Maureen O’Hara Makes a Sentimental Journey to John Wayne’s Birthplace
By June Parker Beck, Editor, Maureen O'Hara Magazine
May 23, 2013
Few people may know that of all the movies Maureen O’Hara made in her film career one of her favorites is a tearjerker from 1946 called Sentimental Journey. On May 23, at the age of 92, Maureen boarded a plane to make a real-life sentimental journey to the John Wayne Birthplace Museum in the rural community of Winterset, Iowa. It was her first visit to the landmark and she was invited as the honored guest for their annual John Wayne Birthday celebration fundraiser.
When Maureen accepted the invitation earlier this year, promotion for the event began with little fanfare. But as word spread that Maureen and her family would attend the event, ticket sales skyrocketed and literally quadrupled from previous years. Maureen’s longstanding presence on the Internet and her many followers on social networks have created a resurgence of interest and made her a classic film superstar of sorts, rekindling her popularity with older fans while introducing her to scores of new ones across generations. Maureen was making this trip to honor her dear friend John Wayne and all that he stood for. It was an opportunity for her to again demonstrate her loyalty – not just as a life-long friend, but for a cause that would perpetuate his life, career, and values in the form of the John Wayne Birthplace Museum.
Even now you can envision John Wayne in a shadow of memories, standing beside her as the perfect on-screen love. Alone they were famous – together they were dynamite! “He’s the softest, kindest warmest, most loyal human being I’ve ever known.” Maureen remains constant in describing her beloved friend. Hollywood has never been able to replicate the explosive chemistry these two larger than life figures brought to the screen.
Maureen’s late brother, Charles FitzSimons had his own analysis of the couple’s lusty appeal: “Their chemistry was unique for two reasons…Wayne was a big man, he was physically powerful and he had no qualms about his abilities as a man or his masculinity, and it came across. He was a believable male! Maureen was the female version of that. She didn’t have to put on coquettish airs or she didn’t have to try to be a sex pot. The same thing came through from her naturally and when these two [interacted] you had a fantastic situation, and that’s why they were such an incredible team! Wayne was often questioned about his association with the fiery Miss O’Hara, and he used his favorite answer, ‘O’Hara? The greatest guy I ever knew.’”
By the time Maureen O’Hara and Duke [John] Wayne got around to making their first picture together, Rio Grande in 1951, they were both established film stars. A rugged hero standing six-foot-four, Wayne was a very imposing figure and definitely needed a woman who could challenge him on the screen. Maureen O’Hara was that woman. Her five-foot-eight-inch womanly stature was enhanced by her huge hazel eyes and broad dazzling smile. Add a healthy crop of flaming red hair and a feisty spirit to match and you have a woman to be reckoned with. Into the arms of “The Duke,” Maureen followed such formidable actresses as the sultry Marlena Dietrich, Paulette Goddard, Claire Trevor, Frances Dee, Ella Raines, Lauren Bacall and Gail Russell. The list is endless, but Maureen became the “undisputed perfect foil” for John Wayne. The chemistry that flowed between the gorgeous Irish redhead and the cowboy seemed to be unparalleled in either of their careers.
Now, in 2013 Maureen landed in Winterset with her grandson Conor FitzSimons, his wife Elga, their children Everest and Baylee, and Charles FitzSimons, her nephew. She received a royal welcome and red-carpet treatment for the next three days. The little town was buzzing with activities.
There was a ground breaking ceremony with Maureen turning the first shovel, a Saturday night western swing dance where Maureen posed for photos with fans, pancake breakfast, 5K run/walk, and tours of the museum. A special treat was the screening in a local theater of all five of the films Duke and Maureen made together, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, Wings of Eagles, McLintock and Big Jake.
For Maureen, this monumental visit concluded with a dinner attended by over 800 guests, with entertainment that featured singers, Irish dancers, and an auction of memorabilia. Maureen’s nephew, Charles FitzSimons Jr., delivered a prepared statement by Maureen reminding the audience of why so many people from all over the world come visit Duke’s birthplace year-round. She chose the words she once used before the United States Congress as she fought for John Wayne to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
“To the people of the world, John Wayne is not just an actor, and a very fine actor. John Wayne is the United States of America. He is what they believe it to be. He is what they hope it will be. And he is what they hope it will always be. It is every person’s dream that the United States will be like John Wayne and always be like him.
“I believe Duke lives by a phrase that I learned as a school girl in Ireland: ‘Breathes there a man with soul so dead who never to himself hath said, this is my own, my native land.’
“I beg you to strike the medal for Duke; to order the President to strike it. And I feel that the medal should say just one thing: John Wayne, American.”
In typical fashion, Maureen herself took the microphone and spoke from the heart about her dear friend for quite some time. She was interrupted repeatedly by applause and fond laughter. She ended her remarks by returning his favorite compliment of her, “John Wayne was a helluva guy.”
The crowd rose to their feet after she spoke with thunderous approval. It was the perfect ending to the perfect weekend for Maureen. Although this was mistakenly billed as a “final” appearance for Maureen before official retirement, she really feels it’s more of a “winding down” and easing back a bit. She still has some great plans for the future with the continued love and support of her family and fans. For this beautiful Irish lady, it’s not an end of an era . . . but a new beginning.
Photos from Winterset: