Good Times, Bad Times : John Wayne’s Wife Pilar Says She Wrote Book to Protect an Image, Tell Children Real Story

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They met on a movie set on the edge of a Peruvian jungle in 1952.

She was Pilar Pallete, an exotically beautiful young Peruvian movie actress with one movie to her credit and a failed eight-month marriage to an American airline executive behind her.

He was John Wayne, the ruggedly handsome, middle-aged American movie star who had come to Peru to scout movie locations while seeking a respite from a bitter divorce battle with his second wife.

Barefoot and wearing a low-cut Gypsy costume, Pilar had just finished filming a dance scene in the firelight. She was still flushed and out of breath when the director introduced her to Wayne, who towered over her.

“That was quite a dance,” he drawled, giving her an admiring head-to-toe glance.

“Pleased to meet you,” she gasped in a quavering voice, impressed by his piercing turquoise eyes and his sense of strength.

It may read like the script for a Hollywood melodrama, but the casual meeting marked the beginning of a 27-year relationship between the man whose screen roles would make him a living legend in the minds of millions of Americans and the woman who became his third–and last–wife and the mother of three of his seven children.

Since John Wayne’s death of cancer in 1979 at age 72, a spate of books has been written about the Academy Award-winning actor who was eulogized as a national hero. Now Pilar Wayne has written her own book, “John Wayne: My Life With the Duke” (McGraw-Hill, $17.95), with Irvine free-lancer Alex Thorleifson.

The book chronicles the good times and the bad times during their long relationship, including John Wayne’s bouts with cancer and Pilar Wayne’s revelation that she had an abortion in the months before their marriage in 1954. Although they never were divorced or legally separated, Pilar Wayne moved out of their waterfront home in the exclusive Bayshores area of Newport Beach six years before John Wayne’s death. She makes a point of emphasizing, however, that “we were married until the day he died.”

Still wearing the 15-carat diamond engagement ring the Duke gave her, she says she received many offers over the years to write a book about their marriage. She always declined.

“First, I didn’t think I could do it, and I never kept diaries or anything like that,” she said. But she changed her mind when other writers, some of whom had never met John Wayne or knew him only peripherally, began writing biographies. (“Fine writers, but with very large imaginations,” she said.)

She wrote her book, she said, “to protect his image and to do it for my kids, so they know the real story.”

Pilar, who is in her 50s, had just returned home after completing the first half of a five-week nationwide book promotion tour, a tour sponsored by the National Enquirer, which paid $50,000 for serialization rights to the book.

She said she was not upset when she learned that the book would be excerpted in a supermarket tabloid best known for the celebrity libel lawsuits filed against it, noting the Enquirer’s millions of readers and the fact that Bill Cosby and the Rev. Robert H. Schuller have had their books excerpted in it.

As for appearing in a television commercial for the Enquirer to promote the book serialization, she explained, “I thought it would be a good idea. As long as I was going with them, why not go all the way?”

Sipping a glass of 7-Up served by her housekeeper, Wayne said she was exhausted from the tour and glad to be home.

Home is a palatial, elegantly furnished, two-story Country-French house overlooking upper Newport Bay, built “from scratch” four years ago.

The house, complete with an adjoining tennis court reached via an indoor spiral staircase, is currently on the market for $5 million and is, she says, “worth every penny.”

But even though it is too large for her now that her children are on their own–and she spends summers in her oceanfront mobile home in South Laguna–she says she’s not sure she wants to sell.

“I got back and fell in love with it all over again,” said Pilar, whose actor son Ethan, 25, appears on the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful.” Her daughter, Marissa, 21, is studying acting; and daughter Aissa, 31, is in partnership with her mother in a Mexican-based import business.

Pilar, who was provided for financially through a generous trust fund established by John Wayne, was remarried briefly in 1984 to Municipal Judge Stephen Stewart. (“You don’t need to mention that,” she said. “It was a two-week mistake, I call it.”)

Dressed in black, her dark hair permed into what she jokingly calls her “Cher hairdo,” she retreated to her den to talk about her life with the Duke.

Framed photographs of John Wayne are displayed throughout the house, including the den, a large but cozy room with a marble fireplace, a floor-to-ceiling oak bookcase, a wet bar, a desk and, in an alcove, a table for playing bridge–a game she says the Duke taught her. Next to the window overlooking a 40-foot-long lap pool is a hanging brass cage that houses Gucci, her talkative green parrot.

When people ask about her husband, she said, “I tell them Duke wasn’t perfect, but he was 80%, and he was very much a family man.”

More than 20 years her senior, “he seemed like a lot younger man,” she said. “He used to like to water ski. He loved the boat, he loved to dance–he was a wonderful dancer–and we had a lot of fun together. I wrote many episodes in the book of the fun times we had.”

But she also wrote about the not-so-fun times.

In her book, she describes John Wayne as a man who could be stubborn, domineering and insensitive.

Her husband, she writes, loved the movie industry and compulsively made one movie after another, usually on distant locations. He would insist that his wife and children be by his side, regardless of the effects the uprooting had on their lives and their boredom while he worked long hours.

She writes that John Wayne was an old-fashioned husband whose view of women’s liberation was “I don’t care if you go to work, just as long as my dinner is on the table when I get home.” He also was a man who would rather go out with a group of friends than have a quiet dinner alone with his wife. As a businessman, he suffered several financial disasters over the years.

And, true to legend, the Duke also enjoyed drinking with his cronies.

“He had a tremendous capacity for that, but he was one of the lucky ones who could stop whenever he wanted to,” she said. “He could party for three days in a row and never show it. Of course, he wouldn’t do it when making a movie.”

She turns quiet when asked about her abortion. John Wayne was still undergoing a messy divorce from his second wife when Pilar learned that she was three months pregnant. John Wayne said he would go along with whatever she wanted, leaving the decision up to her, she said. Because she was concerned with what an out-of-wedlock child would do not only to his career but to his divorce settlement, she had the abortion. As she is a Catholic, it was a difficult decision that haunted her for years.

She said her own three children have read the book and have told her they like it: “Marissa said, ‘I’m so proud of you. There are so many things about my dad I didn’t know.’ ”

And while at times it was painful dredging up old memories, she observed that “time has a way of softening everything.”

Indeed, most of her memories of the Duke are pleasant ones.

“Absolutely,” she said. “He was strong, generous and kind, with lots of sense of humor. He was fun to be with–everybody wanted to be with him. Plus, he was a fascinating man. Extremely intelligent. He loved to read. He’d devour the newspaper every day and read all the weekly magazines like Time and Newsweek.”

He was also notoriously outspoken in his political views. “Whether it was Vietnam, the Panama Canal or whatever else, he committed himself,” she said. “If he thought he was right, he’d stick to it 100%. He wasn’t a follow the leader. You don’t see many of those right now. And then he was gorgeously handsome–a very good-looking man.”

She recalls one time while doing a stunt for a movie, John Wayne broke his hip in a fall and had to be taken to the hospital. The on-screen Duke would have been proud of the actor.

“He wasn’t a crybaby,” she said. “He could tolerate pain and things like that. He was quite a guy. . . . I really miss him. I wish he was back here again.”

November 05, 1987|DENNIS McLELLAN | LA Times Staff Writer

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