by Edmond G. Addeo
Without emotion, the cardiologist said, "The treadmill test turned up an abnormality. There's a problem..."
The word "abnormality" is not what I expected to hear in the context of a heart examination. To quote Woody Allen, it is, after all, my "second favorite organ..."
At his desk, the doctor reached for a prescription pad. I started to zone out as I heard the feared words: "Medication...," "Cardizam...," "thallium test...," T-waves...," "reduced activity..."
And I thought: "Am I now an old man ?"
* * * * *
Since 55 was my father's age when he suffered a series of myocardial infarctions (MIs), when I reached that age I thought it would be eminently intelligent to take a stress test and check the condition of the old ticker. It was very nearly a bad mistake.
I had been relaxed about the prospects. After all, except for a serious bout of viral pneumonia in 1972, my health had always been near-perfect. I had been athletic all my life, usually in better shape in pick-up games than men ten years my junior.
I had only been in the hospital once before in my life, and then only for some cosmetic work on a broken nose after I graduated high school. Although I have had a penchant for copious amounts of both wine and pizza at too-frequent intervals, my diet otherwise had been good and my blood work had always been excellent, including liver enzymes. And I was moderately active, physically, although possessed of a slight paunch, a rising but not remarkable cholesterol count, and locked into a sedentary career as a writer.
I considered an MI to be on the horizon genetically, and probably psychologically as well. During my annual birthday physical, I suggested the test to my family physician and he agreed. He referred me to a Dr. Vincent Gilardi (a fictitious name) who had an excellent reputation in the county, had done some pioneering research work, and had years of experience. I called and made the appointment.
It was to my utter surprise that I flunked the test. On the treadmill (so Dr. Gilardi told me later), I lasted far longer than the typical 55-year-old; my blood pressure behaved properly; for all intents and purposes, nothing appeared dramatically wrong.
But there was something erratic about the ST-segments of my EKG, i.e., a specific section of that wavy line we've all seen. It seems that under heavy exercise, my ST-segments didn't go back to zero before starting to rise again. On the EKG, they were one millimeter away.
I groaned. In lay terms, this meant that some part of my heart muscle wasn't getting any oxygen when my heart rate was elevated (we got it up to 172). Although Dr. Gilardi was only mildly concerned, he thought the symptom justified a thallium test.
A thallium test !
This meant going into the lab in the morning and getting an intravenous shot of radioactive material, spending the day in normal activity, and coming back at five o'clock to sit perfectly still for forty minutes on a cold table while a clicking, whirring robotic contraption rotated around me taking 3-D pictures of my heart.
I flunked this test, too.
Back in Dr. Gilardi's office, he showed me the mysterious color 3-D pictures and pointed out a "blot" near the surface of my heart. It was a "dark spot," he said, but that was as far as the explanation went. He said neither he nor any of his six associates had the foggiest notion of what the "blot" was. However, he assured me that he was only mildly concerned and that it simply bore watching. Then he gave me the diet and smoking lecture (I had quit smoking three years before my pneumonia, a decision that may have saved my life, but that's another story). He encouraged me to come back the following birthday for another stress test. He also suggested I take beta-carotene ("although the evidence is soft," he said) and told me that there was nothing wrong in taking half an aspirin regularly.
(I should point out here that after my pneumonia I investigated the nutritional aspects of health maintenance, read all of the then-new postulations of Dr. Linus Pauling, and looked copiously into immune-fortifying dietary nutrients. Because I have concluded the so-called "balanced diet" is a myth in our soil-depleted, vegetable-boiling, reefer-transport society, for more than fifteen years I have been taking a daily dose of 1000 mg. of ascorbic acid; 25,000 units of vitamin E; 10,000 units of emulsified vitamin A; and a high-mineral multiple vitamin.)
* * * * * *
Medically speaking, it was a long year. Chiefly because of my hypochondriacal tendencies, I couldn't get the Essential Muscle in my chest off my mind. I play softball, I run occasionally, play tennis, chop wood, toss grandsons in the air -- things that cause a certain amount of exertion. A normal person would perform these functions without once thinking about his heart. How many times have you rounded first base trying to beat out a triple and thought about your heart as you headed for second?
On the next birthday, I flunked the test again.
This time, explained Dr. Gilardi, the EKG showed that my ST component turned upward at two millimeters before zero. (For some reason, the "blot" hadn't changed and nobody mentioned it.) "Obviously progressive," he said, and gave me a prescription for medication. He also cautioned me to let up on the heavy exercise, something I thought I would never hear. It was depressing, yes, but for someone who had always considered himself something of a jock, it was also psychologically disconcerting. Not only did I now have my own cardiologist, but also he was telling me I had to start taking a heart pill.
What? Those pills are only for old guys !
This was in early November. Just before Thanksgiving, I received a book in the mail from my mother-in-law. It was about the benefits of cayenne in preventing and treating cardiovascular disease. I won't cite the title or author for obvious reasons.
