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The Stuff Of Which Legends Are Made

During the filming of Big Jake
Maureen O'Hara, Duke's frequent costar, asks a House subcommittee to authorize a special gold medal for John Wayne. The medal, as she suggested, has been struck with the words, "John Wayne - American."

A hero on the screen, an extraordinary man in real life, a devoted father to his seven children, a deeply patriotic American, Wayne showed himself to be the stuff of which legends are made as, until the bitter end, he fought a sixteen-year long battle against the ravages of cancer. Wayne clung to life with the same rugged determination that he lived it. "We lost a big one, a jumbo in this business," said Bob Hope as news of the death of John Wayne spread throughout the world. "We knew he was in tough shape. But we kept our hopes up, because he had pulled through so many times before."

Duke's seven children were at his bedside when the seventy-two-year-old star lapsed into a coma and died on June 11, 1979. "He had been in considerable pain," said Bernard Strohm, the administrator of the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, "but he would not take much medication. He wanted to be awake when he died. He would tolerate the pain just to be near his family. "Sometimes his vital signs would stabilize and he would look over and call, often in a loud voice for his children. When they would appear, he would lapse into a coma. It was the damndest thing. I have been around teaching hospitals for twenty years and I've never seen anything like the love in that family."

John Wayne's first bout with cancer occurred in 1964 when he underwent surgery which removed one lung. Wayne, a heavy smoker, had been hospitalized under the usual security conditions which prevail when prominent personalities become seriously ill. But Wayne's prominence negated the best offers of his family and doctors to keep his condition secret. Having submitted to the consequences of his fame, Duke went public and, typically, he told the whole truth about his case. He volunteered for the public service announcements made by the National Cancer Society and for the next several years he utilized his fame to warn the public how to deal with the threat of the disease. "It's hard to believe that John Wayne, the most durable of all films actors," said Charlton Heston, "is gone. But it's not surprising that to the end Duke gave an example of courage that made him more than an actor and a friend. He was - and is - an American institution."

When John Wayne entered the UCLA Medical Center on January tenth, he had already survived the removal of one lung and a heart bypass. His second bout with cancer began with what was first described as a routine gall bladder operation. Two days later his stomach was removed in an operation lasting nine and a half hours. A low-grade cancerous tumor was discovered. Five days later, the hospital said that tissue tests revealed cancer in the gastric lymph nodes and a report noted that there was a "probability that the cancer would spread."

On learning the seriousness of his condition, city rooms around the world began what newspapers call "the death watch." Doctors confidently predicted that Duke would never leave the hospital alive. They pointed out that the operation was a drastic one. Everything surgically possible had been done for him. To apply chemotherapy at this point would amount to killing him. The general opinion was that the patient would be heavily sedated until his demise.

But Wayne fooled the experts. Amid reports that he was failing, Wayne's son, Patrick, said, "He's doing terrific" and a production associate, Tom Kane, said, "I saw him ... he's doing great. He's up and running around. His only problem is learning how to eat more slowly with his new stomach. He's learning to eat all over again. One of the reasons that they're holding him is that it takes a long time to learn the new process."

On February eleventh, a month after he'd entered UCLA Medical Center, the hospital announced that he'd slipped quietly out and had returned to his home at Newport Beach, thirty miles southeast of Los Angeles. The Wayne compound at Newport where he could be close to his sons, daughters, their spouses and twenty-one grandchildren had become increasingly important to Duke in the last years of his life. There were ten rooms in the one-story ranch house which was situated on Newport Harbor and the Balboa peninsula. By Hollywood standards it was not especially luxurious, although it featured a pool, a library, a trophy room and a breathtaking view of the ocean. Its decor was the careful work of Pilar Palette, the Peruvian-born third wife of the star from whom he had never been divorced. His female companion at the time of his death was Pat Stacy, his secretary. During his illnesses Pilar neither appeared at the hospital nor spoke with the press. She remained a model of discretion, just as she had been in the several years of their unexplained separation.

Regardless of the optimistic statements made by his sons who deplored pessimistic accounts of Duke's health, it was fairly obvious that Duke knew all along that he was dying. In dragging his cancerravaged body back to Newport, Duke was spending his last days exactly as he'd lived - to the hilt.

He was able to go sailing. He donned jogging togs, tied weights to his legs to support his frail body and tried running. His friends came to visit him and there was the family which remained within call day and night. Duke wanted neither sympathy, tears, nor pity. It suited neither his image nor his own disposition to sit back and allow death to walk in through the window in the still of the night without putting up a fight. As it turned out, Duke waged one helluva fight - as tough as any he'd ever performed on the screen.

No one believed for an instant that John Wayne would appear at the Academy Awards to make a presentation - not even when the announcement was carried in the morning newspapers on the day of the ceremony in April. But Duke was true to his promise. He drew an emotional standing ovation. Then he spoke. He said the ovation was "just about the only medicine a fellow'd ever really need. Believe me when I tell you that I'm still mighty pleased that I can amble down here tonight."

On April twenty-fifth Wayne was back in the hospital being treated for what was described as a slight bronchial condition. Ten days later it was announced that new cancer cells had been found in tissues removed from the actor's intestines.

