The Morrison Family c. 1918, with the future "John Wayne" (and his Airedale, Duke), left. Photo: Pinterest
Last week we wrote about John Wayne’s real name—that is, the one on his birth certificate compared with the ones he claimed were his real names. But early on, Marion Robert (or Michael, or Mitchell) Morrison got a nickname that must have seemed like a godsend to an 11-year-old tagged with the weakling-sounding “Marion.” And that nickname was Duke.
John Wayne’s father, Clyde Morrison, had been a pharmacist in Winterset, Iowa, when John Wayne was born on May 26, 1907. But Clyde, at the urging of his own father, decided to take up farming on an arid patch of California high desert. In 1914, when young Marion was just seven years old, the family relocated to Palmdale, California, a bleak settlement some 65 miles north of Los Angeles. There Clyde hoped to raise corn, wheat, and black-eyed peas, but the poor soil and lack of water doomed his chances almost from the start. By the time his last crop failed in 1916, Clyde’s wife (Marion’s mother) Molly was fed up. So the family of four (including brother Robert, born in 1911) moved yet again, this time to Glendale, a growing suburb 10 miles north of Los Angeles, where the San Fernando Valley and the San Gabriel Valley come together.
From their home on South Isabel Street, Marion would walk to class at the nearby intermediate school. By 1918 he had adopted a pet dog, a large Airedale he had named Duke, who walked with him to school. Passing by the local firehouse, the firemen would call out to the 11-year-old Marion and his dog. Once they found out the dog’s name, they began calling the animal “Big Duke” and Marion “Little Duke.” Soon enough, when the future John Wayne was introduced to anyone, he’d say, “Just call me Duke.” And so Duke Morrison picked up where Marion Morrison left off.
The name, which seems to us at John Wayne Speaks to be a perfectly good name for an actor, was used in a screen credit only once, in the 1929 Words and Music. However, John Wayne’s movie characters, if not the actor himself, were named Duke in five films. He also rode a horse named Duke in six films.
Next week we’ll find out why Duke Morrison didn’t last as a stage name, and how “John Wayne” came to be.