also join Ford's unit, but Wayne was urged to support the war effort through films.

Wayne eventually starred in more than twenty John Ford movies, including Donovan's Reef; She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; The Horse Soldiers; The Quiet Man; Stagecoach; The Man who Shot Liberty Valance; Rio Grande; and the 1956 blockbuster The Searchers. Wayne’s appearance in The Searchers is believed to be his most powerful acting performance.

"She Wore a Yellow Ribbon"

Joanne Dru and John Wayne, trailer screenshot from "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon."
Joanne Dru and John Wayne, trailer screenshot from "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." | Source

Favorite Films

As a fan of John Wayne, what is your favorite film genre in which he excelled?

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Director and Producer

Wayne eventually moved into directing and producing and started a number of film studios, including Batjac, named after the fictional shipping company in The Wake of the Red Witch with Gail Russell.

He produced twenty films and directed five, including the 1960 film The Alamo, which brought him another Oscar nomination.

John and Pilar Wayne

John and Pilar Wayne at the John Wayne Theatre opening at Knott's Berry Farm in 1971.
John and Pilar Wayne at the John Wayne Theatre opening at Knott's Berry Farm in 1971. | Source

Family Life

John Wayne met Josephine Alicia Saenz while he was still a student at the University of Southern California, but her parents disapproved of their relationship because Wayne's parents were in the process of a divorce and they were not Catholic. Nevertheless, Wayne and Saenz were married on June 24,1933.

Wayne's affair with Marlene Dietrich may have been the cause of the 1945 divorce between Wayne and Josephine Alicia Saenz, but he actually met his second wife, Esperanza Bauer while on vacation with Saenz and married Bauer a year after his divorce.

As stated earlier, Wayne was deeply depressed after his divorce from Saenz and said to be tortured with guilt because he was "unavailable to his children." Wayne and Saenz have four children together, including: Michael Wayne, film producer and founder of the John Wayne Cancer Institute; Mary Antonia "Toni" Wayne LaCava; Patrick Wayne, Hollywood actor and Chairman of the John Wayne Cancer Institute; and Melinda Wayne Munoz.

John Wayne married Esperanza "Chata" Bauer in 1946. Bauer tried to shoot Wayne in a drunken rage after accusing him of having an affair with actress Gail Russell and they divorced in November of 1954 following a controversial and highly-publicized trial. Bauer insisted she did not intend to shoot Wayne, but thought he was an intruder when she came down from their bedroom and found him passed out on their couch after a cast party.

John Wayne married Pilar Pallete in November of 1954 and by all accounts was finally happy in marriage. John and Pilar had three children--attorney and author Aissa Wayne, actor John Ethan Wayne, and actress Marisa Wayne. At the time of his death, Wayne had twenty-four grandchildren.

John Wayne's Signature

John Wayne's signature at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
John Wayne's signature at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. | Source

Politics and Awards

Wayne once claimed to have been a Socialist during his Sophomore year in college, though in later years he was clearly a conservative Republican and spoke critically of Socialism in interviews. He was also vocal about his anti-communist beliefs and a supporter of the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1944, he participated in the creation of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and served as their president in 1947.

In spite of the many controversies in his life, Wayne's status as an American Icon remained. His popularity as an actor never wained. He was nominated for Academy Awards for his performances in the 1949 movie The Sands of Iwo Jima, the 1960 film The Alamo, which he also directed, and the 1969 film True Grit.

In 1966, Wayne received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement in motion pictures On May 26, 1979, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and on June 9, 1980,.Wayne was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, John Wayne appeared in over 170 films. His signature and footprints are in front of Graumann's Chinese Theater.

1958 Academy Awards Rehearsals

John Wayne, Maurice Chevalier, Anthony Quinn and Jerry Wald during 1958 Academy Awards rehearsals.
John Wayne, Maurice Chevalier, Anthony Quinn and Jerry Wald during 1958 Academy Awards rehearsals. | Source

Final Days

Wayne was a chain-smoker from the time he was a teen and long before cigarette companies warned of the dangers. He had one of his lungs removed in 1963, but died fifteen years later from stomach cancer on June 11, 1979. He was enrolled in a cancer vaccine study at the time of his death at the UCLA Medical Center.

John Wayne is buried in the Pacific View Memorial Park Cemetery in Corona del Mar. His tompstone has a beautiful quote from an interview he did with a reporter from Playboy Magazine: " "Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday." --John Wayne

The John Wayne Cancer Foundation

The John Wayne Cancer Foundation continues to pay tribute to this brave and compassionate man through awareness and education programs and support groups. The Foundation also supports the John Wayne Cancer Institute, which conducts clinical and laboratory cancer research.


    • Davis, Ronald L. Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, Oklahoma: 1998.
    • Harnisch, Larry. “Gail Russell-In Memorium.” Los Angeles Times/The Daily Mirror: July 5, 2007. Retrieved on May 10, 2011.
    • "John Wayne."
    • Munn, Michael. John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth. New American Library. New York: 2005.
    • Roberts, Randy, and Olson, James. John Wayne: American. Simon & Schuster. New York: 1995.
    • Wayne, Aissa. John Wayne, My Father. Random House. New York: 1991.
    • “John Wayne.” Official Website of
    • The John Wayne Cancer Foundation
    • The John Wayne Cancer Institute.


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    • DS Dollman profile imageAUTHOR

      Darla Sue Dollman 

      2 years ago from Greeley, Colorado

      Thank you, Edward! I've read everything I could find on John Wayne. I think I like his life story so much because he's so human. He is talented, but has flaws like everyone else.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Excellent article! I learned a lot about John Wayne.


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