Arts & Culture News

Ethan Wayne Discusses Upcoming Auction of John Wayne Memorabilia

Growing up as a nerdy kid on a ranch in rural Texas, there was really only one thing I had in common with my bad-ass, tough-as-nails cowboy dad. We only had two TV channels, both of which he controlled anyway, so we spent most nights wearing out the ribbons on VHS tapes, running through (and through again) much of John Wayne's later career.

During summers, we visited the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Museum in Oklahoma City, which has, since 1979, housed a major collection of The Duke's personal and professional items, and during one summer, on a sojourn through the Midwest when I was eight, I picked up a fancy "gold" collector coin for my dad as a souvenir at the John Wayne Birthplace in Winterset, Iowa. Despite my dad and I not always understanding one another, when Rooster Cogburn took the reigns between his teeth and charged off with a rifle in one hand and a pistol in the other, we were on the same team. We were vicarious heroes. Alpha law dogs by proxy.

Ethan Wayne, president of John Wayne Enterprises (and a real class act, for what it's worth), has some pretty fond memories of his own larger-than-life dad, and he spoke with us recently about the near 750 professional and personal items that will be available this fall for sale for the first time since his dad's death in 1979. Heritage Auctions will offer the collection for preview at itsDesign District Annex from September 16-18, 2011. The items will be available for auction in Los Angeles -- and online -- on October 3 through 6.

See our interview with Ethan Wayne after the jump.

What would you consider the most interesting thing up for offer? Is there anything really off-the-wall or unexpected? You have the obvious, really spectacular items like the Golden Globe from True Grit -- that is a super, super cool piece. Then, on the other hand, you'll also have things like a mug from his boat The Wild Goose that he would have coffee in every morning. It's a great old mug with the boat on it. He would have his coffee in it whether on location or on the boat, and I think that's as cool as the Golden Globe, you know. So, from super high-priced items to super-reasonably priced items, they're still items that are really attached to John Wayne, and they can evoke visceral and emotional feelings to know that these are from this guy that I really liked ... his coffee cup or his desk or a photo of him with his friend.

It was really hard to pick items to go in or not go in because obviously we've retained a core collection here which we use for historical and reference purposes. We've been getting calls for so long, so we wanted to be sure we choose great things in every category.

So, if you're interested in awards of recognition, you'll find some of the best ones in there. If you're looking for textual materials, you'll find some of the greatest ones in there. If you're interested in personal wardrobe, you'll find a great selection of personal wardrobe. Boots from True Grit. These are important and special; we didn't hold back.

What about the timing made this a good opportunity now? I've been running this business since 2003, and I field phone calls constantly from people who want to buy something of John Wayne's. They will typically call and say, "I'd love to be able to get his vest, I'd love to get his hat, but if you have anything, I don't care what it is." And, for 32 years we've said, "I'm sorry, no."

The fans were really important to my father. He knew that they were responsible for his success, his ability to makes the films that he loved to do. That just kept ringing in my head. So, when we looked at picking items to put up for sale we wanted to be really fair, we didn't want to just pick things that we didn't think were great; we wanted to give people a real slice of John Wayne. These are the things that he moved with. These are the things that were in his drawer and on the side table by his bed. These were his items -- these were notes and letters that he kept in his files -- this is his stuff. The whole thing is just amazing. The pieces that are in it are unbelievable.

I note that there are many scripts for sale, and some have annotations by your dad. Is there anything particularly interesting he wrote that you are able to share? One of the scripts is from The Searchers, a film that I got my name from and a film that my father thought was really one of his best movies. So you have the script, and you also have a piece of note paper with my dad's handwriting on it. So John Wayne's writing to Merian Cooper, the producer, and he's basically memorializing the deal terms for that. So you have the script and this piece of notebook paper written on in John Wayne's hand outlining the details. The textual materials are very interesting between he and John Ford. There are letters to the presidents, leaders of the world, heads of state, etc., family friends. He had terrific penmanship and was an excellent writer. Wait until you see the letters between him and John Ford -- [the script is] like reading the Declaration of Independence. It's really interesting for me to see the care they took.

If it's not too personal, I know the family has selected to keep some items that are meaningful on personal levels. Do you mind talking about something really great that you love and kept? We kept the Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Academy Award, a tremendous amount of textual materials. We retained a large collection because, at John Wayne Enterprises, we use those items to create product and to ensure that product is worthy of John Wayne. So, we have our own little time capsule.

You've done some acting yourself, starring as a kid with your dad in Big Jake, but also the Bold and the Beautiful and Adam 12 as an adult. Are you still acting, or have you decided to dedicate yourself entirely to your role as president of John Wayne Enterprises? This is a huge project. There was a lot of work to be done, so it's been pretty full-time since I've started, and I don't see that ending in the next couple of years. I'd love it if I could go back. I really love being on location and working on projects like that, but no I'm busy here.

He asked me right before he died -- and my brothers and sister, my entire family -- to use his name to fight cancer. So that's our main focus with his name. There's the John Wayne Foundation, and we just started an athletic funding program called Team Duke where, whatever you enjoy doing, you can do that and join in the fight against cancer. Doesn't matter if it's your traditional triathlon -- run, swim, bike -- or, if you want to put on a concert or climb mountain, do martial arts or surf, it's open. That keeps us busy.

We do a lot of events. We underwrite a lot of groups that take cancer survivors out of their treatments and into John Wayne country and back to doing the kinds of activities they loved doing before cancer.

Can you share a favorite memory of him? John Wayne was an athlete, and he got a scholarship to go to college and then he lost his scholarship. He got a job on the back lot of a studio as a prop man's assistant. But, whatever he did he focused on the job at hand and he tried to do a good job. John Ford, the director who gave my father his big break, saw him working as a prop man and saw how thorough he was. One of my favorite memories is ... my job was sweeping in the yard because there was a tree that dropped a lot of debris on the ground, and he'd come out and say, "No, boy, you don't sweep like that. You sweep like this." Every time I pick up a broom I remember him showing me how to sweep. It just reminds me of how focused this guy was in whatever he did.

When you're looking at a gun belt from one of his films -- or a pair of boots or a vest or a shirt or one of his hats -- just like a carpenter has specific tools in his belt and he likes to wear them a certain way, this guy who created this place for himself, and he owned it in everything that he had. All of this stuff that we're selling [are] very specific tools of his trade. They meant a great deal to him, and there was a useful purpose behind every one of them.

He wasn't sort of the kitschy cowboy with gold plated guns or fringe. He was very handsome and stylish, but almost economical in his vocabulary and his embellishments. So, when you get a vest or you get an item from John Wayne, you can look at it and [find] there's a lot of depth to that item because this guy created this legend. There was a lot of thought put into everything that went toward John Wayne. There's a reason why a cowboy wore something, and there was a reason why he used it to portray the characters because they were a certain type of people, people with values and character traits that he looked up to and that America looked up to. He spent a lot of time picking and choosing what he would use on and off the screen. And, that's what's going to be available to people.

He was "John Wayne" through all the roles that he played, no matter what the name was in the film. The films were almost based around who he created as opposed to the other way around. No one else has done that in all of cinematic history. You have wonderfully talented actors, but no one created and owned a space like John Wayne did. No one. He's third on the Harris Poll's list of America's favorite actors, he's number three today. He hasn't taken a breath in 30 years.

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Brentney Hamilton