Secrets Behind Hollywood Heartbreaks—John Wayne & Chata Wayne
I have a theory that the reasons for the breakup of John Wayne’s second marriage are deeply rooted in his first.
Here is the background.
Wayne’s first marriage was in 1933 to Josephine Saenz, daughter of a Mexican government official and a devout Catholic.
John, too, is a Catholic—that is, he is but he isn’t. His folks were, but they went their separate ways when he was fifteen, so he wasn’t actually brought up as a practicing member of the Catholic faith.
Josephine was Society with a capital S. John was just plain Duke (his friends in Hollywood still call him that) Morrison, bit player and stunt man. Josephine’s society was the real thing—strictly Pasadena, not Hollywood. She is still high society and, incidentally, still a very beautiful woman.
To John, things came the hard way. He got his big break in “The Big Trail” in 1929, made by Raoul Walsh for the old Fox Company. Walsh had discovered him at Fox Studio working as a prop man for the summer. The various studios made a practice of giving kids—particularly football players—jobs during the vacation months, and Wayne, who made the varsity team in his sophomore year at the University of Southern California, was being touted as a coming football star.
“Trail” was intended to make a big movie star out of him but it flopped. Then he did a few other pictures and went into a decline. (Wayne recently was named Number One box-office star, along with Doris Day, for the third year by theatre owners in the country.)
During his decline he had to make a living doing something, so he made westerns that took only eight days to shoot for Republic and Universal—“The Three Mesquiteers” series and other quickies. It was hard work. There were no doubles; he did his own fighting. He arrived on the set at 6:00 am. and after a rugged day got home dirty and tired at 7:30 p.m. only to find that his dinner clothes had been laid out by Josephine. And off they went to a party!
Speaking of this, John says, “A guy in pictures has got to look wide-eyed. I used to be so sleepy I could die. I loved having my friends around, but the routine of getting in at 1:00 a.m. and then up again at five to be on a horse in front of a camera at six—well, I began to curl up.”
To John it was his old friends who were important—the people he went to school with. He was—and is—a loyal person, as indicated by his actions toward Herbert J. Yates, the president of Republic, one of Hollywood’s small studios. John could have signed with Universal a few years ago at twice the money Republic was paying him but preferred to stick with “Papa” Yates, who helped give him his start.
Despite the fact that John didn’t care for society, he did like almost every other aspect of his life with Josephine, including that of religion. They had four children. Michael, nineteen, and Toni, seventeen, are students at Loyola University in Los Angeles. Patrick, fifteen, is in junior high, and Melinda, thirteen, is in the eighth grade.
Of his children, John says, “I think my kids are the most wonderful, handsomest kids on earth.”
A turning point came in 1938 with John’s smash hit in “Stagecoach,” which made him the top star he was supposed to have become when “The Big Trail” was produced. Following “Stagecoach” came more big roles and the inevitable separation from Josie and the children while he was on location.
These enforced location – separations, plus a possible sense of inferiority to the elegant Josephine, brought about a new assertiveness in Wayne’s manner which caused differences that, starting out as small ones, grew and grew in the eyes of both of them.
There was a gradual drifting apart. Then. in 1943. came an unofficial separation. It was during this period that John met Esperanza Baur at a dance in Mexico City given by mutual friends. Esperanza was an up-and-coming Mexican actress.
She was a beautiful dark-haired girl with snapping black eyes, a cute pug-nose, and a smile that would charm the birds off the trees. Like Josephine, she was of Spanish descent. John called her Chata, which is Spanish for “pug-nose.” She, oddly enough, had been married in 1941 to a fellow named Morrison, Wayne’s real name. This one’s first name was Eugene. She divorced Eugene the same year she married him.
Both women are tall, slender and dark. Although there is a remarkable first-glance resemblance between the two, Chata actually is the complete antithesis of Josephine. Josie is reserved and has a patrician appearance. Chata is hoydenish, and when she smiles her nose and her eyes and her whole face wrinkle. She is thirty; Josephine is forty.
Chata wanted the things John wanted: the simple uncluttered life—a fire in the fireplace around which old friends could gather, and good, simple fun around a barbecue pit.
However, the ties that bound John to Josephine and their four children were too strong for John to ignore at first, and he did break up with Chata and go back to Josephine. They effected a precarious reconciliation. It was agreed between them that John would forget about Chata if Josephine would never mention her name. Two minutes later Josie brought up the subject. From then on it was no good.
Even so, Duke’s love for his family was stronger than his desire for happiness in his own personal life and he stuck with Josephine—for a while. But the reconciliation failed to jell.
They broke up again. After the breakup and the divorce (it is understood that Josephine receives $30,000 a year alimony from John), he sought out Chata in Mexico City and on January 17, 1946, they were married at Long Beach. Ward Bond was best man and Mrs. Ollie Carey, wife of the late Harry Carey, was matron of honor. “Papa” Yates gave the bride away.
When they returned to Hollywood after the honeymoon, I met them for the first time at the Associated Press Editors’ Convention at the Biltmore Hotel. They were the center of attention, along with the other newlywed couple who shared our table—Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall—and Danny Thomas and his wife. They were having a wonderful time and were obviously very much in love.
Wayne’s star was still in the ascendancy career-wise, and the location-separations that had come about with his stardom while he was married to Josephine continued throughout his marriage to Chata.
