The United States vs Billie Holiday paints a fascinating portrait of the famous singer’s life, especially her last twelve years. A key theme is the quest of Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the DEA’s predecessor) to nail Holiday on drug charges. Throughout the movie, Anslinger’s focus on Holiday is like Captain Ahab’s obsession with getting Moby Dick. How much of that is a fact, and how much fiction? Following are thirty things about fact vs fiction in The United States vs Billie Holiday and other questionable episodes in history.
30. An Amazing Singer’s Turbulent Life, and Trouble With the Law
Innovative jazz and swing singer Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959), born Eleanora Fagan and nicknamed “Lady Day”, led a turbulent life. She was raised in a brothel, and her own mother prostituted Holiday in her childhood. She was further traumatized by the death of her ailing father after he was denied medical care in a whites-only hospital because of segregation. That pain is reflected in Holiday’s rendition of Strange Fruit, a song about the lynching of blacks that she made her own, and that kicked off the budding civil rights movement.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Holiday turned to drugs to cope with the pain. The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a 2021 autobiographical release, addresses her struggle with narcotics. The main theme revolves around Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger’s relentless pursuit of Holiday. Among other things, he pressures people in Holiday’s life to set her up for possession charges, has her trailed by his agents, and appoints one of them to go undercover to gather evidence against her. How much of that was fact, and how much fiction?
29. Fact or Fiction: Did Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger Persecute Billie Holiday?
Fact. In real life, Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, who held that job for 32 years and spearheaded the criminalization of drugs, was a horrible human being. An extreme racist and bigot, even by the standards of his day, Anslinger demonized racial minorities and immigrants. He also hated jazz, a mongrel music of African, Caribbean, and European origins mating on American soil. It was the opposite of everything Anslinger believed in. He thought it was musical anarchy, and proof of primitive impulses in black people, just waiting to erupt. As he described it in internal memos: “It sounded like the jungles in the dead of night“.
Anslinger also believed that marijuana made people insane. Jazz musicians habitually smoked the stuff, and their music sounded freakish to his ears. So he saw jazz as proof that marijuana caused insanity, and targeted jazz musicians. He wrote his agents to: “prepare all cases in your jurisdiction involving musicians in violation of the marijuana laws. We will have a great national round-up arrest of all such persons in a single day“. When congressmen questioned his anti-musician vendetta, he reassured them that his crackdown focused not on: “the good musicians, but the jazz type“. Billie Holiday was one of his main targets.
28. Anslinger Harassed Billie Holiday Until Her Literal Final Breath
In real life, as in The United States vs Billie Holiday, Harry J. Anslinger sent a black undercover agent, Jimmy Fletcher, to go after the singer. Fletcher is depicted as becoming romantically involved with Holiday. However, it is unclear whether that romance was fact or silver screen fiction. Whatever the relationship, Fletcher got close enough to Holiday to bust her on a drug possession charge in 1947 that got her a year in prison. It also got her a felony record that limited the venues in which she could perform. In 1949, agent Fletcher once again busted Holiday on a possession charge after she was set up.
The movie shows a repentant Fletcher deliberately tanking the case on the witness stand. There is no record to show that Fletcher did, in fact, throw the case, but either way, Holiday was acquitted. The movie then depicts Fletcher trailing Holiday for years, and having a long affair with her. The historic record is silent as to whether such an affair occurred, but Fletcher was assigned to Holiday for years. It is also historic fact that, as depicted in the movie, Anslinger kept after Holiday until her final breath. In 1959, as she lay dying of cirrhosis, her hospital room was raided. She was kept under police guard until she died.
27. Fact or Fiction: Did the Fax Machine Exist When Pioneer Wagon Trains Were Still Trekking Along the Oregon Trail?
Fact. The Oregon Trail was a roughly 2200-mile-long wagon route that connected the Missouri River to Oregon. It began as rough tracks and trails blazed and cleared through the wilderness by fur traders, in progressive stages, from 1811 to 1840. The trail’s segments were initially passable only to travelers on foot or horseback. By 1836, the section between Independence, Missouri, and Fort Hall, Idaho, was cleared to accommodate wagons, allowing the first pioneer wagon train to make that journey. More wagon trails were gradually cleared westward until in 1843, they reached Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
The trail became one of nineteenth-century America’s iconic symbols, as it pumped a seemingly inexhaustible torrent of land-hungry migrants from the settled East to the West’s open spaces. Wagon trains of pioneers inexorably pushed the Frontier ever westward, displacing Native Americans from their ancestral lands, and exploiting the newly seized territories for agricultural and mining usages. Is there any truth to the assertion in various memes that fax machines existed back when pioneer wagons were still rattling along the Oregon Trail?
