Did you and your grandfather spend a lot of time together?
I was the oldest grandchild—just a year younger than [John Wayne’s daughter] Aissa—so I spent a lot of time with him. Actually, I lived with him the first year of my life while my parents built their house just a half-mile away in Encino. He loved being with his family. He loved to take us out on the boat or to the beach. We got to visit him on movie sets, and he often showed movies in his living room. I was 22 when he died, so I was fortunate to get to know him as a child, as well as an adult.
It sounds like family was very important to him.
If he wasn’t working, he was with his family. He always made sure that every kid got their birthday present and their Christmas present—he loved Christmas—and that everybody came and visited.
When I played Fagin in my eighth-grade production of Oliver Twist, he was doing a movie with Warner Bros. at the time and I never thought that he would be able to come see me in the play. But one night somebody said ‘John Wayne is here!’ Afterward, I received a bouquet of flowers and a telegram that read: ‘I want to sign you to a contract. —Lou Wasserman.’ Well of course I knew it was from him, and every night for the rest of the play’s run he sent me a telegram pretending to be somebody else. ‘You were terrific. Forget Lou Wasserman. I want you. —Louie V.,’ things like that. He was so cute that way.
As a young child, were you aware of his fame?
He was always just Granddaddy to me. My best friend in grammar school, coincidentally, was Alfred Hitchcock’s granddaughter. I thought that was a big deal. He would come over every Sunday for dinner at their house, and I was like, ‘Wow! This guy’s really famous!’ Then when he found out that my grandfather was John Wayne, he was like, ‘Wow! Your grandfather is John Wayne?’ That’s when I knew that my grandfather was famous.
You played a role in The Alamo (1960), correct?
That was my first and last film. [Laughs.] I’m the baby in my mother’s arms as they’re leaving the Alamo.
What’s something that you learned from your grandfather?
Primarily the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated; no matter how much you have or don’t have, you’d better be nice to everyone you meet because you’re no better than the guy sitting next to you.
One thing I never understood is why stars are horrible to their fans—why they don’t take time to give an autograph or say hello. My grandfather always knew that his fans were responsible for him being where he was, and he appreciated them tremendously. He was always polite—there’s no reason not to be.
You also carry on his legacy in other ways, such as serving as the president of the John Wayne Cancer Institute Auxiliary. Can you tell us more about that?
Our primary goal is to raise funds for the John Wayne Cancer Institute and for educational outreach about cancer prevention and early detection.
Breast cancer survivors founded the Auxiliary more than 35 years ago; my mother [Mary Antonia “Toni” La Cava] included. She died of lung cancer in 2000, and most of our founding members have also passed on, but we’ve been getting a lot of new, younger members, which we’re thrilled about. And I say that as a 55-year-old woman who will forever be sitting at the kid’s table, if you know what I mean. [Laughs.]
What are some ways that the Auxiliary helps to support the Cancer Institute?
The Odyssey Ball, held in early April, is our biggest fundraising event. This year we have two special honorees; The Duke honoree is someone who has contributed hugely to the Institute, and this year we’re honoring our Chief of Medicine, Dr. Anton Bilchik. And we’re giving our True Grit Humanitarian Award to Nelson Mandela. The award goes to someone who symbolizes something that my grandfather would truly believe in.
Nelson Mandela ultimately died of prostate cancer and, in talking with his family, we learned that one of their cousins had recently died of breast cancer. I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who hasn’t had some brush with cancer. As [Mandela’s widow] Winnie Mandela said, for our two families to be joined in this way is so poignant, because not only do we have a connection through cancer, but we’re also joined as two families carrying on the legacy of two strong men who believed in the same values and also that we need to find a cure for cancer.
And you’re also planning a revamped John Wayne Film Festival this year?
Yes, we’re holding a John Wayne Film Festival in Dallas in April. We had a John Wayne Film Festival in Snyder, Texas, for several years and raised more than $40,000 dollars doing it grassroots, so we decided to up the ante. We’ve affiliated with the Dallas Film Festival and I think it’s really going to take off.
Why do you think John Wayne’s films still resonate so personally with people?
I travel a lot on behalf of Wayne Enterprises, and I go to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City a lot for events, so I get to meet a lot of John Wayne fans.
Often they preface their conversation with me by saying, ‘My favorite film is such-and-such. My dad and I used to watch that movie together all the time,’ or, ‘At the holidays, we all sit and watch John Wayne movies together.’ His films bring back a ton of memories for people, and it’s usually a special connection with a family member. I think that’s a great thing.
From everything that you’ve shared about your grandfather, it sounds like, if nothing else, knowing that he had the effect of bringing people together like that would be enough.
That’s exactly what he would want. And I must say, in every single movie, that’s him. That is John Wayne. That is Marion Morrison. That’s Duke. And there’s something about the guy that people identify with.
My kids went away to San Francisco for school, and the first phone call my son made to me was to say, ‘Mom, a guy in my dorm has a poster of Granddaddy on his wall. Why?’ And I’m like, ‘Son, I can’t even begin to explain it to you.’
This article is from American Cowboy’s John Wayne Collector’s Edition available HERE.