You could be forgiven if you thought John Wayne was born in the back of a covered wagon headed west across the Plains or came into this world in a one-room thatched-roof house in a small Irish village.
Such was the towering stature of this actor (larger than life, if you must) that there was never anything ordinary about the man or his legend. But “ordinary” would be a fine way to describe the charming town of Winterset, Iowa.
That is where Wayne’s parents, Clyde and Mary, moved in 1906, setting up home in the four rooms of a small clapboard house at 216 S. Second St. and bringing a baby boy into their world on May 26, 1907. They named him Marion Robert Morrison, but before he was old enough to know his alphabet, he was gone, moving with his parents to the “metropolis” of Des Moines in 1911; he later moved on to a new name and stardom.
John Wayne never came back to visit his birthplace, but there is little doubt that he would admire the ambition (spunk, if you must) some residents of this speck on the map have displayed in their desire to remember and honor him, not so much their native son but native toddler.
This weekend the town of roughly 5,000 explodes in celebration. There will be all manner of events: a pancake breakfast and a corned beef and cabbage lunch; a 5K walk/run; author Glenn Frankel discussing and signing copies his new book, “The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend”; swing dancing; an auction of such things as a gigantic, 80-by-115-inch, poster for “McLintock!”; and screenings of five of Wayne’s 150-some films: “Rio Grande,” “The Quiet Man,” “The Wings of Eagles,” “McLintock!” and “Big Jake.”
If you are a serious movie buff, you immediately realize that these are films in which Wayne co-starred to memorable effect with Maureen O’Hara. The weekend is being billed as “A Tribute to Maureen O’Hara.”
“This year we grabbed for the brass ring and we got it,” says Brian Downes, executive director of the John Wayne Birthplace, a cozy little museum on the site of Wayne’s parents’ home.
The “brass ring” is O’Hara, the 92-year-old certifiable screen legend, who is coming to Winterset with members of her family to be the centerpiece for a Saturday night “gala” at which she will share stories about Wayne, who was not only her co-star but beloved friend.
Here is how she once described her relationship with Wayne: “I was tough. I was tall. I was strong. I didn’t take any nonsense from anybody.
“He was tough, he was tall, he was strong and he didn’t take any nonsense from anybody. As a man and a human being, I adored him.”
So, in his fashion, did Downes, who became hooked as a 5-year-old when he saw “The Horse Soldiers” at a theater near his South Side home.
“I cannot remember a time when I was not a John Wayne fan,” the Chicago native says.
Downes spent most of his career at the Chicago Tribune in various nonreporting jobs. But he bluffed his way into a daylong interview with Wayne in 1977 and kept in close touch with Wayne until the actor’s death in 1979.
In 1991 Downes wrote a travel story for the Tribune detailing his visits to many of the locations featured in “The Quiet Man.” That was when he first met O’Hara, who was in Chicago working on her final feature film, “Only the Lonely.” He wrangled an interview with her and, as is his determined way, has kept in touch with her over these two decades.
When he says, “She insists this will be her last public event,” there is more than a bit of melancholy shadowing the excitement in his voice.
Downes will not be the only Chicago presence this weekend. “It’s hard to find Irish talent in Iowa, so I reached out to some old friends from Chicago,” he says.
Those old friends set to perform at Saturday night’s bash include Catherine O’Connell, who will sing selections from “The Quiet Man,” and the Shannon Rovers Pipes and Drums.
“All my life I have I have loved ‘The Quiet Man,'” O’Connell says. “Could I be more delighted to have been invited to sing in Winterset? No. And add Maureen O’Hara and this road trip will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Roughly 40,000 people have visited the John Wayne Birthplace every year since its opening 30 years ago. (Some also partake of what remains of the nearby title items of “The Bridges of Madison County,” made famous by the 1992 novel and 1995 film of the same name.) Though the Wayne home has a fine and fully stocked gift shop and some interesting historical items (the newspaper announcing Wayne’s birth has him weighing in at 13 pounds), it does not take much time to fully absorb all of its 860 square feet.
That is one of the reasons behind ongoing efforts to raise $1.5 million for a John Wayne Birthplace Museum and learning center. This would, Downes explains, be a 4,850-square-foot facility that would greatly enhance what can be displayed at the Wayne home, with more space for memorabilia, including a 1973 Pontiac Safari station wagon customized for Wayne, a theater and other interactive elements that “will help introduce this great man to a new generation,” Downes says. (All information can be had at johnwaynebirthplace.org.)
“We are getting closer every day,” he says, adding that all money raised over the weekend will go toward the cause. “It’s hugely challenging, but day-to-day life is wonderful. I’ve been out here for five years now, and life in Chicago seems like another world.”