John Wayne, known by friends and fans as the “Duke,” appeared in a total of 179 film and television productions over the course of his career. He was among the top box-office draws for three decades. In 1999, the American Film Institute named him one of the greatest male stars of classic American cinema.
In contrast to the classic Western hero who kisses his horse before riding off into the sunset, Wayne was a great lover of women both on and off the screen. For example, he and actress Maureen O’Hara sizzled in McClintock and The Quiet Man, two classic films that showcased Wayne’s talents.
Three Times Not a Charm
Wayne wed three times, first to Josephine Alicia Saenz, then to Esperanza Baur, and lastly to Pilar Pallete. “Josie” Saenz was born May 13, 1908, to the Consul General of Panama in the United States, José Saenz, a wealthy businessman who lived in Los Angeles.
Saenz’s parents were born in Madrid, Spain. Josie was between 15 and16 years old when she met John Wayne, an actor still using his birth name: Marion Morrison. They met at a beach party in Balboa, California.
Her Catholic Family Opposed the Marriage
Her Catholic family opposed the relationship because he was a Presbyterian. They courted for seven years while he built his movie career. Wayne’s financial status improved considerably due to his success at the box office, and he was able to convince her family to allow the marriage.
The couple married on June 24, 1933, in a garden ceremony at the home of actress Loretta Young. The couple had four children: Michael Wayne (November 23, 1934 – April 2, 2003), Mary Antonia “Toni” Morrison-LaCava (February 25, 1936 – December 6, 2000), Patrick Wayne (born July 15, 1939) and Melinda Morrison-Muñoz (born December 3, 1940).
Marriage Quickly Deteriorated
After a few years, the marriage was in trouble. Wayne worked long hours at his career and was always surrounded by associates from the film world. The couple also had differences of opinion about how their children should be raised. Ironically, Wayne converted to Catholicism two days before his death.
Wayne’s longtime affair with German actress and sex symbol Marlene Dietrich began several years into the marriage. Wayne and Dietrich appeared together in Seven Sinners (1940) with Wayne playing a naval officer and Dietrich playing a woman who sets out to seduce him. The seduction continued off screen.
Wayne and Dietrich Were a Couple
There had been rumors about Wayne having other affairs, but nothing as substantial as his connection to Dietrich. Even after their physical relationship ended, the pair remained good friends and co-starred in two more films, Pittsburgh (1942) and The Spoilers (1942).
In 1943, Saenz and Wayne separated. They divorced in 1945. She married Los Angeles businessman Cyril Nigg in 1966 and remained married to him until his death in 1998. Saenz died of cancer in Hollywood on June 24, 2003, at the age of 95.
Wayne Meets Esperanza Baur
Wayne and Josie were still married when Wayne met the woman who would become his second wife, Mexican actress Esperanza Baur Díaz. Born Esperanza Díaz Ceballos, nicknamed “Chata”, she appeared in a small number of Spanish language films, both in leading and supporting roles.
Esperanza met John Wayne in 1941 in Mexico City while he was vacationing there. Esperanza and John were married on January 17, 1946, in Long Beach, California, but things were rocky from the start.
Wayne Denies Affair With Gail Russell
Chata was reportedly jealous of Wayne’ devotion to his work and four children. They had no children of their own. Esperanza accused Wayne of having an affair with Gail Russell, his leading lady in Angel and the Badman, which he denied. There were charges and countercharges of unfaithfulness, drunken violence, emotional cruelty, and “clobbering.”
Wayne described his wife as a “drunken partygoer” who would fall down and then accuse him of pushing her. Esperanza was suspected of having an affair with hotel heir Nicky Hilton (who went on to become Liz Taylor’s first husband) during their divorce proceedings.
Chata Greets Hubby With a Gun
Chata realized that Wayne was cheating on her just as he had cheated on his first wife, Josephine. But Chata was more volatile. When Wayne arrived home late and drunk one night, Chata greeted him at the door with a gun and nearly shot him.
Wayne buried himself deeper in his work to avoid his marital issues. He and Esperanza separated in May 1952 and officially divorced on November 1, 1954. Esperanza died of a heart attack in 1961, although some contend that she drank herself to death.
A Third Spanish Bride
Wayne’s third wife, Pilar Pallete, was the daughter of a Peruvian senator. She met Wayne, who was 21 years her senior, when he was visiting Peru, scouting locations for his film The Alamo. At the time, she was still married to game hunter Richard Weldy, and Wayne was still married to Bauer.
Soon after meeting Wayne, she ran into him again when she came to Los Angeles to work on dubbing a film in English. Sparks flew. As soon as their divorces were finalized, the couple married in Kona, Hawaii in 1954. They had three children together: Aissa Wayne, John Ethan Wayne, and Marisa Wayne.
Pilar Takes on Fulltime Motherhood
Pilar retired from acting to care for their children. During the first ten years of their marriage, the couple travelled extensively, usually on location for John Wayne’s many films. In 1965, they moved to Newport Beach, California. She rented a studio inside the Fernleaf Courtyard, in Corona Del Mar, California.
Pilar entertained her clients outdoors with coffee and finger sandwiches and found herself, one year later, with a full-time restaurant. Some sources claim that their marriage began to change after Wayne was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964.
Late-Stage Lung Cancer Slows Wayne Down
The cancer was at a late stage, so he had to have four ribs and his left lung removed. He was later declared free of what he called the “Big C,” before starring in the Western hit, True Grit. He appeared to be cured, even though he was severely short of breath.
In spite of this diagnosis, he quickly resumed chewing tobacco and smoking cigars. Pilar remained married to Wayne until his death from stomach cancer in 1979, although she moved out of the house they shared together in 1973.
Longtime Affair With Merle Oberon
Throughout the marriage, he continued his philandering ways, which included a nine-year affair with actress Merle Oberon. After Pilar left the family home, Wayne’s secretary, Pat Stacy became his live-in companion until his death. Wayne wrote Pilar out of his will, which included bequests to Pat.
Pilar remarried twice after Wayne’s death. In 1984, she married Stephen Stewart, a municipal court judge. Pilar dubbed the married a “two-week mistake.” In 1998, she married Jesse Upchurch, a travel company executive. The two are still married, and, at 93, Pilar remains glamorous and active.
Devoted to His Children
While Wayne was never a contender for Husband of the Year, he appears to have been a devoted Dad to all of his seven children, none of whom has said a negative word about him. Several of them joined Wayne in the movie business and had successful if not spectacular careers.
Wayne’s oldest son, Michael Wayne was born on the 23rd of November 1934 in Los Angeles. In 1956, he received a business degree from California’s Loyola University. He served in the U.S. Air Force reserves.
Michael Joins Batjac Productions
Michael began his movie career as a production assistant on The Quiet Man, Wayne’s classic tribute to Ireland. In 1960, he joined Batjac Productions, his father’s production company at the time that Wayne was setting up production for The Alamo, the first film that the senior Wayne produced and directed.
Michael became line producer for McLintock! (1963) and producer on many other John Wayne vehicles including Big Jake (1971) and Cahill U.S. Marshal (1973). He served on the board of the Motion Picture & Television Fund and was The John Wayne Foundation’s president and chairman of the board.
Michael and Gretchen Have Five Children
He also was founder and chairman of the board of the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Saint John’s Health Center. Michael Wayne married his high school sweetheart, Gretchen. The couple had five children, son Christopher and daughters Alicia, Josephine, Maria, and Teresa.
Michael died in 2003 at the age of 68 of heart failure as the result of complications from lupus erythematosus, just two months before his mother’s death. After his death, Gretchen succeeded him as head of their film company, Batjac Productions. Today she is working to restore the classic John Wayne films.
Daughter Toni Also Acted
John and Josie’s first daughter, Mary Antonia Morrison, was born on February 25, 1936. Known as Toni, she also pursued a career in show business as an actress. She is best known for her work in the 1992 movie The Making of The Quiet Man, and the 1941 movie Meet the Stars #3: Variety Reel #1.