26. Fax Machines Are Actually as Old as the Oregon Trail
In 1843, the Oregon Trail was finally completed by an enterprising wagon train of about 1000 migrants. After a difficult trek, they cleared a final segment to make the trail passable by wagon all the way from the Missouri River to Oregon. Through the 1860s, the Oregon Trail was used by about 400,000 settlers, who loaded their hopes upon wagons and trekked west in pursuit of their dreams. The trail finally went into decline when the first transcontinental railway was completed in 1869, as trains made for a faster, cheaper, and safer journey. In 1843, when the trail was finally completed, a Scottish inventor named Alexander Bains secured a British patent for an “Electric Printing Telegraph”.
The invention relied on a clock to sync the movement of two pendulums to scan a message line by line. Using a metal pin arrangement in a cylinder, Bain devised a system of on-off electric pulses to scan the pins, send a message across wires, and reproduce it at a receiving station. It was the forerunner of the modern fax machine and led to the first commercially practical telefax service between Paris and Lyon in 1861 – 11 years before the telephone’s invention. So although it seems absurd at first blush, the fax machine is in fact as old as the Oregon Trail.
25. Fact or Fiction: Did Catherine the Great Die While Engaged in a Bestial Act With a Horse?
Fiction. One of the most salacious – and persistent – stories surrounding royal deaths concerns Catherine the Great (1729 – 1796). To wit, that she was so licentious, promiscuous, and sexually insatiable, that she used horses to satisfy her lusts, and died in the midst of an act of bestiality with a well-hung equine. The story has persisted and been repeated for centuries, despite the fact that it is blatant sexist calumny with no basis in reality and zero historic evidentiary support.
Tsarina of Russia from 1762 until her death, Catherine was a German-born princess who ascended the throne after she had her husband, Tsar Peter III, assassinated. She continued the westernization work begun by Tsar Peter the Great, and by the end of her reign, Russia had fully joined the mainstream of European political and cultural life. Her regal reign was not to be matched by a regal and dignified death, however. Catherine did shuffle off the mortal coil in an embarrassing manner, but there was no horse involved.
24. When Catherine the Great Discovered That Her Husband Was About to Get Rid of Her, She Beat Him to the Punch and Got Rid of Him First
Catherine the Great was born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst into minor German nobility. When she was fourteen years old, she was wed to Grand Duke Peter, grandson and heir to the throne of Russia’s Tsar Peter the Great. To say that it turned out to be an unhappy marriage would be to understate things. In fact, it was a complete disaster of a marriage, as Peter was extremely neurotic, mentally unstable, and probably impotent. The following eighteen years were full of humiliations and disappointment.
In response, Catherine took a series of lovers, and strongly hinted that none of the children born during her marriage were Peter’s. When her husband became Tsar in 1761, he quickly alienated his court and nobles by making little effort to hide his contempt for Russia, and his preference for his native Germany. When Peter started making moves to rid himself of Catherine, she beat him to the punch, and joined a conspiracy that staged a military coup in 1762. Peter was seized, forced to abdicate, then murdered eight days later. Catherine has then crowned Tsarina, and ruled Russia for the next 34 years.
23. Catherine the Great’s Death Involved No Horses, But It Was Embarrassing Just the Same
Russia expanded rapidly during Catherine the Great’s reign. To the west, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned with Austria and Prussia, with Russia getting the lion’s share. To the south, Crimea was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. The territories of Novorossiya – the Russian-speaking parts of modern Ukraine – were colonized. Colonization also stretched as far east to Alaska. Domestically, Catherine reformed Russia’s laws and administration and brought them closer to contemporary European standards. Then, after a long and successful reign, her death came an embarrassing demise in 1796.
Rumors circulated that Catherine died from injuries sustained while getting it on with a horse. The truth was less scandalous, but embarrassing all the same. The Tsarina was constipated, and during a heroic effort to force relief on the toilet, she overstrained herself and suffered a fatal stroke. When her loud gruntings ceased, maids waiting outside assumed that her majesty had finally found relief. They started getting nervous, however, as the minutes dragged on without Catherine emerging or summoning them. Eventually, they delicately inquired if all was well. Hearing no answer, they took a peek and found the Tsarina dead on the toilet.
