By the time she made the journey to Richardson, Texas, she had seen better days – though not nearly as many as one might expect for a woman in her late forties and with her best years already in the rearview. She travelled by car – her son Jack’s ’56 station wagon, to be exact – though she could do none of the driving herself. That was nothing new: she never had much say about where she went or what happened to her, as it turned out. As she sped down the highways from northern Illinois towards Texas in the back seat, her mind journeyed to those weeks just over a quarter century earlier when she had also dreamt of fleeing. In those days flight promised a hopeful life with her new husband and their forthcoming offspring in the potentially exotic unknown of Virginia. Having never gone anywhere – her family’s fortunes having, by that point, grown exceptionally meager – any elsewhere enticed her with its potentiality, rendering humdrum Virginia in her mind as alluring as Istanbul or Moscow. Like so much else in her life, though, it was not to be; her parents, Vieva and Willie B., objected to her marriage and insisted, despite her new legal status, that she remain with them. And so Roscoe Booth, her short-term spouse, embarked on the journey southward alone, leaving Dorothy to her parents and the rearing of their son; his departure was permanent.

Though she did not know it then, those events established her life’s tone; abandonment and acquiescence would become her leitmotifs. Her second marriage in the late 30s afforded her a brief respite in a new locale – Oskaloosa, Iowa – and though it struck everyone else as bland, the move and all its promise energized her. She miscalculated that potential, however, when she married a suitor of advanced age more focused upon securing a nursemaid than a partner. Within a decade her happiness had once again evaporated when he permanently departed this life and she was forced to return home to her parents with Jack in tow. The years that followed were plodding, defeated ones leavened only occasionally by a trip to one of the local movie theaters. Monmouth boasted two residing side-by-side – The Rivoli and the Bijou – their foreign-sounding names contributing to their escapist allure. For Dorothy they served as both travel agencies and dating services, in a sense. Though she was not yet forty, she had succumbed to the acceptance that her hometown would never release her nor would she ever secure lasting love – except perhaps in the theatres. Like many Americans – especially then – she did her travelling and her dreaming with the help of the big screen.

In those days, John Wayne stole her heart; here was a man who took charge, protected women, and looked good doing it. Her imagination soared as she devoured A Lady Takes a Chance (1943), Tall in the Saddle (1944), and Dakota (1945), amongst others. Her passion only intensified when she discovered that the Duke possessed his own ties to Monmouth, especially since both their families enjoyed strong connections to Monmouth College and the surrounding areas. She even unearthed stories about his family owning a farm not far from where her sister Helen and family lived. She survived many a day by conjuring scenarios of a pilgrimage to Monmouth during which the cinematic giant would serendipitously make her acquaintance, by employing his trademark “Howdy, pilgrim” as an introduction and then whisking her away from all worldly cares into some version or other of the Old West where she could finally be happy. Instead of that rescue, though, she only got more trouble when in ’57 Jack ended up dead by gunshot – whether his own or someone else’s was not entirely clear – as a result of a disastrous love affair.

She never imagined she would be the one making moves that took her nearer the Duke, but so it happened. Her mother and younger brother – an attorney and future federal judge in Texas – had decided it was best for her finally to make a journey south, but only so she could flee the aftermath of Jack’s scandal. Thanks to The Alamo (1960), John Wayne was also sojourning in the friendship state and so shortly after Robert finally pulled the station wagon into his driveway at Scorpion Hill, Dorothy dashed off – well, agonized over, actually – the friendliest of invitations to the Duke, asking him over for a visit and establishing their mutual connections as “kissing kin” from Monmouth, Illinois. The newspaper coverage of his filmmaking was quite forthcoming in those days and so she knew right where to send her correspondence. She eagerly awaited his response, certain that he could undo the decades of horror and hardship that had befallen her. Perhaps he might even fall in love, in his gruff, manly way.

In those days before Google Maps and Mapquest, it was not quite so easy to discover that though they were indeed in the same state, seven hours separated them. Wayne ultimately fell back on that, as well as the demands of his work, to justify declining her invitation:

 

Letter by John Wayne to Dorothy Ryan

 

Though she cherished his response with its authentic signature, she ultimately found it impossible to accept that her hero – a man she thought equal to any challenge – could be so easily deterred by the prospect of covering a few extra miles to come to the aid of a lady so clearly in distress – especially since she had witnessed him doing as much countless times before. It was then and there, counter to countless Americans, that Dorothy surrendered, deciding it best to forget The Alamo.

 

Joshua Adair

Joshua Adair

Joshua Adair is an Associate Professor of English at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky, USA, where he also serves as the director of the Racer Writing Center and coordinator of Gender & Diversity Studies.

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