Suffice to say I was knowledgable about matters scientific. I had lots of pre-med science in college (I'd be a doctor today if I could have earned anything better than a "C" in chemistry); some informal scientific training in researching the works of Dr. Pauling; and further biochemical, bacteriological and medical orientation in working with the legendary Dr. Virginia Livingston-Wheeler. Without going into the merits of her hypothesis about the microbial origins of cancer, let me just say that Dr. Virginia did some pioneering work in vaccine bacteriology and the immunological treatment of cancer patients, with remarkable success rates. She worked with autogenous vaccines, BCG (bacillus Calmet-Guerin, the tuberculosis vaccine), monoclonal antibodies, and diet. I wrote a comprehensive book about her and her work ( The Conquest of Cancer , Franklin-Watts). I also worked closely in the '70s with the Orthomolecular Medical Society and ghost-wrote a well-received book with Dr. Richard A. Kunin, M.D. on the nutritional aspects of health maintenance ( Meganutrition, McGraw-Hill).
The point is, I learned how to tell the difference between certain nutritional claims that are based on pure hokum and those that are based on scientific fact, such as a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study. I usually approach such claims with a "show me" attitude, and am always wary of what the claimant wants to sell me. I've turned down attractive financial offers to ghost-write or co-author books of unsound or marginal scientific basis.
The cayenne book claimed that the basis of cayenne and other hot peppers was the chemical capsaicin, and that it worked wonders for the arteries. The capsaicin part is true, the chemical formula C18 H27 NO3, but the "wonder" part was highly suspect. The book was filled with terms like "as many scientists agree..." and "clinical studies have shown..." without ever citing which scientists were doing the agreeing or what clinical studies were doing the showing.
In medical terms, the author's personal accounts and his accounts of others' "recoveries" were purely anecdotal.
However -- and this is a big "however" -- I started taking a dose of cayenne twice a day, before lunch and dinner. Sometimes only once a day. I had always enjoyed Mexican, Chinese, East Indian food, any foods that were hot and spicy. I spray a variety of dishes with Tabasco sauce, double-dose my Italian recipes with garlic, and always ask for the "spicy" version of menu items in Chinese and Thai restaurants. So, I opined, how could it hurt?
Strictly unscientific and a purely arbitrary decision.
I had been taking the cayenne for two months when Dr. Gilardi introduced me to an experimental program being conducted by a San Diego pharmaceutical company. In the program, the company's new drug, arbutamine, was introduced intravenously to a volunteer subject, and while the subject was lying stock still on a table, his heart rate was increased and a perfectly clear echocardiogram could be taken. This was opposed to a person moving erratically while running on a treadmill that was creaking and shaking and vibrating at all angles. (Dr. Gilardi reminded me that it wasn't too long ago that stress-EKG tests were taken by having the patient jump on and off a low step-ladder.)
Consultations with the test program director were required, with my wife present. We were given a careful explanation of the details and risks of the experimental test. My wife and I talked it over, and I volunteered.
The test itself was a memorable experience. In a room not more than 15 ft. x 15 ft., there were crowded three representatives of the pharmaceutical company, Dr. Gilardi and two of his assistants, two echocardiogram technicians, the program manager, and me on a table. Because part of the test involved introducing insulin, I experienced a pronounced version of what is called the "fight or flight" syndrome. The best explanation I have is that half-way through the test I felt like I was about to jump out of an airplane. My heart was pounding, I was highly anxious, yet I was lying perfectly still.
My most powerful memory of the entire procedure was when Dr. Gilardi looked at the echocardiogram and said, "Well, I'll be -----! Would you look at that!"
Later, in his office, Dr. Gilardi happily explained that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with me. He said the echocardiogram showed not only a perfectly normal heart, but that if he were writing a textbook about what a perfect heart should look like, he'd use pictures of mine.
Naturally, I was elated. But when I questioned him about the worrisome ST component and the ominous "blot," he dismissed it as a "false positive."
At this writing I've just turned 60, and as part of another eminently intelligent idea, I've had a battery of physical tests, including a new stress-EKG that showed my heart still "perfectly normal."
Now, this is the point of my story: I didn't tell Dr. Gilardi then (or my family physician, for that matter), and I haven't told him now, about the cayenne. I know they would both pooh-pooh it and lecture me about quackery and "unfounded" claims. I don't want the embarrassment.
But it makes one wonder.
In the first place, it seems more than passing strange that I would have two -- two! -- false positives on stress-EKGs a year apart. The odds of that happening are great indeed.
In the second place, the only thing I did differently between the second "flunking" and the experimental arbutamine echocardiogram was to take the daily doses of cayenne.
And in the third place, I've continued to take the cayenne, and passed this recent treadmill test, on the same equipment as before, with flying colors. In fact, my blood chemistry report was the best it's been in years.
I'm not saying it's the cayenne -- I still haven't seen any clinical indications as to its efficacy. But I am admitting that the temptation to make a cause-and-effect conclusion is tongue-biting irresistible.
Let's go back to good science: that the two events -- the cayenne and the total reversal of the diagnosis -- are coincidental, is highly improbable. That's all I'm saying.
Granted, this is just one story. And, yes, it's anecdotal. But isn't anyone testing this stuff?
My article on cayenne pepper and cardio health was published in MODERN HEALTH.
The John Wayne article is still looking for a publisher.
