Land’s End: The Duke’s Big Fade

The slow retreat of Orange County’s adopted and imperfect celebrity

They’re burning daylight, as John Wayne would have put it, but the crowd at Newport Beach’s Balboa Bay Club lingers—beers for the tech guys, chardonnay for the blondes at the table overlooking the yachts. Blue sky, bluer water. Well-
preserved grandmas in St. John knits, epaulets flashing. Some things don’t change in these parts.

And some things do. At Duke’s Place, the iconic bar and lounge on the club’s public resort side, Wayne squints from framed glossy stills on the walls onto an empty house. A decade ago, those black-and-white photos celebrated the club’s most renowned member. Now, they just make you think: Oh, right. John Wayne used to live near here. Then they make you marvel at the tenacity of The Duke’s hold on this town. 

Nearly 35 years have passed since Wayne died (in a hospital in L.A., not Orange County). Only the last 15 years or so of his life were based here, and he was often gone, working and traveling. His popularity is two generations removed from the 1960s, when it was so culturally mighty. Young kids no longer mimic his swagger; older kids no longer bristle at that telling remark he made in Playboy in 1971. (“I believe in white supremacy, until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.”)

It’s hard to imagine that modern O.C. would put his name on an international airport, as we did in a provincial bid for national attention in 1979. Yet locals still can point to so many Wayne landmarks that you can build a scavenger hunt around them—his old boat, the Wild Goose, now a charter for tourists; the stretch of Bayshore Drive where his house stood until it was sold and resold and turned into an even bigger mansion; the great bronze at the airport; his grave at Corona del Mar’s Pacific View cemetery. 

It takes work to hang onto that many points of reference. Preservation’s not big here, and most of those landmarks have changed. Not everyone calls it “John Wayne Airport,” and some wonder why anyone would name a transportation hub for a celebrity rather than, you know, a destination. If anything, now that flights are booked online in the post-Wayne era, travelers are more familiar with its aviation code, SNA.

Wayne by now should be a celebrity footnote. Yet people here can still tell you where his third wife played tennis, and that his cancer foundation is still around. News articles keep insisting that his presence has faded in Newport, a drumbeat that resumed after the Balboa Bay Club recently announced plans to remodel and rename Duke’s Place. But what’s interesting isn’t that Orange County gradually is outgrowing its old hero. It’s that it has taken so long. 

Was he that charismatic? Maybe, but I think his staying power has had more to do with us than with him. Great shifts have occurred here since his heyday, and growth like ours can make even the privileged—maybe especially the privileged—cling to easy answers. O.C.’s privileged clung to their Duke, and we clung to them and their notions. And by the time we all felt secure enough to stop being starstruck, a new privileged class had arrived at the Balboa Bay Club. Well, pilgrim, that’s what happens when the world pours into your hero’s airport—an irony that might have made Wayne chuckle. But that’s how badly we resist change in these parts. And how much daylight we’re willing to burn.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue.

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