My best friend Cilla was born a John Wayne fan. Her father was a sign writer and working in the village of Cong, county Mayo when the movie, The Quiet Man, was being filmed there. The whole village, met the actor, and my friend’s father said he would never wash the hand that shook the hand of John Wayne, ever again. So how did all of this lead to me kissing Duke? I have my friend, Cilla, to thank for that, as I would never have gone to the Gresham Hotel in Dublin on the night he was staying there and kissed John Wayne if it was not for her.
Cilla’s father eventually washed his hand. It was some time later, when I was about ten years old that I first met her family. I distinctly recall her father’s hand being clear of any paint at the time. The meeting with John Wayne was a frequently told story in their home and I hate to admit this but I was never a big fan of the actor. I had posters on my bedroom wall of David Bowie and Phil Lynott, Duke would have looked a bit out of place between those two.
On the evening that John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara were to have dinner at the Gresham Hotel on O’Connell Street, Dublin, there was a bus strike. We lived fifteen miles from the city and Cilla had planned on travelling to the hotel in the hopes of getting a glimpse of her idol. With no public transport available, I could not let her hitch a lift on her own, we were only fourteen at the time, so I agreed to go with her. We told our mothers we were in each other’s houses.
We actually got into the lobby of the Gresham, one of the poshest, most expensive hotels in the country at the time. Of course, we were near the top of the queue as we had arrived early, and only the first thirty or so people were admitted. As I looked around at the gathered fans, I felt like we had been sucked into a Friday night’s Bingo session. Everyone was poised with pens and note books or photos of the great star. The average age of the crowd must have been sixty. I glanced at my friend and saw her eyes shining as she glued them to the double doors separating her from the one person she had wanted to meet all of her life.
I was starving, but even a cup of tea in such a swanky hotel would have cost me a week’s pocket money. Cilla could not have eaten, even if the food was free, she was so worked up. As we waited she filled me in on all the John Wayne movies she had seen, every last one of them. She kept a scrapbook on him and even knew what his favourite breakfast was. When we made our Confirmation (a Catholic Ceremony at the age of twelve) I had chosen to go see Gone with the Wind – my mother brought me as she had seen it first time round and loved it. Cilla, of course, went to see True Grit with her father, I think.
When one of the ornately carved, wooden doors to the dining room opened, the crowd surged forward. The porter bravely stood between a bright red coat that had emerged and the excited fans. All we could see was a large brimmed hat hiding the face of whoever was inside the coat. The legs that belonged to the coat looked very shapely and we all quickly realized they did not belong to John Wayne. Much to the porter’s relief, the crowd moved back and Maureen O’Hara swept her eyes around the lobby. She put a hand on her hat for fear of losing it and ran towards the exit behind a man that nobody knew, shouting, “Fans, fans, run.” An elderly couple ran after her as she disappeared through the main door. The bell boy was holding it open and as soon as the four of them were outside, he locked it again.
I was beginning to think that Duke had done a runner, when the dining room door once again opened. This time, a small dark haired woman, who could have passed for a young man, came out to greet us. Explaining that the great man himself would be with us soon, she began to hand out his photocopied autograph to each one of us. Cilla informed me that the lady was John Wayne’s secretary.
When he finally came out from behind those doors, you could have heard a pin drop. I pushed my friend forward but she was rooted to the spot. Her idol, head and shoulders above everyone, made his way through the crowd towards us and still she said nothing. It must have been the look of adoration on her face that drew him. He was standing right in front of us, smiling, and I knew it was up to me to say something. I told him that my star struck friend, gaping up at him, was his biggest fan in Ireland and meeting him was a dream come through for her. He smiled and thanked her for being such an ardent fan, then bent down so we could both kiss him on the cheek. That made my night, I had actually kissed John Wayne. His cologne wafted around our heads and I had to hold Cilla up.
Everyone was chatting and asking him questions and laughed when he said he hoped there were no Democrats in the room. I did not get the joke, of course. Rising above the hum of adult chatter came the sound of a young boy’s voice, in a strong Dublin city accent.
“Howaya, Mister Wayann,” he shouted and the crowd parted to reveal two little skin-head boys, about eight and ten years old, smiling up at the big man. The porter jumped forward and grabbed both of them by the neck of their jumpers, proceeding to drag them towards the door. John Wayne made his way through the crowd, telling the man to put “Those two young men down,” that they had as much right to be there as, “All these other good folk.”
It was at that moment that I became a fan, too. Kneeling down on one knee, John Wayne spoke to those two children eye to eye, asking them their names and how old they were. He thanked them and the rest of us for being there, apologizing for keeping us waiting for so long. He blamed Maureen O’Hara, saying she had insisted on a second helping of dessert. Just before he disappeared behind the dining room doors once more, John Wayne waved and smiled and wished us all a safe journey home.
We had both forgotten about the bus strike and it was past 10pm. We managed to get home safely, accepting a lift from a woman who was kind enough to go out of her way for us. I don’t think she believed us when we told her who we had just met, but she smiled anyway.
Unlike my friend’s father, who didn’t wash his hand for a week after his famous handshake, I cleansed my face, reluctantly, the night I kissed John Wayne.
By Jean Reinhardt 2013