Duke's last hospital stay enjoyed all the hoopla that marked his previous visits. Thousands of pieces of mail poured in from fans all over the world. There were telephone calls from famous people. Queen Elizabeth sent her greetings and President Carter paid the Duke a bedside visit. Following the fifteen-minute session, Carter said Wayne "was in good spirits ... made several jokes and thanked everybody for loving him so much."

A month before his death, Elizabeth Taylor and Maureen O'Hara appeared before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives urging Congress to approve a medal to be struck and presented to Wayne. Miss O'Hara, who had costarred with Duke in several pictures, was tearful as she said, "I beg you to strike the medal, and it should just say one thing; `John Wayne - American.'"

The idea of a medal for Wayne already enjoyed the support of President Carter who had written the committee that Wayne's "true grit helped win the Old West, World War II and thousands of our hearts." President Carter signed a bill on May 26, Wayne's birthday, authorizing the minting of a special medal. Carter paid tribute to Wayne when, on learning of his death, he said, "in an age of few heroes, Duke was the genuine article."

Despite the fact that John Wayne grossed an estimated seven hundred million dollars over a fifty-year career and was one of the first stars to receive a percentage of a film's profits, the star's estate is not likely to cause either the Internal Revenue Service or California's tax collector to jump with joy. Wayne never amassed the millions that were collected by his contemporaries, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and another cowboy star, Gene Autry.

However, he lived his last years in complete comfort. Holdings that have substantial value include Wayne's cattle ranches in Arizona and his Newport Beach estate. There are also residuals in many of his pictures whose worth can not be estimated at this time.

The Code of the American Cowboy

Wayne's westerns were full of action but usually not excessively violent. "Fights with too much violence are dull," claimed Wayne, insisting that the straight-shooting, two-fisted violence in his movies have been "sort of tongue-in-cheek." He described the violence in his films as "lusty and a little humorous," based on his belief that "humor nullifies violence." His conservative taste deplored the increasing latitude given to violence and sex in Hollywood. In the 1960s he launched a campaign against what he termed "Hollywood's bloodstream polluted with perversion and immoral and amoral nuances." Most of his westerns steered clear of graphic violence.
  1. A cowboy does not judge color of skin, but by character within.
  2. A cowboy always respects a lady and tips his hat to all that pass him by.
  3. A cowboy stands strong for what the American frontier is all about: Freedom, Truth, Justice and the American way.
  4. A cowboy will not be wronged, nor wrongs another. The justice he deems out depends on that.
  5. A cowboy is loyal, and hard working and maintains a high ethic.
  6. A cowboy loves his country, and will fight for it's principles and sovereignty.
  7. A cowboy respects his animals and the earth they roam upon.
  8. A cowboy is faithful to what is entrusted to him.
  9. A cowboy is bound by duty, honor, and gratitude for what God has given him, which includes his friends and family.
  10. A cowboy maintains a hidden code in his heart, for all to see.
    (From Patrick Wayne's Eulogy to his father.)

The death of Elvis Presley was the previous high water-mark for press coverage of the passing of a theatrical celebrity until John Wayne. In the case of the older star the press was ready. Obituaries had been prepared months earlier and TV reporters cannily summoned Wayne's co-workers to the cameras to record their impressions while Duke was still alive.

Lauren Bacall, a political liberal, violently opposed to Duke and his colleagues in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, the group which spearheaded the Hollywood Witch Hunt, had been his costar in The Shootist.

She admitted fearing an encounter with Wayne. "I wondered if he would bring up the political past," she said on the MacNeil-Lehrer reports on the Public Broadcasting System. "Of course, he didn't," she went on. "Duke was the perfect gentleman. It would never occur to him to allow our political differences to affect the relationship necessary to successful movie-making."

Miss Bacall caught a side of Wayne seldom articulated by less perceptive friends of the star. Asked about his macho image, Bacall said in that authoritative voice of hers, "Frankly, I didn't see it. Far from being a macho, an aggressive male, I found him warm and very reserved. His good manners prevented him from being forward or, if you will, macho. Sometimes he would put his hand on mine. He did it quietly. He was very gentle."

Duke was not fond of funerals. He'd attended too many of his old friends' last rites to inflict the burden of a ceremony on his survivors. He often said, "When I go, shove me in an oven somewhere, burn me and toss the ashes wherever it's convenient. When it's over I'd like my friends to get together, sit down and hoist a few for me. That would do it-just fine."

And how would Duke like to be remembered? He liked that question. "Affectionately," he said, "by my friends. As for anyone else they're welcome to think anything they like. It certainly won't matter to me then." On the eve of his father's private funeral, Michael Wayne said, "Dad lived with simple dignity and wanted his funeral services conducted the same way."

Those who wanted to honor the actor were urged to make contributions to the newly created John Wayne Memorial Cancer Fund-a project which was discussed during the last two weeks of Duke's life. A hospital spokesman said, "Mr. Wayne was enthusiastic about it, and he talked about it with the hospital and with his children."

The press of the world joined America in paying tribute to John Wayne and one Japanese newspaper ran as its banner, Mr. America Is Dead. It was taken for granted that readers would identify their friend and old favorite John Wayne through his nickname.


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