WHEN my father was a young fireman in Brooklyn he looked so much like the American matador Sidney Franklin that he was asked for autographs in restaurants. As he grew older and people forgot about Franklin, he looked more like John Wayne and was still asked for autographs in restaurants. I, on the other hand, looked like none of the above (including my father), but I used to hang out in a San Fernando Valley restaurant called the Fireside Inn, which was where I first shook Duke's hand and told him about the resemblance.
At the time, he was walking to the men's room, passing the circular fireplace in the center of the large central dining area. I was a young newspaperman with enough brass to jump up and tell him how much he looked like my father. He must have thought I was crazy. He enjoyed the joke, though, and was very cordial.
Ultimately, it was twenty years later in a small Mexican cantina that the Duke apologized to me, both for looking like my father and for not starring in a movie I wrote for him. There is an old joke, which I’ve customized, but that's hard to put across on the printed page: Ask me if I'm the world's funniest Italian comedian, and then ask me to what I owe my success.
"Are you the world's funniest Italian comedian?"
"Yes, I am."
"To what do you owe—"
My father taught me that timing was one of the most important keys to success. This is a story about timing.
* * * * *
The Duke and I shared a love of Mexico and all things Mexican. It's not so much a bargain nowadays as when I first started making the Fireside Inn-Ensenada run and one could buy a Carta Blanca for six cents. That was in the late ‘50s. When Duke and I eventually met in a dingy Mexican cantina, the Bohemia he bought me cost forty cents. That was in the mid-‘70s. Times change. Mexico, like Los Angeles, is certainly not the same today as when three friends and I would race down from college on a Friday afternoon, catch one set of the Lighthouse All-stars in Manhattan Beach, stop at Mickey Finn’s in San Diego to get whacko on three beers, and finish the trip to Ensenada in Tony Valente's white '55 ford Fairlane convertible with the red leather interior and one of us passed out in the back seat. We'd spend Saturday schlepping around Estero Beach scaring hell out of hysterical young Mexican girls, drinking gin and orange juice (I think they were called Orange Blossoms then), and come up for air on Sunday at the bullfights in Tijuana. Somehow we made it back to our classes on Monday morning, which had been carefully scheduled to start at eleven o'clock.
I remember becoming a John Wayne fan when I first saw "Red River" in 1948. A Flatbush boy who could only practice my quick draw in an empty lot with a cap gun, I had shaken the early fascination with pseudo-westerns whose utterly forgettable names have been utterly forgotten. Horse Operas, they were called. They starred Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Lash Larue, William Boyd and Johnny Mack Brown. My soul mates and I now focused on real westerns: "Shane," "High Noon," " Man Without a Star," "Vera Cruz," and, of course, "Red River." But toward the end of the '50s, something started bothering me about the Duke. Was he getting...old? "Stagecoach," "Sands of Iwo Jima" and "Flying Tigers" (remember James Craig?) were in the distant past. "Hondo" and "The Quiet Man" were in the recent past. As young and impressionable as I was, I knew that someday I wanted to write movies and that one of those movies would be for John Wayne. Maybe it was because he looked so much like my father, who was also a John Wayne nut. In fact, I was shortly out of college when I promised my father that I would write a John Wayne movie some day, and in his peculiar pride he joked that he would be Duke's stand-in.
In any event, I was only twelve when I saw "Red River," which was my first exposure to the preposterous notion that older men might be attracted to young women, or vice versa. Even in pre-pubescence, I sensed that even though the Duke was too old for Montgomery Clift's girl friend Joanne Dru, he could be persuaded just once to roll in the hay with her. More than a decade later, he was too old for Angie Dickenson in "Rio Bravo" and for Ina Balin, even though she was Stuart Whitman's girl, in "The Comancheros." Well, I had become convinced that the Duke was past the age of romantic leads and should definitely start playing the heroic father, the widowed patriarch, the avuncular military hero, the legendary former marshall.
* * * *
In 1961 I had a daily film column called "In The News" in the Hollywood Citizen-News. My firebrand cohorts at the paper took kindly to my theory about the "new" John Wayne and had convinced me I should tell him of my plan to write the screenplay that would launch his "second" career. Our editor, Sam Gordon, a bespectacled, cigar-chomping newsroom denizen right out of central casting, had given me the gossipy movie column (right across the page from Sidney Skolsky's, yet), partially as a reward for my especially vivid coverage of what is now called the Great Bel-Air Fire, and partially because I had been badgering him for it for a year. The daily column gave me a minor, but no less delicious, reputation around Hollywood, even though most of my material was culled from press releases. The Duke would of course recognize my name. Since I lived in Canoga Park and drove to work along Ventura Boulevard (this was before the Ventura Freeway was built), it would be easy for me to drive by Duke's and Pilar's house in Encino and jot down his personal street address. I wrote him a letter informing him of my theory and of my intention to write the screenplay that would begin this transition into his new career. The note I got from the Duke was polite but brusque; I think he misinterpreted my message:
Thanks for the compliments but I'm not quite ready to kick the bucket. My personal feeling has always been that I should get the girl
as long as I feel like getting the girl. And I'll still feel like getting the girl
until they bury me. Go ahead and write the script and I promise
to take a look at it.
It was signed "John Wayne" and he added:
p.s. Don't use this in your column.
The gang and I hooted and celebrated for days. From Aldo's on Hollywood Blvd. to the Villa Capri on Sunset, and Shelley's Manne Hole in-between, we toasted my upcoming success and theorized how we'd spend every penny of my John Wayne movie money. Mike Ashley, another reporter (who secretly believed he was Jose Greco), planned to live with me in Spain and write his award-winning novel while continuing his flamenco dancing lessons. Bob Loomis, our headline writer, decided he would write songs for Frank Sinatra. City editor Bob Leonard figured he would buy The Citizen-News and immediately fire Sam Gordon. Naturally, for reasons having more to do with my recently having read Luis Spota's bullfight novel The Wounds of Hunger than with logic, the film script had to be written in Mexico. Or at least conceived in Mexico. Mike Ashley, the guy who was really Jose Greco, was married to a Mexican girl from San Diego and had an uncle-in-law who lived in a sleepy coastal village named San Blas.
Senor Greco decided we weren't going to last another year at the newspaper. (We all had been fired twice before: once for growing beards in support of a hirsute savior who was coming down from the hills to save Cuba from the evil dictator Batista; and once for not showing up at Sam Gordon's son David's bar mitzvah). Our plan was to take our two-week vacation right after the first of the year, throw our Underwood uprights, a pair of Bermuda shorts, two t-shirts and a pair of go-aheads into Jose Greco's camper, and take off for his uncle-in-law's shack in San Blas to begin both the script that would save John Wayne's career and the novel that would change the world.
The trip itself was uneventful except for doing everything the guidebooks said you were not supposed to do in Mexico: we drove at night; we ran out of gas on a lonely road; and we picked up a hitchhiking stranger with a monkey.
The very first car that came along stopped to help us out of our gas situation. He was a farmer with a carload of small children coming from a religious ceremony in a nearby town, and he left all the kids with Mike and the stranger with the monkey while he and I drove back to the town, got a can of gas, and returned to fire up the camper. The kids had fallen in love with the monkey and ate all our potato chips; the farmer refused compensation for his troubles. Res Ipsa Loquitur. The stranger was a different story. When we made the mistake of telling him we were going to San Blas, that became his destination. We could no longer tactfully ditch him. He rode in the camper, and speaking through the small pass-through hole in the back of the pickup's cab, he told us his name was Ben, but wouldn't give a last name. He said he had made a lot of money on TV variety shows when he had a monkey who could do tricks with a Duncan yo-yo, but the monkey died. Now he was training a new monkey to yo-yo and would once again become famous.
"How did he die?" Mike asked before I could stop him.
"Hit by a car," he said sadly. "He was yo-yoing in the back seat of the car one time, and the yo-yo accidentally flew out the window. The poor thing didn't understand that it was connected to its finger and jumped out the window to retrieve it. We were on the Pasadena Freeway at the time." I looked at Mike. The obvious question had to be asked and Mike wasn't going to be a two-time loser.
"So why are you hitchhiking through Mexico?" I finally asked.
"Stretch a buck," he said. "Harpo here's coming along real fast, but it'll take some time. I thought I'd just find a place where no one'll bother us."
"Harpo?" It was Mike. This time I kicked him.
"The other one was Zeppo," he said. "Poor little guy."
We rode a long way in silence. Now and then Harpo's errant yo-yo banged wildly against the walls of the camper behind us, but we said nothing.
* * * *
In San Blas, we pulled the camper onto Mike's uncle-in-law's property on the beach and stocked it plentifully with beer and ginebra. Surprisingly, the screenplay took shape quickly, helped along by characters based on Ben the monkey guy, both of whom I now envisioned as John Wayne's sidekicks. With Mike as my sounding board, we developed an aged gunfighter who dies a natural death, and whose life for most of the film is largely told in flashback. The story was about how the aged hero once saved a raw young lawyer's life in a gunfight with a bad guy, but he never took credit for it, instead passing along the glory—and the love of a much younger woman—to the young lawyer, who eventually becomes a crusading statesman.
The routine in San Blas was exactly what I fantasized it would become when I finally became a famous screenwriter. We woke at sunrise, dashed into the surf, had a beer and huevos rancheros, then pounded away at our machines until the heat of noon distracted us. Then we walked around town, which took all of two minutes end-to-end, and had a long and rowdy lunch at a local cantina. Back to the beach for a stuporous nap, back to the camper to read and correct what we'd written that morning, and then all-skate until we crashed. That was it. Not even any girls.
I returned to The Citizen-News with an excellent treatment and step outline, and spent the remainder of the year writing the script. October brought three shattering events: first, we were hit with the news that my father, who not-so-incidentally had smoked three packs of Camels a day for his entire fire-fighting career, had lung cancer with some metastases to remote sites. Second, Mike's premonition came true: we were fired from the paper, this time for ducking work to attend Ernie Kovacs' funeral because Sam Gordon refused to assign any of us to cover it. ("He was just a comedian, for crissakes," was his reason.) So we were both on the street at 22 years old. Which, in those days, was quite young.
