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Authors: Aissa Wayne,Steve Delsohn

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BOOK: John Wayne
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That was not my dad's quote, but by agreeing to use it he came under heavy attack for the ad campaign itself. Although I can see now that his campaign was in fact excessive and grandiose, I think it should be said he was hardly alone. As Hedda Hopper remarked at the time, “What's all this fuss over John Wayne's Oscar ads? People have been buying Oscars for at least twenty-five years.” My dad wanted the American public, “the people who go to the movies,” as he used to call them, to be the movie's final arbiter. Oscar nominations could make that possible.

This time, he got what he wanted. In spite of another press skirmish over the movie's PR,
The Alamo
received six nominations: best sound, best song, best cinematography, best score, best supporting actor for Chill Wills, and the prize jewel, best movie. Overworked and exhausted, my father felt vindicated and plainly delighted.

Until he saw the ads for Chill Wills.

After his nomination, the man who had danced me around on his feet stomped on my father's hopes for Oscar night. An actor for twenty-five years, apparently Wills saw this as his first and probably last chance for an Oscar. In one of the more outrageous ads Wills placed on his behalf, he listed hundreds of Academy voters by name. “Win, lose, or draw,” said the ad, “you're all my cousins and I love you all.” With his fine eye for the absurd, Groucho Marx replied with an ad of his own: “Dear Chill, I am delighted to be your cousin, but I voted for Sal Mineo.” In another of Chill Wills's ads, the copy read: “We of the
Alamo
cast are praying—harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives in the real Alamo—for Chill Wills to win the Oscar. Cousin Chill's acting was great.” Infuriated, my dad quickly tried damage control, running his own ads in
Variety
and
The Hollywood Reporter
, admitting the entire campaign had taken a wild
turn, but also making it clear he had not been party to the Chill Wills ads. Signed by my father, the copy read in part, “I refrain from using stronger language because I am sure his (Wills's) intentions were not as bad as his taste.”

My mother has told me my father was not surprised on Oscar night when
The Alamo
won only best sound. He was cheered when the film opened well, and so was United Artists, which eventually made a tremendous profit from
The Alamo
's worldwide release. By then, however, my father could not cash in. To pay off his
Alamo
debts, he'd sold his share of the movie back to UA. While this again made him solvent, he never earned a cent on
The Alamo
, and probably lost a bundle.

Thirty years after he made it,
The Alamo
can still be seen on television; in Texas, a girlfriend told me, they run it at least once every year. Within the Wayne family, we've never considered
The Alamo
a failure. We spoke about it so much during my childhood, I grew up believing it was the finest picture ever made. Although my father toiled on it on and off for ten years, and it drove him to the financial brink, I never heard him complain about how things turned out. True, he was more apt to share with his family his feelings of success than those of disappointment. But given that, I think my father was always a dreamer. I believe it's one of the reasons he loved making Westerns, where he could get out under the stars and be boyish again, riding horses and shooting guns and playing cowboy. For all the heartache and lost money it must have caused him, I think my father understood that he'd given his
Alamo
dream his very best shot, and that this in itself made him a winner.

7

Outside our rented limousine, the swank streets of Manhattan twitched with a palpable energy. With Christmas near, I could see the clouds of breath preceding scurrying shoppers. My first trip to New York, I had many questions about this cold buzzing city as we started and stopped our way through its cluttered traffic. But our heated limousine felt oddly like a museum—silent, stuffy, stagnant, nonconducive to conversation. Though sitting inches away, my father seemed unavailable to me, walled-off by somber thoughts. Peering out the frosted window at the looming thicket of skyscrapers, he barely smoked and spoke not at all. He did not come back outside himself until the chauffeur opened our door and a freezing wind cut holes in our faces.

“Bundle up, honey,” he said. “This isn't like winter in California.”

Despite his warning, out on the sidewalk my father seemed impervious to the weather. So did the New Yorkers who spotted us, then crowded around us before a doorman could usher us into the building. Though they didn't gush over him overtly, even these hard-to-impress New Yorkers did not appear let down when they saw John Wayne in the flesh. In the cosmetic realm of motion pictures, where actors when glimpsed in person nearly always look smaller and less commanding, my dad was the real thing. Whatever his shortcomings, he did not need Hollywood tricks to invest him with size or authority.

As usual, he disarmed the crowd with geniality. Most times this was no act. My dad had faith in ordinary people, and was justifiably singled out by the press for his courtesy, respect, and lack of rudeness with fans. Lately, however, I'd become aware of a metamorphosis—from moody, distracted Daddy to smiling, gregarious star—and I sensed that he was performing. Beneath his cheerful patina, something was distressing my father. Not quite five years old, I just did not know what.

It was late 1960. We were in Manhattan for two reasons: my father had financial business here, and the editors of
Cosmopolitan
had requested our appearance in their magazine. As most Hollywood children did, I would soon begin detesting these publicity sessions, but my memory of this one is pleasing. It was all so spectacular.

Upon our arrival at the photographer's studio, several young angular women fussed over my dad while an older lady, even thinner and prettier, led me to a private dressing room. I was surprised at seeing a man back there, particularly a man in an unattractive blue uniform, wearing a big black gun on his hip, hunched over jewels so bright they positively glistened. Were those for me?

They were! While I held my head regal and still, the pretty lady helped me on with a diamond necklace, diamond bracelet, diamond earrings, diamond broach, and a diamond
tiara for my honey-colored hair. I could not believe my own reflection, and was eager to show off for my dad. When I resurfaced for the shooting, he looked as if his breath had been knocked out. He was thunderstruck, I suppose, by this new view of his little girl.

Late that February the magazine hit the newsstands. My, how times and magazines change. It was not until 1965 that Helen Gurley Brown took over
Cosmo
and turned it upside down; now, its cover had nary a blurb about affairs with married men or the latest sexual trends. No sultry, pneumatic Cosmo Girl, as captured by Scavullo, graced the cover photography. Instead, on the the March 1961 issue of
Cosmopolitan
, the cover lines read: Winston Churchill. Hemingway. J. D. Salinger. Pearl S. Buck. Peeking out from beneath those intoxicating names was my smiling face. “John Wayne's daughter, Aissa, wearing $850,000 in Cartier diamonds,” read the caption. When my mother showed it to me, it was my turn to feel breathless.

Liking it too, my dad framed the cover and displayed it on his trophy room wall, where one day he'd place his coveted Oscar. He kept stopping at my cover, but he wasn't looking at the jewels. “Your smile is brighter than any diamond, Aissa,” my father said. Now I have the cover on my wall, and I must admit the smile I wore that long ago day was appealing. Despite all my glamorous accessories, I wore the sweetly ingenuous smile of a child who believes her unblemished world will never change.

When 1961 rolled in, my father starred in
The Comancheros
for Twentieth Century Fox. Though its cast was substantial—my father, Lee Marvin, Stuart Whitman, the young Ina Belin—the film was memorable only for what it portended.
The Comancheros
marked the first time in my father's career that the script didn't feature a love interest for his character. He was turning fifty-five; it was Stuart Whitman, twenty years younger, who romanced Ina Balin. This foreshadowed the toning down of my father's sexual image on-screen, and led to a critical shift in his life and career.

By the time
The Comancheros
was released, several Hollywood titans had recently passed away. Humphrey Bogart died in 1957, followed by Tyrone Power (1958), Errol Flynn (1959), Clark Gable (1960), and Gary Cooper (1961). Jimmy Cagney had already retired, and Cary Grant would quit in 1962. Of the celestial male stars who launched their careers in the '30s and found stardom in the '40s, only three were making movies at the close of the '60s: Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and my father.

In his own fifties and sixties, ages at which most leading men have either quit or been not-so-gently phased into minor roles, my father's impact mushroomed. Except for well-paying cameos, he was still the star of all his movies. He still played archetypal American heroes: stubbornly self-reliant, fiercely individualistic, laconic-until-riled loners. But my father portrayed them less and less as romantic leads. Instead he played widowers, brothers, fathers, and grandfathers. He played patriarchal leaders of green but promising soldiers and cowboys. During this cinematic transformation, offscreen my dad waged losing fights with protruding paunch and thinning hair; his face turned craggy and lined; his nose grew more bulbous; and as often befalls heavy smokers, his piercing blue eyes became more lidded by excess skin.

And most Americans only revered him more. In a world going slick and sensationalistic, my father offered them something as priceless as it was powerful—reassurance. As my father aged, he came to stand for maturity, commitment, normalcy, substance, and the way things used to be. For millions of Americans, as Vincent Canby of
The New York Times
wrote, John Wayne became “The almost perfect father figure.”

His family saw him in a different light. My father was real to me, not a symbol, and I still have the psychic bruises to prove he was not a perfect father.

And yet when I was still five years old, I too looked at my father with stars in my eyes. With the certainty of innocence, I believed what we had between us would never change. My father would never bully me, and I would never feel hateful. We would never lie to each other, never feel disappointment in one another, never punish the other with acts of evasion or meanness. As father and daughter, we would never sample the sweets and sours of love. Our love would only be sweet.

Aissa in her father's embrace (1961)

Aissa was a show-biz baby, the true Hollywood princess, fawned over and adored by loving parents (1956)

BOOK: John Wayne
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