WINTERSET, Iowa – John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison in the small town of Winterset in central Iowa on May 26, 1907. He started life big weighing in at a whopping 13 pounds. His parents were Clyde and Mary Brown Morrison. Clyde was a pharmacist in Winterset who John Wayne once described as “the kindest, most patient man I ever knew.” Mary was of Irish descent who according to her famous son was, “…a tiny, vivacious red-headed bundle of energy.”
In 1910 the family moved to nearby Earlham where Clyde purchased a Rexall Drug and Jewelry store. But when Wayne was seven years old his father developed a lung condition that required him to move from Iowa to the warmer climate of Southern California.
Wayne’s constant companion during his childhood was his dog Duke. The pair became known as Big Duke and Little Duke, a nickname that would continue for Wayne as an adult. John Wayne excelled in school both academically and on the field of sports. He was awarded a football scholarship to USC but just one year into his college career an injury cost him his scholarship.
After leaving USC Wayne began working as a prop boy, extra and stuntman for the movies. In 1930 Raoul Walsh cast him as the lead in the movie “The Big Trail.” It was then Marion Morrison became John Wayne. Although the film didn’t do well at the box office it opened doors for Wayne to play in many low-budget westerns and eventually in the John Ford classic “Stagecoach,” which made him a star.
Wayne’s bigger than life macho screen image was also part of his private life. While filming in Nevada Wayne was staying at a Las Vegas hotel and was trying to get some sleep before a shoot the next morning. His suite was directly below that of Frank Sinatra who was having a loud party. Wayne called and complained about the noise but to no avail. Finally Wayne showed up at Sinatra’s door and told the singer to stop the noise. A burly bodyguard approached Wayne and said, “Nobody talks to Mr. Sinatra that way.” Wayne started to leave then turned around and backhanded the man who fell to the floor. Wayne knocked him out by smashing a chair on top of him. The noise stopped.
Wayne also enjoyed playing practical jokes on his drinking buddy Ward Bond. Once Bond bet Wayne that they could stand on opposite ends of a newspaper and Wayne wouldn’t be able to hit him. Wayne agreed to the bet and Bond set a sheet of newspaper down in a doorway. Wayne stood on one end and Bond slammed the door in his face, shouting “Try and hit me now!” Wayne responded by sending his fist through the door, flooring Bond and winning the bet.
The John Wayne Birthplace and Museum in Winterset started 35 years ago with just the Morrison home and some artifacts on display. The museum was operated by the John Wayne Birthplace Society. Then in May 2015 the society opened the 6,100-square-foot museum adjacent to the home. The new museum has a huge collection of artifacts including original movie posters, film wardrobe, scripts, contracts, letters, artwork and sculpture, and even one of his last customized automobiles.
A tour of the museum begins with a short film about Wayne’s life narrated by his daughter Aissa. Visitors can then take a self-guided tour of the many artifacts and displays in the museum. Among the artifacts are costumes Wayne wore in many of his films, including “The Searchers,” “Chisum,” “Hatari,” and his Oscar-winning performance as Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit.”
A life-size representation of Wayne has him standing in one of his favorite movie locations, Monument Valley in Utah. Also on display is his custom built station wagon modified to fit his 6-foot-4-inch frame. The jaunting car from the movie “The Quiet Man” is part of the museum collection. The cart was saved by co-star Maureen O’Hara and donated to the museum following her death.
Adjacent to the museum is the Morrison home where John Wayne was born. The four-room house contains artifacts from Wayne’s early life including the announcement of his birth in the local newspaper.