22. Fact or Fiction: Was North America Once Inhabited by Giants?
Fiction. There is no evidence to support that theory. The internet is unbeaten when it comes to purveying and popularizing bizarre ideas and beliefs, and presenting them as fact. A recent meme cropping up with growing frequency in the internet’s dumber corners – the same ones that believe the Earth is flat – has it that there was a time when giants roamed North America. In support, advocates of that notion often post old-timey nineteenth-century photographs of a fossilized giant being dug up from the ground. Is there any credible evidence to support that?
Of course not. However, although America was never inhabited by giants, the photos upon which the meme is based are authentic – and there is an authentically fascinating story behind them. It began on October 16, 1869, when workers digging a well behind the barn of William C. Newell, in Cardiff, New York, struck stone about three feet down. Clearing the soil around the obstruction revealed a huge foot. With mounting excitement, the workers continued digging and were astonished when they finally unearthed the petrified remains of a 10-foot-tall man.
21. A Nineteenth-Century Troll Birthed a Hoax That Endures to This Day
As news of the Cardiff discovery spread, hundreds of archaeologists and scientists, and thousands of the curious, flocked to Newell’s farm. He took full advantage of the rush and charged visitors 50 cents for a look. Newell made no claims about the giant’s authenticity but invited visitors to draw their own conclusions. While the find seemed to be a crude statue to many observant people, many more saw it as proof of the Bible’s assertions that giants had once walked the earth. Between the two, the skeptics were right. As matter of fact, what came to be known as “The Cardiff Giant” was a statue, commissioned by an atheist troll named George Hull to prank the faithful.
Hull got the idea after a heated debate at a revival meeting about Genesis 6:4, which some faithful claimed was proof that giants once inhabited the Earth. So he bought a ten-foot block of Gypsum in Iowa and shipped it to Chicago. There, he commissioned a stonecutter to shape it into the likeness of a man and swore him to secrecy. Chemicals were applied to give the carving an aged look, and needles were used to puncture and pit its surface, making it look more weathered. Hull then shipped it to the farm of his cousin, William Newell, who buried it behind his barn in 1868. A year later, Newell hired workers to dig a well behind the barn, where they came across the buried hoax.
Smart people didn’t fall for George Hull’s hoax. Archaeologists, scientists, and other scholars who saw the Cardiff Giant immediately declared it a fraud. However, as crowds of the curious and faithful kept coming in ever greater numbers, many theologians and preachers stepped forth and passionately defended its authenticity. Hull, who had spent the equivalent of about $70,000 in 2021 dollars, sold his share in the Cardiff Giant to a syndicate for about $700,000 in today’s money. The Giant was then moved to Syracuse, where it drew even bigger crowds.
Eventually, huckster PT Barnum offered the equivalent of a million dollars for the find. When the owners refused to sell, Barnum commissioned his own plaster copy and exhibited it in New York City. He declared that it was the authentic Cardiff Giant, and that the one in Syracuse was a fake. That brazenness worked, giving rise to the phrase that “there’s a sucker born every minute“. Lawsuits about authenticity followed, and in the subsequent litigation, Hull finally confessed to the hoax. The court declared both Giants fakes and ruled that Barnum could not be sued for calling a fake giant a fake.
19. Fact or Fiction: Did People in Christopher Columbus’ Day Think That the Earth Was Flat?
Fiction. An oft-repeated narrative surrounding Christopher Columbus’ historic 1492 voyage is that he faced considerable resistance from those who thought that his ships would fall off the edge of a flat Earth. There is no basis, in fact, for that story. While Columbus faced many detractors who thought his planned voyage was folly, their doubts were not based on the belief that the Earth was flat. The notion that the Earth was a sphere was known for about two thousand years before Columbus. In his day, educated people knew that planet was round.
What the skeptics criticized was not Columbus’ belief that the Earth was round, but Columbus’ math. When Columbus sailed westward from Spain in 1492, he was convinced that he was less than 3000 miles away from Japan. A little more sailing beyond that, and he would reach the Indies, with their rich spice trade. In fact, Japan is about 12,000 miles away from Spain, not 3000. The reason Columbus thought it was closer was because he made a mistake in calculating Earth’s size, and concluded it was smaller than it actually is. It was one of history’s most momentous mistakes.
