New Book Explores the Secrets Behind John Wayne’s Many Names

Bryan Enk
·Contributor
'The Searchers,' John Wayne, 1956
'The Searchers,' John Wayne, 1956

Can you believe the real name of one pop culture's most prominent icons of rugged American masculinity was... 'Marion'?

The Duke himself (another name he went by, originally belonging to his boyhood pooch) would argue that the name 'John Wayne' is just as real as the one that appeared on his birth certificate.

The Hollywood legend didn't take his aliases lightly; each represented a different persona in the late actor's life and career, a subject explored in Scott Eyman's exhaustively researched new biography, "John Wayne: The Life and Legend."

MARION

The man who would one day teach us that "Courage is being scared to death ... and saddling up anyway" was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa. He was a big boy, weighing in at 13-pounds, the son of Clyde Leonard Morrison and Mary 'Molly' Alberta Brown. "Marion Robert Morrison was the name he had for the first two years of his life," Eyman told Yahoo Movies during a recent phone interview. The name 'Marion' wasn't common in 1907 but "it did pop up from time to time," the author said.

Young Marion delved into name-changing almost from the start when his middle name was soon changed from 'Robert' to 'Mitchell.' "His parents decided to unceremoniously take 'Robert' from Marion's middle name and give it to his baby brother," said Eyman. "So his brother was named Robert and they changed Marion's middle name to 'Mitchell,' after his grandfather."

Such a strange act was actually rather typical of Marion's mom and dad. "His parents kind of specialized in terrible decisions," Eyman said with a laugh. "His mother was a very difficult woman and could never earn a living, so suddenly deciding to take the kid's middle name and attach it to his younger brother seemed somehow in character."

Not surprisingly, the young man who would later be known as John Wayne found having the name 'Marion' — also a girl's name — to be something of a social challenge. "He wasn't crazy about the name... it caused problems in school, as you can imagine," said Eyman.

DUKE

However, before he became 'John Wayne,' young Marion Morrison was known by another name: 'Duke,' which would later also be stylized into the appropriately iconic-sounding 'The Duke.' And where did this title, sounding both royal and tough-guy at the same time, come from?

Well, it's pretty much the same story as to how another rugged American icon, Indiana Jones, got his nickname: "We named the dog 'Indiana,'" deadpans Henry Jones, Sr. (Sean Connery) in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1989).

"The Morrisons moved to Glendale when Marion was nine or ten, and they had a dog named Duke, an Airedale [Terrier]," said Eyman. "And the dog ended up being Big Duke — there's a picture of him in the book, he looked to weigh about 80 pounds — and Marion was Little Duke. He liked the name and for the rest of his life he always insisted that people call him Duke."

'Duke Morrison' played football at Glendale High School and was given an athletic scholarship to attend the University of Southern California, where he balanced his life as an athlete and a semi-secret wannabe movie star.

He liked the name 'Duke Morrison.' The only problem was when he became an actor, 'Duke Morrison,' as he put it, "sounds like a stuntman," Eyman pointed out.

He received an on-screen credit as 'Duke Morrison' only once, in "Words and Music" (1929). Then, in 1930, director Raoul Walsh saw the 23-year-old future movie star as he was moving studio furniture and gave him his first starring gig: "The Big Trail" (1930).

JOHN WAYNE

The time had come for an official stage name.

"Back then the studios didn't like ethnic names, they wanted names that sounded kind of classical," explained Eyman. "Winfield Sheehan, who ran Fox Studios, was a big fan of 'Mad Anthony' Wayne, the Revolutionary War general — that's where the 'Wayne' came from, and 'John' just sort of came up in conversations because it seemed to fit with 'Wayne': 'John Wayne.' It had a nice symmetry to it."

The rest is the stuff of history. However, the star of such American classics as "Stagecoach" (1939), "The Quiet Man" (1952), "The Searchers" (1956), "Rio Bravo" (1959), "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962), and "True Grit" (1969) always maintained that 'Duke Morrison' and 'John Wayne' were two different men living in the same body.

"The guy you see on the screen isn't really me," he said in 1957. "I'm Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well. I'm one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him."

Indeed, "for the sake of psychological clarity," according to Eyman, Wayne insisted that people call him Duke, not John.

"I've always been Duke, or Marion, or John Wayne," he said in 1975. "It's a name that goes well together and it's like one word: JohnWayne."

"In Wayne's own mind, he was Duke Morrison," writes Eyman. "John Wayne was to him what the Tramp was to Charlie Chaplin — a character that overlapped his own personality, but not to the point of subsuming it."

[Related: Charlie Chaplin's Tramp: A Classic Freudian Coincidence]

While "Marion Mitchell Morrison" would be the name to ultimately appear on his death certificate when he died of stomach cancer in 1979 at the age of 72, it was "John Wayne" that did the trick for The Duke.