Although they were never married, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara had their own version of a love affair, keeping up a strong friendship throughout their careers.
In “The Quiet Man,” their on-screen chemistry was so strong it made the film an instant classic. They were just as passionate friends off-screen though it never strayed into an affair as some claimed.
It all ended in 1978 when John Wayne, a heavy smoker, contracted lung cancer for the second time at age 71.
This time there was no way he would “lick the Big C” as he called it the first time.
Wayne appeared at the Oscars in 1978 looking shockingly thin. They put so much makeup on him he complained he “didn’t want to look like he was embalmed just yet.”
Nine days after his Oscar appearance he was rushed to UCLA hospital. All those years of heavy smoking had done what no outlaw could do, bring down John Wayne.
O’Hara, herself a serious cancer survivor, paid a farewell visit.
She was shocked by his skeletal appearance and broke into tears.
“Maureen why did you and I have such lousy luck,” asked Wayne referring to his and her illnesses, broken marriages, and the death of her husband Charles Blair in a mysterious plane crash.
The next day Wayne was in better spirits discussing the great times with her.
He retold the anecdote of how he and O’Hara, out on a bender, pulled off the highway somewhere in Los Angeles and knocked on a stranger’s door looking for a drink. The homeowner almost fainted when he saw Hollywood’s two brightest stars at his front door but invited them in for a nightcap anyway.
Wayne was depressed about the fact that he would turn 72 soon. ”So what?” O’Hara said. “Mileage never hurt a Rolls Royce.”
O’Hara stayed three days, every day “putting on a cheerful Irish act,” according to Stacy.
At no time did she let on she was seriously worried. When it was time to go, O’Hara put on her coat and turned to say goodbye.
“That’s a gorgeous coat, it looks beautiful on you,” were the last words she heard from the Duke.
After he died, O’Hara blamed his heavy cigarette habit for his death: “That’s what did him in if we knew then why we know now about cancer maybe we’d have done something about it.”
Thus ended one of the great screen partnerships in movie history.
* Originally published in March 2019, updated in August 2022.