The third shattering event was the release of a new John Wayne movie called "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," and it was my movie! Purely by coincidence, I'm sure, the fine script by Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah was practically my exact storyline, the first John Wayne film in which he took romantic second banana and acted his age. Except for some names and places and minor events and my very clever characters like the yo-yoing monkey, the stark similarity in story and plot would preclude forever any chance of my script getting produced.
My life was over. A few weeks later, when I came out of deep shock and depression, I dashed off a note to the Duke.
"My disappointment is only slightly palliated by the fact that it was such a fine movie," I wrote, "and that you did such an outstanding job in it." I deliberately used a new word I had learned watching Oscar Levant on TV. My dismay continued as I looked for a job and no return letter came from Duke. There didn't seem to be any jobs in Hollywood for budding young writers. At one point Mike and I even climbed over the wall at Twentieth Century-Fox and, in surprised frustration, hid in the bushes as we pondered how to get through a narrow time-clock shed through which everyone had to pass to get onto the lot. It was like a scene from "The Great Escape." Finally, when no one else was approaching, we slinked into the shed and selected two unused time cards. I forget whose card Mike drew, but mine said "Juliet Prowse." Then we simply punched the cards, making the clock bong-bong, placed the cards back at the far end of the shack, took out a pink slip from the metal holder, and flashed it nonchalantly at the inattentive guard at the exit. We were in! Mike went in one direction and I headed for the TV department. There was a new show starting up called "The Roaring ‘20s." The story editor's secretary hadn't arrived for work yet and the editor himself, a fine gentleman named Ken Evans (who I understand eventually taught at USC), was astounded when I presented myself in front of his desk. To my relief, he was more curious as to how I got in than angry at my having insinuated my ego-crazed self onto his premises.
"I climbed over the wall and punched Juliet Prowse's time card," I said. Ken Evans laughed like hell.
"I'll tell you what," he said. "Anyone with nerve like that deserves an interview. Get the hell out of here, call my secretary for a proper appointment, and I'll see you when I can." A prince. I had stumbled onto a prince in my first clumsy effort at storming the Bastille. (I thought of the Mexican farmer on the dark road to San Blas.) The secretary got me in the next afternoon but alas, after I told Evans my Liberty Valance tale of woe, showed him the script, and explained how I could guarantee him several Emmys, all he could do was give me some background material on the new show and encourage me to send him some story outlines. Naturally, being one of the rugged individualists, I didn't bother with the outlines and spent the next year writing him highly rejectable full-length one-hour scripts. Predictably, by the time I'd written one that finally got the attention of Evans, the show was suddenly cancelled. By some incredible coincidence, a letter from the Duke arrived the exact day I heard the bad news about "The Roaring ‘20s." It was almost a year after I had sent him my Liberty Valance suicide note.
Thanks for the compliments on Liberty Valance.
I'm sure sorry we used your idea, but I still don't
think I am as old as you keep saying I am. Go see
the picture again. Keep plugging, though. I'll still
take a look at anything else you write with me in mind.
It was signed, "best, John Wayne."
Suddenly there was stock to be taken. Should we try it again? Could we? In another time and place, we would all move into a garret together and one of us would take a job as a waiter to support the other three. Maybe we would make Puccini happy by burning Mike's manuscript to keep warm. But now, over many glasses of wine at the Villa Capri, we oh-so-sensibly planned the future. Mike was now married and was working as a technical writer at Lockheed in Burbank. He would stay at his job and give up his dancing lessons to save money because his wife was pregnant. Bob Leonard was also married, and also to a young Mexican girl from San Diego. He would stay at The Citizen-News, except that now he couldn't fire Sam Gordon. Ol' Blue Eyes would never croon a Bob Loomis tune, since Bob decided to move to Hawaii and surf his life away with nubile natives. (Of course, they all concluded that the sad state of affairs we were in was my fault for having failed to earn our passport to Torremolinos with my Liberty Valance idea.) And I was about to be married to a girl who was a senior nursing student at Queen of Angels hospital. The vote was 3-1 that I should look for a responsible job (4-1 if you include my fiancee's vote). Some friends. And I was once going to take them to Torremolinos.
Now at 23, our youth was over. In two years the Duke would make "The Sons of Katie Elder" in Durango, Mexico. He played an older brother to Dean Martin, et al., but at a real-life leathery 57 he looked more like their father. Should I try it again?
* * * * *
If Katie Elder bothered me, "True Grit" sent me up the wall four years later. Just as "The Untouchables" launched Sean Connery's third career (after 1, successful stage actor and 2, James Bond), "Grit" brought the Duke into the third career I had been trying to set up for him for years (after 1, dashing young cowboy and 2, romantic leading man). But Oscar or not, the critics were wrong. "Grit" was nothing but a lampoon, a joke that showed not a whit of Duke's talent as an actor. My feeling was — and remains — that the Oscar was Hollywood's idea of a belated acknowledgment, because, after all, he had cancer. It was the award he should have won for "Wings of Eagles" or "The Searchers" or "Red River." The same thing applies to Elizabeth Taylor's Oscar for the awful "Butterfield 8," (an event I covered for The Citizen-News and got to hold her and Burt Lancaster's Oscars when she fainted in the interview room and Lancaster caught her). The Academy realized she should have won it the year before for "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof."