In addition, John took on more business commitments than he had ever carried before—responsibilities that demanded more time than Chata was willing for him to give. For instance, he signed a producing contract with Republic as well as an acting contract, and became involved with the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals—and he was increasingly in demand for pictures until it got to a point where he was making pictures for Republic, Warner Brothers, RKO and himself with little time left to enjoy the home life that he and Chata had originally pictured for themselves.
And Wayne was changing. He was now a star of top stature and was gradually discovering he liked the Hollywood social life—the life that was distasteful when he was married to Josephine.
All these factors set the pattern for the separation last June, while John was making “Big Jim McLain” with Nancy Olson in Honolulu. John produced it and starred in it for Warners’ release. Chata went with John on the location trip but flew back home after several fights. No one has ever reported what these fights were about but the reasons seem obvious to their friends. It was when Chata returned from Honolulu that I came up with an “exclusive” on the rift in my column in The Hollywood Reporter.
Before taking off to attend the GOP Convention in Chicago last July, John asked his lawyer to request Chata’s attorney to file for a divorce immediately. He said he was anxious to get it over with as soon as possible.
John and Chata then put their Encino home up for sale, the home they bought two years ago for $140,000.
Josie, devout Catholic that she is, has never remarried.
The question now is: Will John and Josephine try it again?
When Chata and John Wayne were married on January 17, 1946, there was no doubt that they were deeply in love. Their tastes were similar; they shared a mutual desire for the quiet contentment of a happy home life.
Chata was, in fact, ready to give up her career as a motion picture actress in Mexico to devote herself to being just Mrs. John Wayne. Shortly after their wedding Chata said, “I don’t ever wish for acting again. But I am glad for the Duke that I did act for a while, for it makes me know, without his having to explain anything at all, when he is tired or cross. Then I either baby him or I just turn my back and go away and let him gloom quietly, all by himself.”
And there is no doubt that the moody Duke did gloom by himself much of the time. But Chata and John did, at first, share a lot of fun together. They loved their home, and they loved occasional evenings out too. Both enjoy dancing, and Chata particularly enjoyed dancing with John because of his height. “When I first see Duke in Mexico, where most of the men are so short, I know it is good for me,” she admitted shortly after their marriage. “I know that when I, who am so long, dance with him his head will be above me, which’ never happened to me before.”
Chata and John had much in common. They both had come from middle-class families where working for a living was the accepted thing. Chata had been working for her living as an actress. She co-starred with Arturo de Cordova in “The Count of Monte Cristo” in Mexico. But being a star was not important to her. It was merely the means toward a desirable end—a comfortable life. And as the wife of John Wayne she could have that comfortable life plus the real home she and John both desired so fervently.
But as the star of John Wayne rose in the movie firmament, the long evenings at home with Chata became less and less frequent. Then, too, there was his great desire to spend more time than ever with his children. In fact, in 1948 when John was playing the lead in “Rio Grande,” his son Michael made his acting debut in the same picture, while younger son, Patrick, accompanied them on location. John’s relationship with his children is very close and warm.
More and more Chata found that after a hard day’s work at the studio her Duke was best left alone to “gloom by himself.” And more and more, as John became a Number One box-office star, he was separated from Chata and home by long location trips. A victim of loneliness, Chata would often visit her mother in Mexico City. “The Quiet Man” took John to Ireland for a long location trip.
As the situation grew worse, Chata found herself beset by frequent illnesses which were aggravated, if not caused, by her unhappiness over the increasing failure of their marriage. Hollywood gossiped about her unhappiness, predicted that the estrangements and reconciliations would finally end in a parting of the ways. A reconciliation in February of this year, after six weeks apart, soon ended in another rift.
Finally, when John went to Honolulu to make “Big Jim McLain,” the rift was admitted to the public. Neither John nor Chata had much to say—each had too much regard for the other’s feelings—but it seemed the beginning of the end. Reconciliation had failed, and Chata once again left Hollywood to visit her mother.
In Mexico City, Chata said, “While I was in Hollywood, all of the columnists tried to get me to talk about the divorce. I refused to say anything to anyone, preferring not to hurt John. But by trying to protect him, I am the one who has been hurt the most.
“Since I have been in Mexico City the columnists have printed cruel and untrue things about me. Also, I have been ‘evicted’ from my own home! When I return to Hollywood, which will be as soon as the doctor lets me travel, it is definitely true that I will go ahead and take the steps to get a divorce,” she says.
“I am terribly ill and deeply hurt and confused—more confused than anything else. I have kept quiet for a long time. As soon as I return to Hollywood, get to feeling better and have a chance to become oriented to the crazy confusion that has taken place in the last few months, I will talk. And it will be the truth, the entire truth that I will tell.
“John is the one who is wrong in this whole situation. When the time comes, I shall prove him wrong. He is the cause of our marriage being broken. The first time we separated, not too long ago, I became terribly ill then too. We patched that up—and now comes this. But this is definitely the end of our marriage. Things cannot be mended now.”
Now Chata has returned to Hollywood, and although she has not yet told her side of the story completely, she has begun her divorce action.
And in Hollywood, the scene of her former great happiness, with her career as an actress definitely behind her, Chata faces only illness and heartbreak—the heartbreak that screen stardom can bring to those who rise to the heights, those who are dearest to them.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE NOVEMBER 1952