Were These John Wayne's Last Words?

Movie legend John Wayne boasted a truly impressive filmography, but more than that, his portrayals of rugged, no-nonsense characters often against the backdrop of a romanticized American West elevated the Iowa-born Marion Robert Morrison to iconic status among many of his day. With an acting career that began in 1926 and spanned more than five decades, "The Duke" cemented his place in Hollywood as America's favorite swaggering masculine archetype of the era, as The Atlantic argues. But his toughest role may have come in real life as a man facing a cancer diagnosis. 

When he was first diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 57 in 1964, he said his "advisors" suggested he keep the news private because it would "destroy his image," per The New York Times. He quietly checked himself into the hospital for treatment, but after a successful surgery, he shared the news saying, "there's a hell of a lot of good image in John Wayne licking cancer — and that's what my doctors tell me." 

He went on to make nearly two dozen more films and TV appearances, but his final movie proved to be his most poignant. In 1976's "The Shootist," he played a grizzled gunslinger (a role he had certainly perfected over the years) who had been diagnosed with cancer. Just three years later in 1979, Wayne received another diagnosis — this time, it was stomach cancer. Six months later he was on his deathbed. According to his daughter-in-law Gretchen Wayne, during a couple of hours of lucidity in which he accepted his imminent death, he said, "It's been great" per "John Wayne: The Life and Legend."

John Wayne's death bed conversion

It was during a gall bladder surgery in January 1979 that doctors discovered a malignant tumor in John Wayne's stomach, and they removed the cancerous organ, according to The Washington Post. Still, the cancer continued to spread. In April of that year, he made his last public appearance when he was presented with an Acadamy award. He received a standing ovation and told the crowd that homage was "just about the only medicine a fellow'd ever really need. Believe me when I tell you that I'm mighty pleased that I can amble down here tonight. Oscar and I have something in common. Oscar first came to the Hollywood scene in 1928. So did I. We're both a little weather-beaten, but we're still here and plan to be around for a whole lot longer."

Wayne died in a Los Angeles Hospital on June 11, 1979, with several family members by his side. The actor had seven children from two of his three marriages. 

Their descriptions of his last day as told to author Eyman Scott in "John Wayne: The Life and Legend" include that Wayne, who had never been a religious man, converted to Catholicism and was baptized by a priest as he lay dying. According to family accounts, Wayne's wives were Catholic, and his children were raised Catholic, so he was likely influenced by them, though Wayne had referred to himself during his life as "Presbyrgoddamnterian" according to his son Patrick Wayne. Some of Wayne's last words came during the interaction with the priest, in which he agreed to be baptized but not much else was verbalized on his part.

John Wayne's very last words

Though many might expect him to have had final words that reflected his tough and gritty persona, it seems that this wasn't the case at all. John Wayne's last days as described in Scott's biography included the previously mentioned hours in which he was in the hospital and aware of his imminent death but had made peace. Pat Stacy, Wayne's assistant turned lover and long-time companion was present. She said, "His blue eyes were shining. He showed no pain. He seemed to be enjoying every moment of those three hours." 

On June 11, his family was told he wasn't expected to last the day. He had been semi-conscious during his time in the hospital, but that morning, according to "John Wayne: The Life and Legend," who prefaces this bit of the story with "supposedly," Stacy asked him if he knew who she was. He replied, "Of course I know who you are. You're my girl. I love you," before falling into a deep sleep from which he would never wake. 

His daughter Aissa wanted to be sure that her father knew his family was with him and he was surrounded by love. She held his hand, noting that cancer hadn't ravished that part of him. His hands were "still huge and all-encompassing." Wayne's breathing became ragged, each gasp-like breath further apart than the last, until it finally stopped. He was 72 years old.