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John Wayne Auction

In the market for mementos of one of the West’s biggest icons? 
Check out The John Wayne Signature Auction this October.

In The Shootist, John Wayne’s final film, legendary gunfighter J.B. Books persuades the widow Bond Rogers to accompany him on a final buggy ride through the countryside. Stopping along the shore of a lake near Carson City, Nevada, on a crisp January morning, Books, ravaged with cancer, voices concern for the widow’s son.

“Don’t you have enough worries of your own?” Bond (Lauren Bacall) asks. “A few,” the aging gunfighter responds. “But, in general, I’ve had a hell of a good time.”

Three years later, Wayne himself would succumb to cancer. After 175 films over his 50-year career, it’s a fair bet he, too, had had a hell of a good time.

“People are so sentimental about that film. It’s basically the story of his own real life — an iconic man dying of cancer,” says Margaret Barrett, director of music and entertainment auctions at Heritage Auctions, which is putting on the block hundreds of items that belonged to The Duke October 3 – 6 in Los Angeles.  

With his distinctive voice, gait, and presence, John Wayne epitomized rugged American masculinity — and his belongings bespeak that iconic presence. Imagine the mystique that will pervade the John Wayne Signature Auction at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel when the place is filled with his things in October. Scripts, costume garments, awards, furnishings, documents, letters to dignitaries, personal tchotchkes — the 750-plus auction lots comprise a “Duke” time capsule, a snapshot of the Newport Beach home where he lived the last 15 years of his life.

There’s a propman’s assistant ID card bearing the name Duke Morrison from 1930 — just before he adopted the name John Wayne. There’s a telephone from his desk and a collection of silver dimes in paper rolls. And then there’s the custom-made saddle with his name embossed on the back. It’s a day-in-the-life archive of Wayne’s life. But why release these artifacts now?

Wayne likely wore these heavily distressed brown leather Lucchese cowboy boots in True Grit (1969) and Rooster Cogburn (1975). The inside of the right boot bears the stamp “495” while the left boot is stamped “496,” indicating that this is an unmatched pair and another pair exactly matching this exists elsewhere.

Ethan Wayne, The Duke’s son and president of John Wayne Enterprises, says he’s received calls from fans almost daily since he took the helm of the Wayne family licensing company in 2003. They were looking for a memento, some authentic piece they could grasp to relive a treasured moment inspired by seeing a John Wayne movie with a loved one. Before now, such items had never been made available.

To Ethan, the stuff isn’t just memorabilia — and John Wayne wasn’t just an icon. As a boy Ethan remembers spending a lot of time with his father exploring the West Coast on Wayne’s yacht, Wild Goose. A former U.S. Navy minesweeper, the 136-foot craft served in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. Wayne purchased the ship in 1962 and completely refurbished it, adding a custom interior with dark wood-paneled walls, a master stateroom, a wet bar, and quarters for children and guests. (Alas, the ship’s not in the auction: Wayne sold the yacht two months before his death.)

Ethan says that to this day, his father is well known in ports along the West Coast, from Mexico to Alaska. “If you met him, you liked him,” he says. “I don’t care who you are — if you spent half an hour with the guy, you’d walk away liking him.”

Statistical proof of that? Every year since 1994, Harris Interactive has surveyed Americans asking them one question: Who is your favorite movie star? Every year, John Wayne appears on the list. In fact, he’s the only actor in the history of the poll to appear among the Top 10 favorite stars since the survey’s inception. Not only that, he’s the only deceased actor ever to make the list. In 2010, John Wayne moved from No. 7 to No. 3. behind Johnny Depp and Denzel Washington.  

What is the secret of his steadfast appeal? “John Wayne is one of these enduring icons where every new generation discovers him. If you have an airport named after you, you’re an icon,” says Barrett, referring to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California. “No one has come to take his place. It’s like Marilyn Monroe. Who has come to take her place? John Wayne was at the right moment at the right time with the right look and the right personality.”

Whatever rightness Wayne brought to the screen and American culture, he also gained personally from the roles he inhabited. Ethan says his father was always deeply fond of the characters he portrayed — he admired their values, their energy, and their character traits. He was proud to represent them on-screen, and he attempted to emulate them in his life off-screen.

“He’d spend hours every night thinking about his characters,” Ethan says. “A lot of his characters were flawed and brutal, but never small or petty or mean.”

Ethan lived with his father until the day Wayne died in June 1979. Ethan was just 17 years old. “He came into my room one night and he said, ‘Eh, boy, I’m sick. Come on. You gotta take me to the hospital,’ ” he remembers. “So I loaded him in the back of the station wagon and drove him to UCLA [Medical Center]. He never came out. I didn’t think he would never come out.”

The day The Duke died, the executors of his estate locked down the house to protect the property and its contents. (Celebrity artifacts tend to quickly disappear the moment their famous owners pass.) The family was allowed to retrieve only 10 items that were personal to them before the contents were sealed and secured in storage. The remaining items hadn’t been viewed by anyone but Michael Wayne until the family recently decided to do something with them.

“When I went to see what was in there, I found everything from my room,” Ethan says. “The stuff that I had in my drawer in my dresser, my little photographs from school — all of that was still in there.”

Ethan sees the auction as a gesture to the legions of people who were individually affected by John Wayne and felt they had a close personal relationship with him. “He spoke to them through one of his characters,” Ethan says. “They would watch his films and they’d get some guidance. They’d get their moral compass adjusted.”

And if it’s going to be a little tough to part with some of the mementos his father made valuable simply by owning or using them, Ethan’s got his own memories and something perpetual to hang on to. “The older I get,” he says, “the more I realize what a blessing it is to turn on the TV and spend an hour and a half with my dad.”

For more information, visit www.ha.com


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