However, she spent most of her life in the role of a wife and mother. Toni was married to Donald La Clava from 1956 to 1981. The couple had had eight children together —Christopher, Anita, Brendan, Peter, Kevin, David, Mark, and Brigid. Toni died of lung cancer on December 6, 2000.
Patrick Picks Up the Acting Torch
Patrick John Morrison, the third of John and Josie’s brood, was born on July 15, 1939 in Los Angeles. Patrick stayed in the family business, acting under his stage name, Patrick Wayne. Patrick made his film debut at age 11 in his father’s film Rio Grande.
He followed that with films directed by John Ford: The Quiet Man (1952), The Sun Shines Bright (1953), The Long Gray Line (1955), Mister Roberts (1955) and The Searchers (1956). His television roles were in the baseball teleplay Rookie of the Year (1955), directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne.
Appeared in Baseball Anthology
He appeared in Flashing Spikes (1962), a baseball television anthology installment directed by Ford and starring James Stewart, with John Wayne in an extended cameo role. Patrick Wayne played similar roles in both shows as a baseball player.
Following high school, Patrick attended Loyola Marymount University, where he was a member of Alpha Delta Gamma fraternity; he graduated in 1961. He served a tour of duty with the United States Coast Guard from 1961 to 1965. During this time, he struck out on his own to star in The Young Land (1959).
Patrick Shines Alongside Dad
He supported his father in The Alamo, Donovan’s Reef, McLintock! and The Green Berets. He also appeared in Cheyenne Autumn (1964), as James Stewart’s son in Shenandoah (1965), in An Eye for an Eye (1966), The Deserter (1971), and in a lead role in The Bears and I for Walt Disney (1974).
Following work on his father’s 1971 film Big Jake, Wayne earned recognition in the sci-fi genre. His career peaked in the late 1970s in the popular matinee fantasy Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), then in The People That Time Forgot (1977). He co-starred as a romantic love interest to Shirley Jones in the brief TV series Shirley (1979).
He was the host of The Monte Carlo Show in 1980 and occasionally worked on game shows and syndicated variety series. Wayne served as the host of the 1990 revival of the game show Tic-Tac-Dough. Wayne had many appearances on popular television series of the 1970s and 1980s.
His roster included Fantasy Island (1978), Murder, She Wrote (1984), Charlie’s Angels (1976), Sledge Hammer! (1986), and The Love Boat. Wayne appeared in the movie Young Guns (1988) as Pat Garrett. He also did a comic turn in the Western spoof Rustler’s Rhapsody (1985).
Retired and Devoted to the John Wayne Cancer Institute
Patrick was married to Peggy Hunt from 1965 to 1978. In 1999, he married Misha Anderson. Today, he is retired from acting and living in Arizona. Like all of Wayne’s living children, he is active with the John Wayne Cancer Institute and was named board chair in 2003.
Melinda Ann Morrison was born on December 3, 1940 in Los Angeles. Melinda was also an actress best known for her work in the 1952 film, The Quiet Man. She married Gregory Munoz on April 4, 1964. The couple had five children together but divorced in 1985. She currently lives in on Balboa Island in California.
Aissa Becomes an Attorney
Aissa Wayne is the oldest child of John and his third wife, Pilar. She was born on the 31st of March 1956 in Burbank, California. She was also an actress known for her work in 1963’s McLintock, 1960’s The Alamo, and 1977’s Hollywood Greats.
Eventually Aissa decided that show business was not for her, and she became a high-powered lawyer in Los Angeles. According to her website, she is an experienced trial attorney having been trained as a criminal prosecutor for the City of Los Angeles. Today she is retired.
Aissa Writes Tribute to Dad
Aissa has three children, including country artist Jennifer Wayne, who is a member of the band Runaway June. She was married to Thomas A. Gionis from 1986 to 1988 and to Earl Lawrence Kuhle II from 1981 to 1984. In 1991, she wrote the book, “John Wayne, My Father” to offer a personal perspective of his life on and off screen.
John Ethan Morrison (Ethan Wayne), Wayne’s youngest son, was born on February 22, 1962, in Encino, California but was raised in Newport Beach. He was named after his father’s character Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. He also played Little Jake, the grandson of Big Jake, his father’s character.
Ethan Moves to Stunt Work
After his father died in 1979, Ethan started doing stunt work, with his first film being The Blue Brothers. However, he returned to acting with his two major film appearances being: Longshot, a comedy film, and Scream, a slasher film, both in 1981.
During that same year, he was on an episode of the series B. J. and the Bear. He played the long-lasting role of “Storm Logan” in the CBS soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, appearing in 184 episodes between 1987 and 2003.
Ethan and Aissa Resolve Feud
Ethan has made many appearances as a stuntman and actor on many movies and TV shows. His later works include numerous TV appearances before he retired in 2003. He now manages John Wayne Enterprises and serves as the director of the John Wayne Cancer Foundation and created its Team DUKE fundraising program.
Ethan was married to Gina Rivadenegry from 1989 to 1990. They had no children. According to TMZ, a family feud developed between Ethan and his sister Aissa in 2010. The disagreement was over their father’s estate, and how much it was worth.
Determining the Value of the Wayne Estate
Aissa, who is an attorney, filed legal papers to request a judge to give his perspective of how much John Wayne’s estate was actually worth so she could sell her part to her brother at an acceptable price. Apparently, there was a question to the value of the shares left to Wayne’s heirs.
Marisa Wayne, John and Pilar’s youngest child, was born on February 22, 1966, in Burbank, California. Like her siblings, Marisa had cameos in a couple of her dad’s movies. She did not, however, pursue acting. She married Tony Ditteaux on May 4, 2005, and the pair have two children.
What Channel Is Your Grandpa On?
Although country music singer/songwriter Jennifer Wayne, Aissa’s daughter, was born three years following the death of her famous grandfather, she speaks of him fondly and is full of affectionate stories about a man she never had the opportunity to meet.
Jennifer told Risen Magazine that when she was a child, she always asked other children which channel their grandpa was on, because hers was always on AMC, and she could watch him whenever she wanted to. Her favorite Wayne quote is “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.”
Getting Off the Tennis Circuit
Unlike her aunts and uncles, she wasn’t drawn to the movies. She was raised to be a professional tennis player. She said her Dad, Earl Lawrence Kuhle II, did not see music as a career option. It was “tennis, tennis, tennis,” she reports.
When Jennifer was 18, she felt she could now do what she pleased, so she got a guitar and started playing music. Her Aunt Marisa had moved to Nashville at one point and pursued singing for a while. Jennifer said that Marisa has been supportive and inspiring.
Makes Acting Debut With Billy Ray Cyrus
Jennifer did get her time on the big screen. In 2014, she made her acting debut in the faith-based movie, Like a Country Song starring Billy Ray Cyrus and For King and Country’s Joel Smallbone. The singer said she took her grandpa’s advice and pretended she knew what she was doing.
The family patriarch, John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa. (Some sources also list him as Marion Michael Morrison and Marion Mitchell Morrison.) He was the oldest of two children born to Clyde and Mary “Molly” Morrison.
Family Roots in Ireland/Scotland
Clyde Leonard Morrison (1884–1937), was the son of American Civil War veteran Marion Mitchell Morrison (1845–1915). Wayne’s mother, the former Mary “Molly” Alberta Brown (1885–1970), was from Lancaster County, Nebraska. Wayne had Scotch-Irish, English, and Irish ancestry.
His great-great grandfather Robert Morrison (b. 1782) left County Antrim, Ireland, with his mother, arriving in New York in 1799 and eventually settling in Adams County, Ohio. The Morrisons were originally from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. He was raised Presbyterian.
Duke Was Really His Dog
Wayne moved to Lancester, California, around the age of seven. The family moved again a few years later after Clyde failed at becoming a farmer. Settling in Glendale, California, Wayne received his distinctive nickname “Duke” while living there.