18. Fact or Fiction: Christopher Columbus’ Critics Doubted His Math, Not His Belief That the Earth Was Round
Fact. If you read closely in the last portion, the answer is there. Ancient Greeks knew the Earth was a globe two millennia before Christopher Columbus’ day, and educated people and sailors of his era had no illusions about the planet being flat. The issue for Columbus was not the shape of the earth, but the size of the ocean he planned on crossing. In addition to screwing up the calculations, he was unaware that an unknown continental landmass lay between Spain and Asia. Ultimately, Columbus reached the Caribbean, whose islands he believed were the western outskirts of Asia, and so named them the West Indies.
In subsequent voyages, he explored the Caribbean and South America’s northern coasts. When not exploring, he was governor and viceroy of the Caribbean. In that capacity, he brutalized, enslaved, and decimated the natives, whom he incorrectly labeled Indians. To his dying day, Columbus insisted that he had reached Asia. Ironically, the New World discovery ended up being named after another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. Amerigo mapped South America’s eastern shore down to Brazil, and demonstrated conclusively that what Columbus had reached was not Asia, but a hitherto unknown world. A German mapmaker labeled the New World “America” after Amerigo. His maps were quite popular during 1500, so the name America stuck and spread.
17. Fact or Fiction: Did Christopher Columbus Really Save Himself From Natives by Predicting an Eclipse?
Possibly fact. One of the more remarkable stories about Christopher Columbus revolves around his manipulating natives by predicting an eclipse. The gist is that he was marooned on an island, and got into trouble with the locals. To intimidate them, he took advantage of a fortuitously timed eclipse predicted in an almanac, and pretended that he possessed supernatural powers that enabled him to remove the Moon and Sun from the sky. It is a plot straight out of an old-timey Hollywood movie or a cheesy adventure novel, but is it fact or fiction?
As it turns out, there actually exists some historic support for the story. Indeed, it was probably this particular episode from Columbus’ life that gave rise to centuries’ worth of stories about Europeans, in faraway places, overawing natives by predicting eclipses. It began On June 30, 1503, when Columbus was forced to beach a damaged fleet in Jamaica. The planet being flat were friendly at first and furnished the castaways with food and shelter. However, that state of affairs did not last for long.
As the days turned to months, Christopher Columbus and his men began to wear out their welcome with the Arawaks. Despite the fact that they relied upon the natives for their sustenance, Columbus’ sailors often got grabby with the local women and molested them. They also took to abusing the men and treating them with contempt. So the natives grew less friendly. Finally, after six months of rising tensions and tempers, Columbus’ crews mutinied and attacked their hosts, robbing and murdering some of them.
Understandably, that did not improve the Arawaks’ opinion of the new arrivals. So they stopped bringing food to Columbus and his men. Faced with starvation and the possibility that the enraged Arawak might fall upon the marooned men to massacre them, a desperate Columbus got an idea. It hit him while he was killing time leafing through an almanac that contained astronomical charts covering solar and lunar eclipses from 1475 to 1506. At some point, he noticed that a total lunar eclipse was due shortly, on the night of February 29th, 1504.
15. Historic Support for Christopher Columbus’ Eclipse Story Being Fact Rather than Fiction
Armed with foreknowledge of an upcoming lunar eclipse, Christopher Columbus arranged a meeting with the Arawaks’ chieftain, and told him that the Christian God was angry with the natives for not feeding the new arrivals. He informed the Arawaks that his furious God would demonstrate His wrath three nights hence by turning the moon blood red – “inflamed with wrath“, as Columbus put it. He would then blot it out as a harbinger of the calamities He was about to unleash upon the natives.
The Arawaks did not believe him and laughed off the dire warnings. They stopped laughing when what they had dismissed as fiction turned into fact. On the night of February 29, 1504, just as Columbus’ had told them, the moon turned red and started disappearing. According to Columbus’ son, the terrified Arawak: “with great howling and lamentation came running from every direction to the ships laden with provisions and beseeching the admiral to intercede with his god on their behalf“. They promised to cooperate if Columbus restored the moon back the way it was.
