Authors: Aissa Wayne,Steve Delsohn
Under oath, Chata said she thought my father was a burglar; that's why she ran out clutching the gun. My father told a different story. He said his wife had been drunk and hysterical, demanding to know if he'd just come from a motel with Gail Russell. Insisting he betrayed her, she turned the loaded pistol on him, threatening to end her husband's life. When his attorney asked my father if there had been any affair with Miss Russell, and a trip to any motel, my father said, “Absolutely not.” He said he and Miss Russell had shared only friendship.
By the end of the week, Chata had accused my father of twenty-two acts of physical cruelty, repeating again and again that John Wayne had “clobbered” her. My father had sworn he never struck his wife, just protected himself from her boozy rages, and he countered with thirty-one charges of his own. A girl waved an enormous sign on the jammed steps of the courthouse:
JOHN WAYNE, YOU CAN CLOBBER ME ANY TIME YOU WANT.
When it became clear how grotesque things were becoming, both sides opted to settle. The trial ended abruptly, after three days in Superior Court. The judge intervened, granting the Waynes an uncommon divorce, reserved for California cases where neither party concedes the other's charges. If they chose, in one year both could remarry. In the interim,
my father retained his Encino estate. He agreed to pay Chata $150,000, all her current debts, and $50,000 per year for the next six years.
No one claimed victory. Only the lawyers escaped un-bloodied.
Chata died late the following year in a Mexico City hotel room, thirty-eight and an alcoholic. The newspapers said she died alone, of a heart attack. Her sad little room was strewn with empty bottles.
My father, who had once loved her, did not ride off into the sunset. He did not live happily ever after.
But he did find a deeper love.
In 1952, his marriage to Chata without hope and the lawyers preparing for court, my father flew to South America. He was scouting locations for
, an epic Western he one day intended to act in, produce, and direct. When he arrived in Peru, my father was told to look up Richard Weldy, who worked for Pan American Airways when he wasn't leading tours up the waters of the Amazon. Though he never planned it, Richard Weldy also led John Wayne to his future wife.
Weldy took my dad to the small jungle town of Tingo Maria, where a Peruvian film crew was squarely in the midst of shooting a scene. By the time of their arrival the afternoon sun was dying. By firelight, a young Latin actress danced barefoot for the camera, her long hair dark and unruly, her legs thin and sculpted. This was the vision that charmed my father the first time he saw my mother.
In a photo taken moments after they met, my mother's flowered dress is cut to fall off one milky white shoulder. Her full red lips and exotic dark eyes are aimed up and at my father, whose shirttail hangs out. His hair is cut boyishly short, and his massive left hand dwarfs what is likely a cocktail. His downward gaze on my mother is fixed like a laser.
She must have been an interesting girl. The daughter of a Peruvian senator, Pilar Palette had been expected to marry
a Latin aristocrat. As a child, her Catholic mother had used God and religion as bludgeons, filling her small daughter's head with scorched and anguished images of hell, where little Pilar would truly be damned and burn should she fail to toe her mother's concrete line. After the death of her father, my mother finally rebelled. She didn't marry a Latin blue blood, but Richard Weldy, the raucous Irish-American.
On the fateful day he led my father to Tingo Maria, Weldy and my mom were already estranged. He wanted her back, so Weldy showed up with John Wayne, a famous American film star. My mother was duly impressed, but not by Weldy. When my father sought to charm, few could resist him. He was more than tall, handsome, wealthy, and famous. He had that stride, that voice. The moment she met him my mother said she was smitten.
But Richard Weldy had eyes. He took my mother aside and told her he needed her back. My mother wanted to scream. Weldy had cheated on her; she'd discovered it and been crushed. While she wondered where John Wayne had slipped off to, my mother told Weldy the marriage was over. When she asked if he'd started divorce proceedings, Weldy said no and stalked off.
Under an inky sky, that night my parents shared dinner. With the cast and crew around they were hardly alone, and yet they felt that they were. My mother was nervous, my father patient. He was forty-five, she was barely twenty. She stood five feet three inches tall and weighed at most 100 pounds. A grizzly bear of a man, six feet four and 230 pounds, he must have seemed twice her size. Unaware that his first two wives had also been Latin, my mom was surprised at his knowledge of Latin custom. In fractured English, my mother told him he'd been wonderful in
For Whom the Bell Tolls
. My dad grinned his lopsided grin and explained that she must mean his pal Gary Cooper. In their first intimacy, he took her delicate hands in his own and my mother blushed. Too soon the dinner was ending. My father stood up and said, “I guess this is good-bye.”
My mom went to bed feeling flushed, vaguely aware she had suffered a loss. My father went to his own room, leaving the next day at first light.
My dad was deeply superstitious. He bellowed whenever he saw a hat on a bed. For a man who once had been a poor boy, this was not bad luck but disasterâa hat on a bed meant no work. On rare rainy days in Southern California, my mother preferred opening her umbrella before she stepped outside, and my dad would see her and cringe. When my parents played poker, and a playing card turned face up, its owner had to stand and circle his or her chair three times. At dinner, my father never let anyone hand him the salt. Instead we had to place the salt on the table. If anyone handed my father the salt, he said they'd be passing him their bad luck.
Believing as he did in fate, perhaps my father was not amazed to find himself face-to-face with my mother again, this time back in America. As my parents always told it, it happened on a Monday, just a few months after they'd met in Tingo Maria. Scared but excited, my mom had been flown from Lima to Hollywood, to Warner Brothers studios, to dub some dialogue for the movie she'd made in Peru. At the end of her grueling first day, she started for the stage door. As she leaned on its bulky frame, the door opened up from the opposite side.
It was pushed by my father.
Two years later they married.
When my parents ventured into Hollywood, it was not only my dad who commanded attention. My Peruvian mother was not only stunning, she was uncommon, and this multiplied her appeal. One day at Warner Brothers, Marlon Brando was crouched over a commissary table, checking out John Wayne and the young woman sitting with him at a table across the room. Though my father respected his talent, he and Brando weren't friends. Once John Ford wanted Brando and my dad for a potential film, and Ford asked my
father to approach him. When my father called, Brando said, “Who is going to direct?” and my father said “John Ford.” Brando said, “He's not my kind of director.” My father didn't belabor itâthat was never his styleâand neither man filled the silence. From that point on they were only acquaintances.
Now Marlon Brando was eyeing my mother. Maybe he didn't hear they'd recently been married, perhaps he had and didn't care. Brando was barely thirty, gorgeous and arrogant, sizzling with success after coming off
The Wild One
On the Waterfront
Brando sent over a friend to ask John Wayne if Marlon Brando could meet his alluring companion.
My father said one word: “No!”
That evening at home, my dad went into a jealous rage. It was my mom's first glimpse of his dark side. She realized, only then, that my father was not the characters he played on the screen, men who did not just have self-assurance, they reeked of it. He was more complicated than that, and more conflicted. He was driven by pride, but also by insecurity, and a troubled past he could never completely take flight from.
My father was born on May 26,1907, in Winterset, an Iowa town of less than 3,000 residents. His parents were Mary and Clyde Morrison, both Anglo-Saxon protestants. A football player in college, Clyde was muscular, quietly amusing, easygoing, and quick to trust others. He was a druggist, of Scottish, English, and Irish descent. Pure Irish, Mary had blue eyes and red hair. Vivacious, intelligent, ambitious, she dominated her husband and son.
When my father was born during their first year of marriage, his parents named him Marion Michael Morrison. When Marion turned five, his parents bore a second son named Robert. It was then that my father's life flipped upside down.
His mother chose her youngest boy to shower with love, saving only what trickly drops remained for my father. My dad resented his mom, even while aching for her love. Perhaps the rejection he felt as a child later influenced the unsettling way my father behaved toward meâlavishing me with affection, demanding my constant reassurance that I loved him back. Perhaps, after all those years, he was still trying to fill a void that cast such painful shadows over his childhood.
Night after night, my father's parents fought bitterly. Mary was a perfectionist, Clyde a romantic and dreamer. While my father listened, his mother berated his dad, usually beginning with his lack for making money and his over-willingness to extend his customers credit, then spilling into all the other ways he had left her disappointed. Mary often threatened to leave her husband, stopping only when Clyde fell ill and began coughing blood. Clyde had tuberculosis, and a doctor said he would die if he remained in Iowa. The Morrisons moved westward in 1915, to the dry heat of Palmdale, California.
I doubt if they knew what they were getting into. At the desolate edge of the Mojave desert, with its hot, bone-dry winds, the Morrison's new home had no gas, electricity, or running water. As my father once told a writer, their rural property teemed with reptiles and rodents. “I don't mean just a few,” my father said. “Seems to me like there musta been millions. The more you killed, the more they kept on comin'.” My dad had recurring nightmares, about greasy rattlesnakes cornering him as he tried to scream out. As the snakes crept through his subconscious, my father would sweat and moan in the desert night.
Despite the harshness of the new land, Clyde was determined to homestead. He grew corn in the desert and actually had one plentiful harvest. The volatile market plunged, though, and the family barely earned enough to buy food. Mary branded her husband a failure. She doted more and more blatantly on Robert, leaving my father embittered, feeling unloved by the most important woman in his life.
He found no refuge at school. Rising at five
., he walked four miles to his classroom, all the while dreading what awaited him. Tall for his age and still exceedingly thin, he also spoke with an accent his California schoolmates had never heard. My father was ridiculed, especially for his name, which he despised. The older boys called Marion “little girl.” They asked him why he wore pants instead of a skirt. I think one of the reasons my father frequently acted so macho in later life was to compensate for this boyhood torment; I believe it scarred him deeply.
For the lonely, impoverished Morrisons, one year in the Mojave desert felt like ten. In 1916 they moved west again, this time to Glendale, where Clyde went back to working at a drugstore, and where money still was short. Nine-year-old Marion acquired a second-hand bicycle. He got a paper route and delivered the
Los Angeles Examiner
. On his daily route, my father's springy-haired Airedale trotted alongside him. He had named the dog Little Duke, and that's how my father landed his world-famous nickname. Some friendly Glendale fireman, seeing my dad and his dog together day after day, started calling my father “Big Duke.” Soon, it shortened to Duke. The monicker stuck, and only his mother continued calling him Marion.
One morning in eighth grade my father approached the firehouse with a gashed lip and a purple eye. He threw down their newspaper, attempting an escape without explanation, but the firemen called him over. My father confessed: he'd been attacked, again, by the same cruel bully at school. One of the firemen, a former professional boxer, taught my father to fistfight. His aggressive new skills notwithstanding, my father continued avoiding the boy, determining where he was likely to be, then going elsewhere. After school one day the boy found him. My father said he felt scared, but fought through his fear and punched the boy in the eye. Unlike so many bullies, this one did not turn and run the first time he was struck back. He and my father fought until both were sore and bloodied. As my father told the story, the boy never touched him again.
Though still slim and sensitive to slights, his confidence bloomed when he starred as a pulling guard in football at talent-laden Glendale High. While learning to drink on weekends with teammates, during the week my dad excelled at school. He wrote for his high school newspaper, joined a debate team, and became a voracious reader, a habit he would indulge the rest of his life. By senior year he was earning straight A's. Vowing to earn a college degree, which he knew his parents couldn't afford, my father applied to the U.S. Naval Academy. He thought they would pay for his education, and armed with that he could learn to be a lawyer. But my dad was rejected.