After "Grit", I wrote another letter, directed to his boat in Newport Beach and routed via my agent in New York. By 1969, eight years after the first letter, I had had two novels published and one non-fiction book, but still hadn't tried another screenplay since my Liberty Valance tragedy. "Grit" was the stimulus I needed. In the letter, I re-re-introduced myself to Duke, expressed both concern over his recent "Big C" illness and joy upon reading that he had "licked" it. I mentioned that my father also had contracted lung cancer, but had seemingly licked it as well. I even mentioned that my father had been asked once too often for his autograph, and had taken to signing "Duke Wayne" for anyone who approached him.
"I hope you won't take offense at this constant nagging," I wrote, hoping my wry wit wouldn't be lost on Duke. "But now that you're admitting your age on screen, I'd still like to write a script for you in which you're a hero and not a buffoon." I closed with an honest explanation of why I took exception with the critics who thought his" Rooster Cogburn" character was one of his best roles, but nevertheless shared my fervent hope that he'd win a Liz Taylor-type Oscar. It would be Duke's and my secret that he would really win it for "The Searchers." I recall hesitating several days before mailing the letter. I suddenly felt like some kind of groupie, like the jerk Ruppert Pupkin that Robert DeNiro played in "The King of Comedy." What was I expecting from Wayne — a financial advance? A job? How naive was I, anyway? Was he going to say, "No, I never want to see anything you write for me!"? But I did mail it, and even included a posed picture of my dad sitting at the dining room table signing an autograph for me. A few months later I received a terse note.
If you don't quit bothering me I'll report you to the FBI.
Thanks for your kind words. I'm 61 years old and
even after the Big C I still feel like I'm 35. I hope your father
feels as good as I do. Send me your "hero" script when it's finished.
Maybe you'll convince me yet.
There was no signature, no mention of the snapshot, just a typed "John Wayne." I had read in the trades that he was about to make "Rio Lobo" in Durango. It took about ten seconds to decide what I wanted to do. Mike Ashley, a.k.a. Jose Greco, now owned a hi-tech PR firm in San Diego. I immediately called him.
"Durango? Are you nuts?" was his considered reaction.
"Why not? Just for old time's sake."
"I have a business. And a family," he squawked.
"And a novel to write," I said. "Let's go back to Mexico and do it."
No dice. Love conquered all once again. Anyway, his uncle-in-law had died and we didn't know anyone from whom we could borrow a camper. Bob Leonard, who now worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, was equally thrilled.
"John Wayne writes you a note and you want me to drop everything and go to Mexico with you to write a screenplay. Have I got it right so far?"
"It's good luck to do it there," I said. "We can go to Durango, where he hangs out."
"How well I recall what good luck it is," he said.
I had lost track of Loomis. After some calling around, I was saddened to hear that he had died in a freak surfing accident in Hawaii. I said a quick prayer and analyzed my options. My own career was picking up steam but the need for immediate cash distracted me from my mission to save the Duke's image. My biographical novel about Leadbelly, The Midnight Special, had been published in 1969 to critical acclaim (just like "True Grit") but the publisher, Bernard Geis Associates, had filed bankruptcy before the ink had dried on a favorable front page notice in the New York Times Book Review.
Despondent once again, but nevertheless panic-stricken, I signed a lucrative 2-book non-fiction contract with Chilton and was in the middle of collaborating on another movie with an L.A. screenwriter named Mick Curran, who also happened to share my passion for the Duke's films. Still in his 20s, Mick was a WGA/w member and had none of the distractions that occupied my original band of compadres. And he even liked tequila. Anyway, with so much on my plate, obligations and deadlines galore, I stalled for a few years by writing the non-fiction books plus another novel, and doing some minor TV shows. It wasn't until a few years later that I finally got down to starting another John Wayne script. It was the double-stimulus of "Rooster Cogburn" and the sudden realization that my father was going to die.
Out of the blue, my father insisted in the winter of '73-'74 that he had to go back to Flatbush to see his old cronies and what was now the Long Island contingent of the family, i.e., the ones who hadn't moved to Florida or California. Since going alone was out of the question, and since my sister was in the latest of her almost continuous pregnancies, I took him back to the old neighborhoods of his, and my, youth: 10th Ave., Prospect Park, East 29th St. (between S & T), Sheepshead Bay, and we even visited his old firehouse at Hook & Ladder 166 on Neptune Ave. In Coney Island. We spent a delightful New Year's holiday at an uncle's in Bensonhurst, spent a few weeks on Long Island, and even got up to the Boston area to see some relatives on my mother's side.
By happenstance, those happy-go-lucky kids at Harvard had invited John Wayne to address the student body, or some group, to explain his views on the Vietnam War, patriotism and the American way. The problem was that everyone between Bangor and Bayonne knew Duke was in the area, which made having dinner with my father an almost frightening experience. He must have gleefully signed 500 autographs and shook a thousand hands. If I hadn't known the cancer was making its final assault on him, I probably would have ditched him to seek peace and quiet. Just like the Duke, my dad never turned down a request for an autograph. He enjoyed his fame immensely, a charming charlatan, a lovely, endearing, dying old man who once carried two children down a ladder from a flaming tenement.