14. On at Least One Occasion, the Trope About Somebody Manipulating Natives by Predicting an Eclipse Rested on Fact
Christopher Columbus told the locals that he would have to check with his God and see if He was in a forgiving mood. He retired to his cabin and timed things with an hourglass. At the eclipse’s peak, he emerged to announce that he had interceded with God, who had agreed – just this once – to forgive the Arawaks. The moon began reappearing just as Columbus finished talking. From then on, the Arawak leaned over backward to be helpful and kept Columbus and his crew supplied and well-fed. The castaways spent a leisurely time for the remainder of their stay in Jamaica until rescue ships took them off the island months later.
Columbus’ experience with the Arawaks gave rise to numerous fictional variations in the centuries since. Mark Twain, for example, had his protagonist in A Connecticut Yankee in King’s Arthur’s Court predict a solar eclipse to save himself from getting burned at the stake. H. Rider Haggard used it in King Solomon’s Mines to have his hero secure help from natives by predicting a lunar eclipse. However, for all its overuse in fiction and film, the trope has a basis in fact, based on an event actually did happen at least once in real life.
13. Fact or Fiction: Is Betty White the Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread?
Fiction. Betty White is an entertainment dynamo who has been performing for over 70 years. A television pioneer, White’s accomplishments include being the first woman to produce a sitcom. She is perhaps best known for her Emmy-winning roles as Sue Ann Nivens in the popular and groundbreaking sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and as Rose Nylund in the even more popular and groundbreaking sitcom, The Golden Girls. As of 2021, her career has lasted over 80 years, during which she won a Grammy, eight Emmy Awards in various categories, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, and three American Comedy Awards. She is in the Television Hall of Fame and has her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Today, Betty White holds the record for the longest television career of any female entertainer, and few if any celebrities are more beloved in America than the last surviving Golden Girl. Something about her upbeat and cheerful grandmotherly presence just puts smiles on faces, and that has made her into America’s sweetheart – one who polls frequently rank as the country’s most popular and trusted celebrity. Everybody, it seems, loves Betty White, and she is sometimes referred to as “the best thing since sliced bread“. However, is that claim based on fact? Is America’s sweetheart really the best thing since sliced bread?
The phrase “the greatest thing since sliced bread” dates to 1928. That year, loaves of bread that had been sliced with a machine, then packaged for convenience, made their first appearance in the United States. It began when Otto Frederick Rohwedder (1880 – 1960), an inventor and engineer, created the first automatic bread slicing machine for commercial use. He sold his first machine to the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, which became the first bakery to sell pre-sliced bread loaves.
The new-fangled sliced bread was advertised as “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped“. It was a bold assertion that contrasted greatly with the experience of actual consumers. Among other things, in the days before preservatives, sliced bread went stale faster than its intact counterpart. It had an aesthetic problem as well: customers simply thought the sliced loaves looked sloppy. A stopgap solution was to use pins to hold the sliced loaves together, and make them appear intact inside the packaging.
11. Unfortunately, Betty White is Not The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread. She’s Still Pretty Awesome, Though
Gradual improvements to the bread-slicing machine-made loaves appear less sloppy, and sliced bread eventually gained in popularity until it became an American staple. By then, the over-the-top advertising puffery of Frederick Rohwedder’s invention had caught on with the public. It made the introduction of sliced bread a marker and frame of reference in the popular lexicon for subsequent claims of greatness. So, with that being said, could Betty White possibly be the greatest thing since sliced bread?
Well, America’s sweetheart and the most beloved grandmotherly icon was born on January 17, 1922. That was about six and a half years before the Chillicothe Baking Company sold its first loaf of sliced bread, on July 7th, 1928. Since her birth predates sliced bread, it follows that Betty White could not be the best thing since sliced bread. Thus, as a matter of straightforward historic fact, the answer must be in the negative: Betty White is not the best thing since sliced bread. However, sliced bread can make the argument that it is the best thing since Betty White.
10. Fact or Fiction: Did Constantine the Great Really Give the Western Roman Empire to the Pope?
Fiction, but had a huge impact. The so-called “Donation of Constantine” is one of history’s more remarkable myths. It endured for centuries in the Middle Ages and crops up every now and then today. It basically claims that Emperor Constantine the Great, founder of the Eastern Roman, or the Byzantine Empire, gifted the Western Roman Empire to the Pope in Rome. Notwithstanding its longevity, the story has no basis in fact. Instead, the whole thing was a great hoax, that nonetheless had a huge historic impact.
