John WayneJohn Wayne: The Life and Legend
by Scott Eyman
Simon & Schuster, $32.50

Given a spare moment, John Wayne played chess. And bridge, and poker, and backgammon. And how about another round of drinks for everybody at the end of a long day of shooting? Anything to be doing something, and not be by himself.

The image of Wayne as someone who craved activity and shunned introspection is one of the strongest—and somehow most poignant—impressions to emerge from John Wayne: The Life and Legend, Scott Eyman’s exemplary biography. The Duke’s restlessness drums through the book, and while the man does not come across as unhappy, he does seem chased by a need to keep working, to keep proving himself, and (surprisingly) to pay his bills. On the last point, Wayne was generous to a fault, carried a load of alimony and child care, and was ill-advised on business deals.

We hear a lot about those deals, and about Wayne’s production company, Batjac. Eyman appears to have had broad access to Wayne’s business and family life, and the result is a book with a compelling claim to being definitive. Eyman’s interviewing is extensive, and only rarely does the book betray a biographer’s information-overload penchant for including stories that aren’t especially relevant to the subject but were just too good to cut out. (The memories of Robert Horton—I’m talking about the actor here—on the subject of his Wagon Train co-star and longtime Wayne drinking buddy Ward Bond are in that category, but are so goldarn good they can easily be forgiven.)

One of the best sections of the book is Eyman’s patient journey through the low-budget Westerns Wayne made in the decade after The Big Trail in 1930. These wilderness years are generally tossed off as the pre-Stagecoach training ground for a future star, and it’s fascinating to hear detail (and firsthand anecdotes) about the budgets, locations, and shooting habits for these varied projects. At this early stage, Duke already enjoyed playing the big brother role; he’d deliberately blow a few takes at the end of the day so the extras would have to be paid overtime. There are plenty of later examples of the star’s hot temper or habit of elbowing aside directors, so the portrait isn’t entirely cuddly.

At the other end of his career is an account of Wayne’s TV commercials for Great Western Bank in the late 1970s—he was already sick with a recurrence of cancer. By now we’ve heard a lot about the actor’s right-wing philosophy, and as the spots were directed by left-leaning Haskell Wexler, we anticipate a dust-up. But Wayne the professional prevails, and (despite a brief and charmingly resolved flare-up of Wayne’s chauvinism around working women on Wexler’s crew) actor and director get along swell. And damned if the commercial isn’t effective: there he is, an icon who needs the money, comparing a bank to a redwood forest. But nobody watching the ads—then on TV, now on YouTube—could miss the real comparison. Man and redwood, equally matched, both still standing.

Look for Robert Horton’s feature on John Wayne in the May/June issue.