Wayne had a large Airedale dog called Duke, and he spent so much time with his pet that the pair became known as “Little Duke” and “Big Duke.” In high school, Wayne excelled in his classes and in many different activities, including numerous student theatrical productions.
Wayne Loses Football Scholarship
Wayne won a football scholarship to the University of Southern California and started college in the fall of 1925. He joined the Sigma Chi fraternity and continued to be a strong student. Unfortunately, after two years, a body surfing injury took him off the football field and ended his scholarship and his college career.
He began working for the Fox Film Corporation. Wayne obtained some work as a film extra, appearing as a football player in two silent films, Brown of Harvard (1926) and Drop Kick (1927). After hours, Wayne worked as an extra and a prop man in the film industry. He first met director John Ford while working as an extra on Mother Machree (1928).
A Break Thanks to Raoul Walsh
While working for Fox Film in bit roles, Wayne was given on-screen credit as “Duke Morrison” in Words and Music (1929). Director Raoul Walsh saw him moving studio furniture while working as a prop boy and cast him in his first starring role in The Big Trail (1930).
For his screen name, Walsh suggested “Anthony Wayne,” after Revolutionary War General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Fox Studios chief Winfield Sheehan rejected it as sounding “too Italian.” Walsh then suggested “John Wayne.” Sheehan agreed, and the name was set. Wayne was not even present for the discussion. His pay was raised to $105 a week.
Big Trail, Big Money Pit
With The Big Trail (1930), Wayne received his first leading role. The Big Trail was to be the first big-budget outdoor spectacle of the sound era, made at a then-staggering cost of over $2 million (over $32.8 million equivalent in 2021), using hundreds of extras and wide vistas of the American Southwest, still largely unpopulated at the time.
To take advantage of the breath-taking scenery, it was filmed in two versions, a standard 35 mm version and another in the new 70 mm Grandeur film process, using an innovative camera and lenses. Many in the audience who saw it in Grandeur stood and cheered.
Box Office Flop Now Redeemed
Unfortunately, only a handful of theaters were equipped to show the film in its widescreen process, and the effort was largely wasted at the time. The film was considered a huge box-office flop at the time but came to be highly regarded by modern critics.
For nearly a decade, Wayne toiled in numerous B movies, mostly Westerns, for different studios. He even played a singing cowboy named Sandy Saunders, among his many roles. During this time period, however, Wayne started developing his man of action persona, which would serve as the basis of many popular characters later on.
Wayne Returns to Small Roles
After the commercial failure of The Big Trail, Wayne was relegated to small roles in A- pictures, including Columbia’s The Deceiver (1931), in which he played a corpse. He appeared in the serial The Three Musketeers (1933), in which the protagonists were soldiers in the French Foreign Legion in North Africa.
He played the lead, with his name over the title, in many low-budget Poverty Row Westerns, mostly at Monogram Pictures and serials for Mascot Pictures Corporation. By Wayne’s own estimation, he appeared in about 80 of these horse operas from 1930 to 1939.
Singing Cowboy but Dubbed
In Riders of Destiny (1933), he became one of the first singing cowboys in film, although his voice was dubbed. Wayne also appeared in some of the Three Musketeers Westerns, whose title was a play on the Dumas classic.
Stuntmen in his films mentored him in riding and other Western skills. Stuntman Yakima Canutt and Wayne developed and perfected stunts and on-screen fisticuffs techniques that are still in use. Wayne is credited with allowing the good guys to fight as convincingly as the bad guys, by not always making them fight clean.
Wayne’s Good Guys Fought Dirty
This was an innovation at the time. Wayne claimed that before he came along, it was standard practice that the hero must always fight clean. The heavy was allowed to hit the hero in the head with a chair or throw a kerosene lamp at him or kick him in the stomach.
But the hero could only knock the villain down politely and then wait until he stood up. Wayne said he changed all that. He claimed he threw chairs and lamps, fought hard and dirty and fought to win.
Big Breakthrough in Stagecoach
Wayne’s major breakthrough role came with John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). Because of Wayne’s B-movie status and track record in low-budget Westerns throughout the 1930s, Ford had struggled to obtain financing for what he intended to be an A-level film.
After being rejected by all the major studios, Ford struck a deal with independent producer Walter Wanger that allowed Claire Trevor—a much bigger star than Wayne at the time— to receive top billing. Stagecoach was a huge critical and financial success, and Wayne became a mainstream star.
Wayne Exempt From WWII Fight
When the U.S. entered WWII, Wayne was exempted from service due to his age (34 at the time of Pearl Harbor) and family status (classified as 3-A – family deferment). Wayne repeatedly wrote to John Ford saying he wanted to enlist, on one occasion inquiring whether he could get into Ford’s military unit.
Wayne did not attempt to prevent his reclassification as 1-A (draft eligible), but Republic Studios was emphatically resistant to losing him, since he was their only A-list actor under contract. Herbert J. Yates, president of Republic, threatened Wayne with a lawsuit if he walked away from his contract.
Republic Insists on Deferment
In the end, whatever Wayne’s wishes were, Republic Pictures intervened in the Selective Service process, requesting Wayne’s further deferment. U.S. National Archives records indicate that Wayne, in fact, did make an application to serve in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the modern CIA, and had been accepted.
By many accounts, his failure to serve in the military later became the most painful part of his life. His widow, Pilar, later suggested that his patriotism in later decades sprang from guilt. She wrote that he became a “superpatriot” for the rest of his life to atone for sitting out the war.
Duke Dies of Stomach Cancer
Although he enrolled in a cancer vaccine study in an attempt to ward off the disease, Wayne died of stomach cancer on June 11, 1979, at the UCLA Medical Center. He was buried in the Pacific View Memorial Park Cemetery in Corona del Mar, Newport Beach.
He requested that his tombstone read “Feo, Fuerte y Formal”, a Spanish epitaph Wayne described as meaning “ugly, strong, and dignified.” His grave, which was unmarked for 20 years, has been marked since 1999 with the following quotation: “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life.”
The Quote Filled His Life With Meaning
“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.” Today, visitors can spend time at the grave and pay tribute to their hero.
Wayne’s enduring status as an iconic American was formally recognized by the U.S. government in the form of the two highest civilian decorations. On his 72nd birthday on May 26, 1979, Wayne was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
Awards Continued After Death
Wayne was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on June 9, 1980, by President Jimmy Carter. He had attended Carter’s inaugural ball in 1977 “as a member of the loyal opposition,” as he described it. Although he was a lifelong Republican, Wayne insisted that he supported whoever held the office of President.
In 1998, he was awarded the Naval Heritage Award by the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation for his support of the Navy and military during his film career. In 1999, the American Film Institute named Wayne the 13th Greatest Male Screen Legend of classic Hollywood cinema.
Celebrating the Centennial of Duke’s Birth
Several celebrations took place on May 26, 2007, the centennial of Wayne’s birth. A celebration at the John Wayne birthplace in Winterset, Iowa, included chuck-wagon suppers, concerts by Michael Martin Murphey and Riders in the Sky, a Wild West Revue in the style of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.
Wayne’s films ran continuously at the local theater. Ground was broken for the new John Wayne Birthplace Museum and Learning Center at a ceremony consisting of over 30 of Wayne’s family members, including Melinda Wayne Muñoz, Aissa, Ethan, and Marisa Wayne.
A Place in the Hall of Fame
Later that year, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver inducted Wayne into the California Hall of Fame, located at the California Museum for History, Women and the Arts. In 2016, Republican assemblyman Matthew Harper proposed marking May 26 as “John Wayne Day” in California.
Times have changed, however, and the proposal was rejected by a vote of 35 to 20, due to Wayne’s views on race and his support of controversial organizations such as the John Birch Society and the House Un-American Activities Committee. His views may also have changed, but he was no longer alive to express them.