Maureen O’Hara not only starred with John Wayne in five films — she also was his longtime close friend. Following is a reminiscence of O’Hara’s testimony before Congress regarding the true character of her beloved Duke, delivered just weeks before he died. O’Hara herself passed away October 24, 2015.
On May 21, 1979, Maureen O’Hara sat somberly at a table before the House Banking, Finance, and Urban Affair Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs. Her mission was bittersweet. Knowing her dear friend, John Wayne, was gravely ill, she had flown in from her home in St. Croix, the Virgin Islands, to give testimony for an authorization for the President of the United States to strike a commemorative gold medal in his honor. Her flight had been cancelled into Washington, and she had come through New York instead. It was a harried day, and she hadn’t even had a chance to make a prepared statement.
Chairman Annunzio introduced O’Hara. Her eyes were filled with tears as she began her testimony of fond memories of her friend. “I have known John Wayne for 39 years, and in those 39 years I have called him my dearest friend — my best friend ... ” O’Hara said. It was an emotionally gripping moment, but she continued. “To the people of the world, John Wayne is not just an actor — and a very fine actor — John Wayne is the United States of America.”
O’Hara then shared personal memories of Duke and his love of playing chess with her husband, Gen. Charles Blair, and of how she’d always try to get him to try some of the great island dishes and he would always order a steak.
It was important to O’Hara that people know the kind of man John Wayne was: his love of his family, his home, and his country. And to know about his loyalty to his friends and how he helped others in need. He was always the same, O’Hara said; he didn’t change — you could always depend upon him.
O’Hara met Wayne through famed director John Ford, not long after she came to Hollywood to star with Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1939. Although they remained friends early in their careers, their friendship grew stronger after Ford cast them in Rio Grande, the first of five movies in which they would co-star. The Quiet Man, The Wings of Eagles, McLintock!, and Big Jake followed.
Duke always described the fiery redhead as “the greatest guy I ever knew.” To O’Hara, being considered one of the guys was quite a compliment coming from Duke. Wayne admired her strength and her ability to do many of her own stunts in their films and still remain feminine. O’Hara admits that they challenged each other to steal scenes — and loved it! The result was an on-screen chemistry that sizzled.
Many memories were made in their long friendship, and she reached for the ones most dear as she spoke before Congress. “There are many stories I could tell you about Duke — about how right after the inauguration of President Carter in 1977, he sent me a postcard (and I have it) and the postcard said, ‘In the twilight of our lives, when the hell are you going to invite me to the Virgin Islands?’ ”
She then reminisced about Duke visiting her in St. Croix. “One day he was driving a big red truck, which we borrowed for him because he won’t fit in an automobile you know — he has to drive a truck. And he was driving down to Christiansted, and he was going slowly because he was looking on both sides of the street and ogling everything he could see. And suddenly there’s a big truck behind him and they blow the horn ‘beep, beep, beep, beep,’ and [tell] him, ‘get out of the way’ ... . And they pull up beside him and say, ‘Hey,’ and he says, ‘Yah,’ and that was the end of it. They didn’t challenge Duke any more!”
Maureen O’Hara then concluded her testimony with this tearful plea: “I beg you to strike a medal for Duke, to order the President to strike it. And I feel that the medal should say just one thing: ‘John Wayne, American.’ ”
And so it was. The coin was minted and carried the inscription that Maureen O’Hara had proposed.
From the July 2007 issue. Read contributing editor Joe Leydon’s “Hail and Farewell to Maureen O’Hara.”