Back home, "True Grit" had been haunting me, but "Rooster Cogburn" was the absolutely, positively, last straw. I had watched Duke age through "Chisum," and "Big Jake," and "The Cowboys," all excellent action films for a man in his mid-'60s. Then that dumb toupee he wore in "McQ" sent me up the wall again. However, "Rooster Cogburn" brought the entire planet to a screeching halt. When Mick and I left the theater after seeing this abomination, I was ranting.
"What the hell is he doing? He's ending his career pathetically. It's "The Conquerors" all over again. Does he need money? Can you picture Joe Louis becoming a wrestler?"
"Yeah," Mick said dejectedly. "That character was to John Wayne what Jerry Lewis is to Alistair Cooke." We drove home in silence, two John Wayne fans fuming in harmony.
"It's time to go to Durango," Mick said suddenly. "We can finish our own script there and you can work on your idea for the Duke. Think of it as a mission of mercy." This young man was beautiful.
* * * * * *
There is a tiny village east of Durango called San Telmo, where Mick and I holed up in a microscopic but clean motel. It is — or was then — a picturesque town, low and wide, with dirt streets and everything white and dusty. It looked more like one of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti western towns than a real Mexican village. But it was a great little place to do creative work. There were only two other motorized vehicles besides our rented Ford: a dilapidated '48 Dodge pickup truck and an ancient school bus converted to what we dubbed the Greater San Telmo Municipal Railway system. There were many horses and burros, as if we'd stepped back in time. As far as I could determine there was only one telephone. There seemed to be no discernible employment. The rush hour was two kids sauntering to work at a tortilla oven.
Our routine was to work on the screenplay all morning, take our siesta, and then hang out in the strangely named Comanchero cantina. The name was strange for two reasons: one, despite the fact that Duke often vacationed and worked in this region, his film "The Comancheros" was shot in Monument Valley. Second, the name itself means the white low-life profiteers who supplied liquor and guns to the plains Indians in the late nineteenth century. Why a Mexican would name his saloon for them was beyond us. It was also beyond Jaime Santos, the owner, bartender, cook, waiter, busboy and janitor, who could shed no light on the mystery. He told me the cantina had that name when he was a boy, and Jaime was now one of the oldest men in the village.
We'd been there almost two weeks. In fact, Mick and I had finished our screenplay, and he was now helping me doodle on the treatment for the ultimate career climax John Wayne film. Because he had been suddenly stricken with "Montezuma's revenge," Mick stayed in the room one day and wasn't with me when I strolled over to the Comanchero and noticed a jeep parked in front. Inside, the fans whirled as usual, the flies prowled the walls, Jaime sat reading behind the bar, a few regulars lazed at tables, a pot of chili steamed on an old green porcelain stove. And in my usual booth, slouched over a stack of papers, legs stretched out to the seat across from him, sat John Wayne.
* * * * * *
My first hint was that he looked like my father. My second hint was that he looked like my father with cancer. He was alone, which I thought was strange. And he was drinking a Carta Blanca beer, not the legendary tequila I had heard about in the press releases and gossip sheets I used to wade through daily when I had the movie column in The Citizen-News. He wore a pressed white shirt and khaki pants and on the table was a blue Los Angeles dodgers baseball cap. He was much balder and thinner than I had imagined. Gaunt.
I walked in shock to the bar and sat dumbly, regarding Duke in the mirror and trying to think clearly. "Jaime," I said, slapping my manila folder on the bar, "you've been slipping me strange water all along and now I'm starting to hallucinate."
"Senor?" he said politely, making my usual tequila martini.
Mentally I constructed the entire scenario. Duke was in the Durango area making a movie. The only reason I could imagine that he wasn't accompanied by dozens of pals — he and Pilar were separated by then — was that he was tired, wanted to be alone. I guessed that they would all be converging on this humble little cantina in a matter of moments to wipe out Jaime's entire inventory of booze and beans.
Not so. He was absolutely alone. I felt like a school kid. I chug-a-lugged the martini and motioned Jaime for another. I don't remember to this day what I was thinking about, but I finally downed the second one and walked toward the booth where John Wayne sat alone. He looked up and smiled. I guessed that after years of being approached in all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, and finally walking into mine, he was used to this sort of thing.
"You're not going to believe this," I said. He beamed wider. Even the gauntness, the pain he would let no one observe, couldn't hide that famous angular grin.
"Try me," he said. Automatic, I marveled. He knew that I knew.
"I'm the guy up in L.A. who wrote you a few notes about a screenplay I've always wanted to do for you as an older hero instead of—"
I stopped as he looked at me blankly, and then gave me the characteristic grin again. "What? That was you?" Sincere. Even wider grin. I could have fainted. He banged the table with his open palm, his classic way, reminding me of at least a dozen scenes. "Well, I'll be damned! Siddown, son. Siddown!"
We shook hands and he bought me a Bohemia beer. He was as gracious as he could be, but his appearance was distracting. He looked like hell, he looked sick, but...he was John Wayne!
