Joan Didion on John Wayne

In our rush to re-calibrate the misdeeds and flawed personas of popular public figures from the past, I think we often lose sight of the reasons these people achieved the status they enjoyed, and of the deeper impressions they left on the world at large. Before the internet and 24/7 mass media, it was easier to love a public figure for the things they projected, without having to deal with the realities of their darker moments or the truth of their demeanor when the cameras weren’t running. There’s a reason an older generation struggles with efforts to tear down the icons of their past. These icons informed their lives, and in many cases helped shape their character in positive directions. Whether the positive influences outweigh the hidden negative realities is a debate for someone else to have.

John Wayne has certainly been posthumously dragged for his arch Conservative nature and his views on race and gender. But for generations of Americas, John Wayne was a towering, compelling figure, for reasons that, I think, begin to drift away from the public consciousness as he is casually dismissed by younger generations. One of the hard truths I try to keep in mind is that perception is reality. And, so, the perceptions of those who exist generations apart are always going to inform the clashing senses of reality, which will have been well established long, long ago for some.

With all of that in mind, I recently stumbled across a quote from the great American writer Joan Didion, who passed away recently. Didion is one of those women I imagine I would have been staggered by had I existed within her circle. Beautiful, fierce, brilliant, unapologetic, versatile, awkward, tragic. She often used her writing to sort through the events, some tragic, of her life, and was always clearly working toward a better understanding of who she was and why.

Of John Wayne, Didion wrote:

We went three and four afternoons a week, sat on folding chairs in the darkened hut which served as a theatre, and it was there, that summer of 1943 while the hot wind blew outside, that I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in a picture called War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, ‘at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow’.

As it happened, I didn’t grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I want to hear.

from John Wayne, a Love Song (1968)

Beyond her lovely writing voice, I think this quotation says so much about so many things, and while it isn’t really explicitly about John Wayne, it explains how the perception of a figure like John Wayne could bury itself in someone’s heart and establish an ideal that may never be met, but never fully escapes. You can argue against clinging to idealism, but I believe the human experience is enriched by embracing the search for things that exist just beyond our reach.


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