Who begat John Wayne?
I used begat because I was afraid if I asked, “Who made John Wayne?” I would be accused of saying John Wayne was a “Made Man” in the mafia.
Surely our All American Hero of the Great Plains was sired by one of the premier western movie stars who came before him. His Daddy would have to be either William S. Hart, Hoot Gibson or Tom Mix. But no, no, it was none of the above. Hang with me because the shock will be tremendous when you learn the unlikely source of John Wayne, the solid rock foundation of our youthful development.
Remember all the western movies where the good guy wins and the bad guy, or more likely, a heap of bad guys bite the gritty dust. We were fascinated. We were mesmerized. The western movies made us into the many good citizens and maybe a few bad apples we later became. John Wayne did that to us. We are all spiritually cloaked by the “John Wayne Syndrome.”
He was the epitome of the real man. He was tough, hard as a slab of granite with a heart as large as a longhorn steer’s. He had courage, tenacity, honesty, integrity and all-of-the above plus much, much more all rolled up like a solid tumble weed into one big man. We loved him. We were him and he was us. We still are him. We can’t shake that persona.
So who turned Marion Robert Morrison into John Wayne and changed our lives forever? Here’s how it all happened to us and it is the fault of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and William Randolph Hearst.
Roosevelt would go on to become the 26th president of the USA. Lodge was a United States congressman in the House of Representatives and later in the US Senate from 1887 to 1924. Hearst was also a US Congressman but is most noted as an American newspaper publisher who built the nation’s largest newspaper chain.
According to Evan Thomas in his most interesting book, “The War Lovers,” in 1898 Roosevelt, Lodge and Hearst were hell bent on getting the United States into a war with Spain. They were all terribly disappointed because the sun was slowly setting in the west over the last great frontier for men of action. There were no more Indians to fight. There was no place these hardy lads could go to hear the boom of cannon and experience the thrill of a cavalry chase. They were fearless warriors with no place to wage war.
Who gave them the notion they were fearless warriors? The truth is they were all upper crust Easterners. They met at Harvard and were all members of The Porcellian Club which had only about twenty members and its only practical use was to provide them a forum for dining and heavy drinking. I suspect each of them was living in the shadow of his father whose strong presence cast a pall over any dreams, hopes and ambitions of the son. They were forever doomed to strive to prove their prowess and manliness to their fathers. Roosevelt was quoted as saying the only man he ever feared was his father.
Today in our society these three would appear to be foppish dandies or sissies.They were certainly different and peculiar. Even Roosevelt who later became President continued to project his manly demeanor all over the globe by killing thousands of wild animals and he appeared to always be trying to prove himself to other men yet there is no question he was a brilliant Renaissance man who could hold forth on practically any subject.
Lodge was born in the highest of Boston Brahmin blue blood snobbery. His Mother was a Cabot. The old Boston toast or poem (a variation) to their social standing goes: And this is to good old Boston. The home of the bean and the cod. Where the Lodges talk to the Cabots. And the Cabots speak only to God.
Hearst was the creator of “Yellow Journalism.” Many of the stories published by his papers were manufactured to create sensationalism and to sell papers. Nowadays he is most widely known for being the main character depicted in Orson Welles’ classic movie, “Citizen Kane.” His political power was derived from his ownership of thirty newspapers in the US and he was expertly adroit at wielding his power of the press.
Roosevelt was a Republican who became the leader of the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party. He seemed to be a liberal Republican except when it came to war and killing large animals with high powered rifles. He was forty years old when he insisted on using his political pull to get him in the US Army so he could join in the battle with the cavalry in making a mad dash up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish American War of 1898. That was his only year of military service. He longed to be a cowboy and his rambunctiousness was almost certainly curtailed, in a good and positive way by his wife, Edith.
To make a long story short, as it should be because it is so sad when you lose a hero like John Wayne, our three war lovers had a confederate in the Porcellian Club by the name of Owen Wister. A few years after they had all left Harvard, Roosevelt, Hearst and Lodge were busy stirring up our war with Spain after the the American ship, USS Maine was blown up in Havanah Harbor. It probably was blown up by an onboard accident but the war lovers would have none of that explanation. Immediately employing every political resource they could muster, they blamed Spain for the explosion and Teddy got his golden opportunity to charge up San Juan Hill astride a galloping steed in a full blown cavalry charge. Cuba has never been the same.
If Owen Wister does not ring a bell with you, don’t worry. You know I’m duty bound to tell you about him. While the war lovers were stifling their boredom by engaging in stirring up a needless war between the USA and Spain, Owen Wister was attacking the same brand of boredom in his own unique way.
Wister’s father had him working in New York as a bank clerk. The story goes that Wister went west for his health which may be true but some people say Owen was tired of sitting at a desk in an office in New York City and after one visit to Medicine Bow, Wyoming, he was ruined forever. He fell totally in love with the great outdoors and the life of the cowboy.
The only trouble was the cowboy was much maligned in those days. The cowboy was lowly, nasty, unkempt, unshaven, cowardly, despicable, universally unpopular (and also not liked very much) until Owen Wister appeared on the scene.
And then in 1902 Owen Wister changed it all. The old Harvard Porcellian Club imbiber magically turned the lowly unloved cowboy into the Great American Hero that he has remained to us for well over a hundred years. Owen Wister wrote “The Virginian.”
“The Virginian” has been made into a movie four times and a fifth time it was revised into a “made for television” movie. It was also the long running television series that we so much enjoyed from 1962 to 1971 that starred James Drury, Doug McClure and Lee J. Cobb. “The Virginian” made famous a line that we have all heard before but bears repeating here. During a poker game, one player called the sheriff an SOB. The sheriff looked at the fellow and said, “When you call me that, smile.” Wister had his hero repeat that line in his book.
There were short stories and pulp dime novels about the Old West before “The Virginian” but never a novel of such scope and force. One year later, in 1903, the first Western Cowboy movie was filmed. The movie maker was The Edison Film Company and it was shot on a budget of $150.00. “The Great Train Robbery” was twelve minutes long and was a silent shoot ’em up with the bad guys robbing passengers on a train and then being chased by a posse of good guys who wiped out all the bad guys. The star was Broncho Billy Anderson.
And thus was born our love for cowboys, all the great old cowboy stars led by John Wayne who has been called, “The Bearer of Moral Absolutes.” This was the birth of the mythical Old West we still embrace and if you missed it because you are so young, I feel sorry for you but the beauty of today’s media allows you to seek it out and watch every minute of it. These were great stories of cowboys and Indians and lawmen and bandits.
So there you have it. I maintain that Owen Wister and his Harvard college swells created our hero, John Wayne. You can almost say that Owen Wister was John Wayne’s daddy. I know it was not Broncho Billy Anderson and at 5’2″ Buzz Barton was too short. He was the shortest cowboy star. Besides he was six years younger than John Wayne.
I could go on forever but I have to go downstairs and practice my gangly, gimpy sidewinder kind of walk up to the mirror, cock my head to one side and drawl, “Listen Pilgrim, and listen good!”