I told him how I had met him at the Fireside Inn one night and shook his hand when I was just a rookie newspaper reporter, how my parents had moved us from Brooklyn to Sherman Oaks in 1954 and he was the first movie star I'd ever met.
"Is it true your dad looks like me?" Had he forgotten the snapshot?
"Well, I cannot tell a lie," I said in my best John Wayne drawl and waving my right hand in front of my face in that patented Wayne gesture. "Now that I've met you, yes, he looks a helluva lot like you. But only on the screen, not so much in real life."
He laughed out loud again, a choking, phlegmy laugh. The laugh of an old man who had had a lot of cigarets in his life. "Is he still signing my autographs?"
"He gets a kick out of it."
"Aw, what the hell. How old is he?" I grit my teeth.
"He was born six months after you, in 1907." He stared blankly at me again, wondering if I were kidding. Then he said again, "Well, I'll be damned!"
We talked for half an hour. We talked about his political views, his family, how much he still loved Pilar. He professed not to know what went wrong with their marriage of twenty-five years. ("Maybe I had a mid-life crisis twenty years too late," he said, possibly referring discreetly to the young Stacy woman he was linked with in the gossip columns.) He asked me how my career was going. He remembered the notes, my movie column, and he asked details about my father's lung cancer. I lied and told him my father was fine.
"That Liberty Valance thing was quite a coincidence, wasn't it?" he said, amazing me again with his memory. "I felt bad about it."
Eventually I switched back from Bohemia beer to the tequila martinis, and I'd had three more when we started talking seriously about his films. He was sticking to beer.
The tequila gave me courage to say, "You never got any credit from all those phony critics. You were a much better actor than you ever got credit for." I instantly regretted using the past tense.
"You gonna preach to me about "True Grit" again?"
I was embarrassed. "No, sir." I shook my head. "Rooster Cogburn."
He grinned and looked down, as if thinking back a long way. "You ever seen something called "The Conqueror?"
I nodded. "All of them."
"Barbarian and the Geisha?"
I nodded again. "The Barbarian," I corrected.
He laughed. "Okay, "Circus World." "Donovan's Reef."
He whipped off a few more of his more celebrated bombs as we laughed in turn at each name. Finally, I said, "I've even seen "The Big Trail," "Lady For a Night" and "Without Reservations." I've seen all the three Mesquiteers films and I may be the only man in the world who's seen "Tycoon" three times."
He sat back and looked at me in disbelief. "Well, I'll be damned!" he said, with obvious sincerity. He coughed again. I remember wondering how he ever got through a scene without being interrupted by a coughing jag. A few minutes later he startled me yet again by pre-empting my next subject.
"You got the script written yet?"
"I've got a rough treatment down."
"Well, don't tell me about it. Just do it," he said.
"I understand," I replied. "Lawsuits. But can I ask you something personal? Real personal?"
"Sure. Go on."
"Are you going to make any more films? Is your health holding up?"
Without missing a beat, he said, "Is your dad's?"
I nodded and drank.
"I'm just here for a quick visit. I'm gonna start one soon with Jimmy Stewart. 'Cept for cameos, first one together since Liberty Valance."
I must have winced.
"Tell you what," he said. "I'll hold out as long as your dad does. Write that script, kid, and if it's any good I'll find a way to do it. Maybe Pat or Michael could help."
"This one's about a guy who's really old."
"Don't tell me — a really old hero!" We both laughed.
A car pulled up with three people in it, one of whom jumped out and ran into the cantina. In this setting, his necktie looked freakish. Curiously, I thought, the man interrupted us without even looking at me. "We're late, Duke. Come on."
Duke got up — I like to think reluctantly — and frowned at the newcomer. "How in hell can you be late for anything in Mexico?"
He then gathered his papers, shook my hand and wished me well. "Send me that script," he said. "I'm sorry we didn't get to do your first one."
"But you did," I said, and he laughed again.
And then he put on his Dodgers cap against the sun and left, driving off in the jeep with the obstreperous man in the necktie. For some reason, I thought about the yo-yoing monkey.
And Mick missed it all. He didn't believe me for a long time, insisting I should have got an autograph as proof. I considered having my father forge one: "To Mick: sorry I missed you; hope you're off the pot. Best, Duke."
* * * * * *
If you haven't already guessed, the screenplay I wrote was remarkably similar to Miles Hood Swarthout's and Scott Hale's wonderful "TheShootist," the movie Duke had alluded to with Jimmy Stewart and the one in which he played his greatest role. I later found out from a mutual acquaintance that he received my script, called "The Last Showdown," the day before they wrapped the film. Once again, a day late and a dollar short. Timing, remember?
The cancer resurged with a vengeance in both my father and the Duke. I spent as much time as I could with Dad, listening to more advice about timing and watching people ask for his autograph whenever he felt strong enough to go out. (He would identify me alternately as his driver or his "scriptwriter." Big laughs.)
I had been reading about Duke's rapidly deteriorating health ever since the Durango meeting. I wrote a final letter to him in the spring of 1977, mostly to praise his "The Shootist" work, and in which I hadn't the heart to tell him it was Liberty Valance all over again. I was certain he knew anyway and, not having received a return note, I let it go.
My father died two years later on June 10, 1979.
John Wayne died the day after.