It was based on a document that recorded a generous gift from Constantine the Great, whereby he transferred authority over Rome and the entire Western Roman Empire to Pope Sylvester I (reigned 314 – 315) and his successors. The donation of such vast territories to the Holy Father elevated him and his successors from mere priests and religious leaders. With such vast territorial claims to assert, the popes in Rome became independent princes and sovereign rulers of territory in their own right.
9. Fact vs Fiction Regarding the Donation of Constantine
The text of the Donation of Constantine describes how Pope Sylvester I miraculously cured Constantine the Great from leprosy, which convinced him to convert to Christianity. To demonstrate his gratitude, Constantine made the pope supreme over all other bishops, and “over all the churches of God in the whole earth“. Vast estates throughout the Roman Empire were also granted for the upkeep and maintenance of the churches of Saint Paul and Saint Peter. To top it off, the Holy Father and his successors were granted imperial regalia, a crown, the city of Rome, and all of the Western Roman Empire.
In reality, the Donation of Constantine was an eighth-century forgery, and a crude one at that. It was whipped up by some unknown monks, hundreds of years after both the supposed donor and recipient, Emperor Constantine and Pope Sylvester I, were dead and buried. The forgery had little impact at the time. However, centuries later, during a period of great and persistent political upheavals that wracked Medieval Europe, the Donation played a huge role in shaping Christendom and the West.
8. It Was Not Until the Renaissance That People Finally Got Around to Pointing Out the Fact That the Donation of Constantine Was a Crude Forgery
After the document detailing the Donation of Constantine was forged, it was stashed away and forgotten for hundreds of years. Then, in the mid-eleventh century, Pope Leo IX dusted it off, and cited it as evidence to assert his authority over secular rulers. Surprisingly, the Donation was widely accepted as authentic, and few questioned the document’s legitimacy. For centuries thereafter, the Donation carried significant weight whenever a Pope pulled it out to figuratively wave in the face of secular rulers. It was not until the Renaissance and the spread of secular humanism that people got around to pointing out the fact that the Donation was a crude forgery.
With the revival of Classical scholarship and textual criticism, scholars took a fresh look at the document. It quickly became clear that the text could not possibly have dated to the days of Constantine the Great and Pope Sylvester I. One hint was the use of language and terms that did not exist back then, but only came into use hundreds of years later. Additionally, the document contained dating errors that a person writing at the time could not possibly have made. The popes did not officially renounce the document, but from the mid-fifteenth century onwards, they stopped referencing it in their Bulls and pronouncements.
7. Fact or Fiction: Did John Wayne Serve in the Military During World War II?
Fiction. Few, if any, Hollywood figures have ever developed a bigger reputation for being super-patriots than did John Wayne (1907 – 1979). Wayne made a killing off his public image of rugged toughness and on-screen portrayals of virile and gung ho tough guys. “Duke”, as he was known to millions of admirers, cornered the market for a while on depictions of the quintessential American fighting man. Such roles got him two Oscar nominations for Best Actor, including one for playing a tough Marine sergeant in The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).
Many John Wayne fans, confused the silver screen image with the actual man, assumed that the famous actor was a World War II veteran. It is an assumption without a basis in fact. Indeed, just a few years before playing the role of a grizzled Marine, Duke had been booed off stage by actual Marines, who reacted negatively to his fake machismo. They also resented the fact that he had gone out of his way to duck the draft and avoid military service. Wayne spent the rest of his life berating himself – and overcompensating – for having avoided the fight during WWII.
Early in the Great Depression, an aspiring actor named Marion Robert Morrison caught the eye of Hollywood director Raoul Walsh. Walsh saw something in Morrison, and decided to cast him in his first lead role in 1930’s The Big Trail. Unfortunately, the movie did not do well. As a matter of fact, it flopped badly and sent its lead actor back into Hollywood purgatory. However, one good thing came out of it: the lead actor, on the recommendation of Walsh and the studio, had changed his name to John Wayne.
During the following years, John Wayne toiled in obscurity, with roles in dozens of forgettable Westerns for so-called Poverty Row Studios. However, his fortunes improved in 1938, when Oscar-winning director John Ford saved him from a dead-end career by offering him the lead role in Stagecoach. The movie was a hit. It kicked off a productive relationship that lasted for 23 pictures, during which the iconic director crafted John Wayne’s public image, and transformed him into a Hollywood legend.
