John Wayne he had a wide respect for the people who supported his movies and admired him
More than 40 years since John Wayne succumbed to stomach cancer at the UCLA Medical Center, entertainment journalist Michael Goldman revisits salient archival discoveries pertaining to the Duke. Ethan Wayne, the cowboy’s youngest son, granted Goldman access to a treasure trove of personal letters and rare documents, most of which had accumulated dust in unopened boxes hastily packed away in the hectic days following the naturally gifted actor’s tragically unfair demise. The only edict from Ethan — craft a portrait harnessing his dad’s own words.
Not a traditional biographer per se, but rather a self-professed “guy who got to go into the archives, snoop around, and read all John Wayne’s stuff,” Goldman first earned good notices for his searing portrait of Clint Eastwood: Master Filmmaker at Work 
New York Times Bestseller status arrived in short order for John Wayne: The Genuine Article , a lavish coffee table book documenting the venerable cowboy’s life and career. Passages taken from an unfinished memoir that the Duke started and then halted in the early ’70s, and which sat, typed on onion skin paper, undiscovered for decades at the bottom of a box until Goldman found it as he rummaged through the Wayne archives, provides an authoritative account in John Wayne’s own words of his life and career up to Stagecoach.
Featuring a foreword by none other than President Jimmy Carter, envelopes within The Genuine Article contain full-page reproductions of correspondence — sometimes salty, always riveting — between the prolific letter-writing Duke and his legion of fans, U.S. Presidents, director John Ford, the president of the Harvard Lampoon, and Steve McQueen, among others. An amusing letter from the King of Cool thanks his buddy for inadvertently supplying him with a year’s worth of Baskin-Robbins ice cream. Documents, including the actor’s birth certificate, various passports, drivers’ license, and marriage certificate illuminate his fascinating life and career.
For a gentle giant who humbly stated in a 1970 interview that his tombstone should bear the Mexican epitaph, “Feo, fuerte y formal” — roughly translated as “he was ugly, was strong, and had dignity” — The Genuine Article serves as a fine tribute to a larger-than-life individual.
Get comfy as Goldman reveals the outrageous story of the “Fighting Seabee” riding an armored tank into Harvard Square to receive the Harvard Lampoon’s inaugural Brass Balls Award, whether the actor attended an Elvis Presley concert, his musical appreciation for costar Glen Campbell, how his children contributed to The Genuine Article, whether the legend’s archives should become a museum, and what the writer would have asked the icon if their paths had intertwined. That merely scratches the surface.
Co-winner of the prestigious 2014 Will Rogers Gold Medallion award in the “Western Biographies & Memoirs Category,” a lot of the reviews and notices have called The Genuine Article a biography and me a biographer, and it’s not really that in the classic sense. There’s not a technical term. I’m the guy who got to go into the archives, snooped around, and read all John Wayne’s stuff [laughs]. In other words, I explored his personal life and world.
I went past the icon and the world-famous movie star to learn what his personal story was. If you’re going to use the term “biographer,” maybe I’m the biographer of his personal side in that sense. I’m not telling the story that’s already been told — I’m telling the story that’s not been told.
What is it like to be a normal guy under the constant, unrelenting glare of international fame to the point that you can’t even go to the hardware store without being mobbed? That was the constant dichotomy in his life, and that’s what I tried to explore.
His surviving children told me how they would resent it when they would go out to the supermarket or be eating a steak dinner. He would be bothered, and it would really bug them. He’d tell his kids, “Knock it off. These are the people who pay our bills.” He had a wide respect for the people who supported his movies and admired him.
Before you began John Wayne: The Genuine Article, had you written anything about the actor?
Not in-depth. I’m a trade journalist. I have written for many years about filmmaking, and I was the former senior editor at Millimeter Magazine, a long-respected film trade journal, which is now defunct.
In 2007 I wrote a technical article about the digital restoration of the 3D print of Hondo , which remained unavailable to the public for at least 40 years. The movie is owned by the other side of the family — Michael Wayne’s widow, Gretchen — because she inherited Michael’s assets — i.e. the Batjac production company.
At some point in time Gretchen decided to have the 3D version of Hondo restored, and I interviewed her for an article titled “Return of the 3D Duke.” You might say that was my initial introduction to writing about John Wayne’s film career.
I made anacknowledgment in The Genuine Article that I was particularly grateful to Wayne Warga, one of my journalistic ancestors, so to speak, whose material I discovered in the archives. Warga had attempted to help Duke write his aforementioned biography, which was later scrapped.
Warga did the kind of work that I had been doing in the last several years in an entirely different era. He had all kinds of material that I would have wanted to generate had I worked with or interviewed Duke, but by the time my journalism career started, Duke had just passed away actually. Even though I never met Warga, I was grateful for his work, and I thanked him in my acknowledgments.
Duke’s attempt to write his own biography was unknown to most people, including Duke’s family, and had not seen the light of day for over 40 years. That archive material also helped inform my approach to writing Duke’s early story the way he intended to tell it.