The Way It Was – John Wayne, 1956

The Duke visited Detroit to crown the winner of the Miss Wayne pageant
John Wayne
John Wayne photograph courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University (Wayne State University Archives Collection)

1956 Big and brawny, John Wayne faced scores of adversaries in his movie career — particularly in Westerns — and the towering actor showed his “true grit,” smothering most of them. But he appears to be rendered downright defenseless by these assailants: pistol-packing coed cowgirls, who have The Duke lassoed. Roped in and likely red-faced, the captive Wayne looks sheepish being subdued by his female foes, but it was all in good fun.

In May 1956, Wayne was visiting Detroit’s Wayne University (soon to become Wayne State University in July 1956) to crown the winner in the Miss Wayne pageant. The Duke also donated the crown and kicked in $1,000 to the student loan fund. The actor’s public relations people knew a good opportunity when they saw one. Not only did Wayne share a last name with the school (named after soldier/statesman “Mad Anthony” Wayne), but he was also able to promote his latest film, The Searchers, co-starring Natalie Wood, Jeffrey Hunter, and Vera Miles.

The film, directed by John Ford, did boffo box office in ’56 and was named the best American Western by the American Film Institute in 2008. Born with the decidedly unmacho name of Marion Robert Morrison in 1907, John Wayne nabbed an Oscar for the 1969 film True Grit, in which he played swaggering, eye-patch-wearing U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn. He died a decade later.

Wayne State, located in Midtown, was founded in 1868 as Detroit Medical College, before being accredited as Wayne University in 1934. In 1956, it became Wayne State University. Today, it’s among the 50 largest public universities in the country and the third largest in the state, behind the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.

This story is from the July 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition