The Beatrice Interview

Dan Barden

"I find Wayne's submission to another man's will to be an admirable quality."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

In John Wayne: A Novel, first-time novelist Dan Barden delves into the life of one of twentieth century America's most iconic men, probing the image of idealized masculinity to examine the real -- and often not so self-assured -- man behind the legend. In addition to sex scenes with Dietrich and deathbed conversations with Henry Fonda, however, Barden also includes scenes from the life of a Orange County family upon whom Wayne's shadow occasionally falls: the Bardens. In those chapters, Wayne becomes a cynosure for the subtle conflicts between Dan's mother and father; although the Duke isn't directly responsible for their breakup, you can sense the schism in the different things that Wayne represents to each of them. Mrs. Barden eventually comes to occupy a place in the novel as weighty as that of the star after whom it's named; it is, as Dan and I discuss in a coffeehouse before one of his readings, as if the reader peels away the wrappings of a "man's novel" to find a "woman's novel" at the heart of the book.

RH: The whole "celebrity and the little people" dynamic seems like it would be common to many Southern Californians.

DB: Less so in Orange County, which has an emotional as well as a geographical distance from Hollywood. Orange County was pretty much dominated by John Wayne, and the people there didn't see Wayne as an actor so much as a very important person who transcended the profession that made him so important. I can understand that feeling. It makes sense to me. The whole country often seems to believe that being an actor was just the starting point of his greatness. People in Orange County just have a worse case, and I mean that without any condescension, of that inability to distinguish between Wayne's screen persona and his real life.

RH: There's a strong sense in some scenes of Wayne in Orange County of "the Great Man walks among us."

DB: Absolutely. One of the things that aided that sense, that I really wanted to get at in the book, is that in some ways he really was a great man. He was very well prepared to shoulder the burden that he shouldered, to absorb, as somebody once said of Cary Grant, the gaze of millions. He could do that with dignity and for the most part he could do it responsibly. He understood to a large extent what he meant to the country.

One of the things I hope this book helps people to understand is that Wayne was an artist. To understand him as a political figure is to miss the point. He was an artist with political influence. Maybe I give him more credit than he deserves, but I imagine him as being aware of his artistry. I think certain people in this country see Wayne as another version of Barry Goldwater, which completely misses the point -- Barry Goldwater was a politician, John Wayne was an actor. Goldwater was probably a better actor than anyone credits, and Wayne was probably a better politician than anyone credits, but there's a fundamental distinction there that's important.

RH: This novel is one of several texts within the last few years that have tried to make sense of or reevaluate John Wayne. Why now?

DB: It may simply be that we're distant enough from the Vietnam War and the divisions that it created in our country to examine them dispassionately. So a guy like me can make a credible character out of John Wayne and not have to approach readers with all the baggage of the '60s. There's an excellent biography called John Wayne, American that was published about two years ago and Garry Wills' John Wayne's America, both of which make a lot of hay out of Wayne's non-participation in World War Two, basically because they can now. It was never a big secret to anyone; it's just that we couldn't talk about it easily until now. Wayne enthusiasts didn't want to know that information, and people who already didn't believe in the myth of John Wayne didn't need to know. But we're coming to a point where we can look beyond his politics to see him as a cultural figure of a different type and appreciate him for what he was: a great film artist and a great vehicle for film artistry.

RH: Your book overlaps the other two in some respects, but they aren't redundant. They each get at a different kind of truth about Wayne.

DB: Even the names seem like they were planned to fall into a series, don't they? I admire both those books and their authors. They've really helped me a lot in my understanding of Wayne, and I hope this book contributes something to other people's understanding.

RH: I think one of the chapters in your book that highlights Wayne's self-awareness of his artistry is the affair with Marlene Dietrich. It gets away from the cliché of the European sophisticate sleeping with the American rube and probes Wayne's personality and beliefs intensely.

DB: Writing this book, I always though about how much I identify with John Wayne. The struggles that Wayne felt in that chapter, the struggles he felt about defining himself in relation to his art, his mentors, his lovers, are struggles that I was feeling acutely as I was writing that chapter.

The questions I was asking about Wayne were meaningful questions for any artist. What did it mean for Wayne to make himself so fully available to a man like John Ford? There are a lot of greater men than Wayne who couldn't become the channel for film he was because they weren't as willing to surrender themselves to the talents of other men. Think of the great actors who don't seem to do anywhere near as well in Ford movies because they just couldn't submit themselves to Ford as well as Wayne could. I find Wayne's submission to another man's will to be an admirable quality. He knew the extent to which he could trust Ford, and also Howard Hawks, to take care of him, and even though he was getting paid a lot more than either of them to make those films, he knew when to give in to their direction.

RH: It's fascinating to talk about Wayne's submissive qualities when he's the hypermasculine icon of the American man.

DB: That's why, for me, it's so much more interesting to talk about Wayne as an artist. It makes so much more sense of him. I was on a panel a few months ago with Garry Wills and Harry Carey Jr. among others, and somebody asked a question about Wayne's war record. I felt like the kid pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, but I realized that Ford was portrayed as a hero for serving in the war, even though he was directing films throughout the war. Meanwhile, Wayne's virute has been portrayed as dubious because he didn't fight. But if he'd gone into combat, his art would have effectively stopped for five or six years, prime years of his film career. He couldn't 'fight' as an actor the way Ford 'fought' as a director. It helps me to understand Wayne's decision. I don't want to become a Wayne apologist, but I do feel that he's a much more complicated character than people give him credit for. A lot of the qualities that fuel people's admiration for him -- his sense of responsibility, his work ethic, his respect for people around him -- all resonate for me with his screen image.

RH: What was it like for you to reexamine your childhood feelings about Wayne?

DB: There's an essay on the Web called "John Wayne's Big Boat," an essay of the only time in my life that I actually ever met Wayne which discusses my tremendous ambivalence at the age of nine about John Wayne and about my dad. I saw my father as needlessly macho. He had a drinking problem. He wasn't what I aspired to in manhood. He and John Wayne were discredited as men to me. The day that I went to see Wayne, I wore a peace sign on a chain beneath my T-shirt, and my plan was to bring it out front on the boat to piss Wayne and my father off. But when I actually met him, I was so impressed that he completely disarmed me. I admired him in a way I couldn't account for then.

Years later, when I was studying at Berkeley and watching old movies at the Pacific Film Archive, I got to see the old John Wayne films, and they were the best films I'd ever seen. Seeing a film like The Searchers for the first time was a religious experience, and a lot of that is about what John Ford brought to the table, but he couldn't have made that film without John Wayne. Through this great art, I found my way back to Wayne. The more seriously I took him, the more seriously I had to take him. As I got older and was forced to face a lot of the same choices and issues that my father had confronted as a man, that Wayne had confronted, I developed a forgiveness for their faults -- which were legion in both my father and Wayne -- and an admiration for the way that they soldiered on despite their great deficiencies. The things that I find admirable about Wayne -- ordinary things like the respect for the people around him -- are the same things I was able to find admirable about my father once I was far enough from our personal war.

RH: What was harder, getting inside John Wayne's head or getting inside your mom's head?

DB: I think sometimes getting inside John Wayne's head was harder. One of the surprises of the book for me was how much I was already in my mom's head. When I first conceived of the novel, it wasn't about my mom at all. It was pretty much about John Wayne and my family at best would be secondary characters. But because I was so deep inside my mother's head, her character just took off and this whole narrative line opened up.

RH: The final novel seems split down the middle as to who's the most important figure.

DB: I like to think of John Wayne as the main character and my mom as the protagonist. He's the larger structure that holds the book together, but she's the emotional core.

RH: How do you want to continue as a writer? There's a certain danger in being pegged as "that John Wayne guy".

DB: Yeah. I'm never writing another book about a movie actor again. But, if I can be pretentious for a bit, the deeper structure of this book is about finding an obsession big enough and bright enough, meaningful enough to carry me deep into my own heart and create something really good. My great discovery in this book was that if I wrote about something I was completely obsessed with, I would find a way to write about the issues most meaningful to me. But I didn't know that when I started. Another novelist had suggested that I write this book, and my first thought was that a literary novel about John Wayne was a silly idea, but it had incredible power because it was what I cared about more than anything. I just sat around and thought about John Wayne for days. As I move on from this, and I hope that the book I'm writing now is a part of this process, I'm looking for other things to write about that will also bring me back to what's most important.

RH: Will you continue writing essays as well?

DB: Yes. Writing novels is a bit more fun for me, but every now and then something comes along that I'll choose to write about in an essay. The distinction between fiction and non-fiction for me isn't that big. It's more about what you can be sued for than anything else. I hope that whatever I write is as true as I can possibly make it. But when you're writing a non-fiction essay, you're still definitely fudging things in order to make the structure adhere to a higher truth. So how is that not fiction? I've read novels that seem as absolutely true as they could possibly be, and I've read memoirs that are complete bullshit. I don't care if the author can verify every incident in the book, they're still complete bullshit.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Jane Mendelsohn | David Shields

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan