Children recall life with John Wayne “He was a great Dad”

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Ethan Wayne, Anita LaCava Swift, Marisa Wayne, Patrick Wayne, Melinda Wayne Munoz, seated.
Patrick Wayne, Melina Wayne Munoz, Anita LaCava Swift, Rex Linn, moderator

Children recall life with John Wayne
“He was a great Dad”

What’s it like when five members of John Wayne’s family take to the stage for a “Q&A” about life with their famous father?

Well, it’s a lot like an old-fashioned family reunion complete with laughter, teasing, and the occasional revelation of long-held secrets.

That’s what happened when actor Rex Linn rounded up five of John Wayne’s family on stage at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum for a Saturday morning “tell all” during the recent annual Western Heritage Awards weekend.

Sons Patrick Wayne, 75, and Ethan Wayne, 53, had already signed on for the emcee duties for the gala Saturday night awards banquet several months prior. Patrick is the older brother to his half-brother Ethan. Although they shared the famous actor as their father, both had different mothers.

Patrick’s mother was Wayne’s first wife, Josephine Alicia Saenz. Ethan’s mom was Pilar Pallete, Wayne’s third wife. All of John Wayne’s wives were of Hispanic descent.

Because Ethan is the youngest son, he bore the brunt of some of the good-natured ribbing, especially about the funky way he dressed growing up and his penchant for being mischievous.

Two daughters, Marisa Wayne, the youngest daughter at age 49, Melinda Wayne Munoz, 75, and a granddaughter, Anita LaCava Swift, also shared the stage. Swift, 58, has been a frequent guest at various Museum events for the past 10 years.

Marisa’s Mom was Pilar. Melinda’s was Josephine and Anita is Josephine’s granddaughter.

A detailed portrait of the John Wayne family tree might have been a clever stage prop for this event.

The five all recalled numerous family vacation adventures on the

Wild Goose, a World War II minesweeper that John Wayne converted to the family yacht. It was usually anchored in the harbor at Newport Beach, Calif., where the Wayne children spent their childhood. They still live there and see each other often.

Ethan’s pranks often sent him to “the naughty chair” on the yacht, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. The family traveled often to Catalina Island, San Diego and Mexico on the 136-foot yacht.

Anita and Patrick both recalled wonderful Christmas holidays, which began with a big parade in Newport Beach. The holiday festivities usually lasted several weeks.

“The presents were fabulous,” Anita said.

Patrick noted, “Dad believed a childhood should be filled with love.” Ethan recalled Christmas as “a big production.”

Their dad’s 26 Bar Hereford Ranch in Arizona was usually the setting for Thanksgiving. A ranch hand would often tour ‘The Duke’ around the place to look at his cattle. Wayne didn’t care much for that pickup so he sent a better vehicle to the ranch.

Ethan recalled, “It was a monster truck but he could now fit himself and his cowboy hat in the truck.”

Marisa noted, “It was always a fun time when we all got together.”

Melinda added, “Yes and Ethan was always in trouble.”

Big meals, especially steak and potatoes, were their Dad’s favorite, they all noted.

“He liked candy,” Ethan said. “He had a real sweet tooth. He hated meatloaf.”

Ethan alluded to his Dad’s love for bourbon, but side-stepped the
controversy over the Duke Kentucky Straight Bourbon released in 2014. It was hand-crafted to match a bottle of Wayne’s favorite bourbon from the early 1960s. In a 2014 press release, Ethan noted, “Our goal with the DUKE was to make a Bourbon that embodies the spirit, strength and richness my father personified while realizing his unfulfilled dream of distilling fine spirits.”

Duke University took offense at the use of the name DUKE on the label.

Marisa remembered being on the set of The Shootist, based on Gordon Swarthout’s book about an aging gunfighter battling cancer, a theme that characterized John Wayne’s last days.

“Ron Howard (an Oklahoma native) was starring in Happy Days on television at that time and brought his friends from that show to the set. My Dad really liked Ron. He thought he had great promise as an actor,” Marisa said.

Patrick made 40 films during his career. The first was a bit part in Rio Grande, for which he made $10. His last film with his Dad, his ninth, was Big Jake.

Patrick had a role in The Long Gray Line, starring Maureen O’Hara and recalled wistfully, “She gave me my first kiss.” His siblings reminded him he also was quite infatuated with Natalie Wood while The Searchers was being filmed. They noted he also had a flirtation with Katharine Ross during the filming of Shenandoah.

“Don’t forget Stephanie Powers in McClintock,” Melinda urged.

Judy Garland was singing in a nightclub and introduced Patrick to George, Paul, John and Ringo – better known as “The Beatles.” Later, Patrick starred in numerous movies, among them Mister Roberts, The Alamo and The Green Berets.

Anita recalled being a teenager when her grandfather was shooting The Cowboys in 1972. Ethan remembered being on the set for the filming of Big Jake and having a horrible costume that included velvet knickers.

“Ethan always had a lot of problems with his clothing,” Marisa laughed.

Melinda was on the set for the filming of McClintock, a comedy western and one of the makeup artists made her up as an Indian.

“People were lining up to get autographs and I thought Dad wouldn’t recognize me,” she said. “Dad took one look at me and said, ‘Hi Melinda, when did you get into town?’ ”

Several of the children were in Ireland in 1951 for the filming of The Quiet Man and Ethan went later to see the movie set. He loved the hardware store that was part of the set. Patrick was an apprentice in the movie and loved the pristine green countryside. He returned to Ireland in 1975 to speak at a John Wayne Symposium.

“Now, The Quiet Man is shown every afternoon at Ashford Castle in Ireland.” Marisa noted.

“The village of Cong, where part of the movie was filmed, has made an exact replica of the pub that was a frequent setting in the movie,” Melinda added.

Patrick recalled that John Ford, the film’s director, often protested filming many of the Quiet Man scenes.

“All the ones he protested are in the movie,” he laughed. “It’s also interesting that the films Dad got killed in were not as successful as the ones where he lived.”

The subject of dialogue and Wayne’s easy-going, calm voice surfaced. Patrick said, “He loved dialogue,” contrasting him with his Dad’s long-time pal Ben Johnson, an Oklahoma rodeo star turned actor who detested movie dialogue.

Moderator Linn asked, “Did your Dad talk much about the film business away from it?”

“No,” Patrick said, with great emphasis. “Everything had its place. But he was always evolving and improving in his acting. He was a student of himself. Films were his acting classes.”

Ethan laughed. “He didn’t talk much about acting at home, as seen in my performances.”

Patrick and Ethan both took acting lessons, as did Marisa. Patrick performed in summer stock and dinner theaters as well as numerous television series and game shows. While his career never rivaled that of his father, one reviewer commented, “Patrick certainly wasn’t hard on the eyes.”

As the hour-long jovial banter came to a close, Patrick talked about the last six weeks of his father’s life.

“He was in constant pain and he was very uncomfortable. But he still had grit and courage. He would often reach out to others in the UCLA Medical Center and try to console them,” he said.

John Wayne died June 11, 1979 at the age of 72.

The movie, Stagecoach, was his big break in 1939, launching a career that spanned 142 films, including 83 westerns. True Grit won him an Oscar in 1969.

“He went to his grave wearing a good luck bracelet,” Patrick said. It was given to him by friends from Vietnam’s central highlands who respected his viewpoint on the Vietnam conflict.

Their father’s death inspired several of the children to direct their talents toward a cure for cancer. Patrick assumed the chairmanship of the board of directors of the John Wayne Cancer Institute after his brother Michael died in 2003. Ethan is president of John Wayne Enterprises and director of the John Wayne Cancer Foundation. The mission of the Institute and Foundation is “to bring courage, strength and grit to the fight against cancer.”

Anita was 22 when her grandfather, a heavy smoker, died of stomach cancer.

“He made an indelible impression on my life,” she said.

Her mother, Mary Antonia LaCava, also died of cancer in 2001. Anita has served as president of the John Wayne Cancer Institute Auxiliary and is a tireless fundraiser.

John Wayne’s legacy is revered at the National Cowboy Museum, where he once served on the board of directors. Many of the artifacts from his film career and personal collections are on exhibit in the museum’s Western Performers Gallery. He was the grand marshal of the downtown parade when the museum opened June 26, 1965. He was inducted into the museum’s prestigious Hall of Great Western Performers in 1974, one of the early western movie stars to be so honored.

Among other celebrities attending the weekend events were Michael Martin Murphey, who has performed at several John Wayne celebrations; actors Buck Taylor, also an accomplished artist; Dean Smith, noted for numerous roles as a movie stuntman; and Wyatt McCrea, son of the late western actor Joel McCrea.

Ethan closed the spirited conversation quite gracefully.

“We’re here today as a family,” he said. “And you’re all here because you love John Wayne. He was a great Dad,” he said.

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