As Stagecoach was being filmed, Ford seemed to dislike everything about Wayne. At one point, the director grabbed his lead actor by the chin and berated him: “Why are you moving your mouth so much? Don’t you know that you don’t act with your mouth in pictures?” He even hated the way Wayne moved, which Ford thought was effeminate. So effeminate that he once exploded at him: “Can’t you walk, instead of skipping like a goddam fairy?” That really hurt Wayne. It stung him so bad, as a matter of fact, that he changed the way he walked for the rest of his life.
4. While Everybody Seemed to Rush to Serve During WWII, John Wayne Rushed to Avoid Serving
Stagecoach’s success secured John Wayne a place in Hollywood. By 1941, while not yet among top drawer elites such as Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart, Wayne had established himself as a reliable star. Then late that year, came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. John Wayne’s conduct during the ensuing conflict forever after shaped his self-image and self-perception of his manhood. His reaction to and regrets about what he did – or more accurately did not do – during the war, shaped the public image he strove to project for the rest of his life.
America’s entry into WWII triggered the greatest collective outpouring of patriotism in the country’s history. It seemed that just about everybody and their grandmother wanted to chip in, do their part, and sacrifice what they could for the common cause of victory. As the United States armed and geared up to beat plowshares into swords, women rushed to the factories, and men of fighting age rushed into the service. John Wayne, by contrast, rushed to do everything he could to avoid serving in the military.
3. The Fact of the Matter is that John Wayne Pulled Strings to Avoid Serving During WWII
When America was thrust into the Second World War, John Wayne was in his early 30s – not exactly a youngster, but still a man in prime fighting age. Many famous public figures rushed to enlist, including athletes, movie directors, and Hollywood superstars. Some were significantly older than Wayne, such as Clark Gable, who was in his 40s when he enlisted. Another was Jimmy Stewart, who had to pull strings and get waivers in order to join the military (he was underweight).
Unlike Jimmy Stewart or Clark Gable, John Wayne pulled strings and got waivers to stay out of the military. Both Gable and Clark subsequently risked their lives on bombing missions over Germany. Wayne limited his contribution to USO tours, entertaining troops overseas. As a matter of fact, even that limited contribution to the war effort was done with the ulterior motive of avoiding military service. As Wayne once put it during the war: “I better go do some touring – I feel the draft breathing down my neck“.
2. US Marines Derided John Wayne’s Fake Machismo and Booed Him Off the Stage During WWII
After WWII, many bought into John Wayne’s carefully crafted image of manly toughness. However, America’s actual tough guys, the country’s fighting men, did not buy that image. As one wounded Marine veteran described a wartime incident: “after my evacuation from Okinawa, I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Wayne humiliated in person at Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in Hawaii … Each evening, Navy corpsmen would carry litters down the hospital theater so the men could watch a movie. One night they had a surprise for us.
Before the film, the curtains parted, and out stepped John Wayne, wearing a cowboy outfit – 10-gallon hat, bandana, checkered shirt, two pistols, chaps, boots and spurs. He grinned his aw-shucks grin, passed a hand over his face and said âHi, ya guys!’ He was greeted by stony silence. Then somebody booed. Suddenly everyone was booing. This man was a symbol of the fake machismo we had come to hate, and we weren’t going to listen to him. He tried and tried to make himself heard, but we drowned him out, and eventually he quit and left“.
1. John Wayne Became a Superpatriot to Atone For Having Ducked Service During WWII
John Wayne never got over the humiliation of having been mocked and booed off the stage by US Marines during WWII. As a matter of fact, he ended up developing a serious guilt complex for having not only refused to sign up to fight during the war but for having actively gone out of his way to avoid fighting. It was key to the public image he sought to project thereafter. It also played no small part in his starring in numerous testosterone-drenched war movies throughout the rest of his career.
The psychological storms raging within must have been something, as Wayne played manly heroic characters on screen, whom he wished he had been like in real life. Four years after WWII, Wayne played a grizzled combat Marine sergeant in The Sands of Iwo Jima. He nailed it and got a best actor Oscar nomination for the effort. As Wayne’s third wife put it: “He would become a âsuperpatriot’ for the rest of his life, trying to atone for staying at home“. Despite having avoided service during WWII when he was of age to do so, Wayne enthusiastically encouraged others – especially during the Vietnam War – to serve in the military.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading