John Wayne was seen as a bastion of conservative values, especially in the latter stages of his career. But when his career went stratospheric in the 1940 he was (behind closed doors) a well-known “hell-raiser” according to his daughter Aissa. His tempestuous 1946 marriage to second wife Esperanze ‘Chata’ Bar ended in a spectacularly tawdry court case that became so lurid that sides quickly decided to settle before any more scandalous and potentially career-damaging details were aired in public.
Wayne’s first marriage to Josephine Saenz had yielded four children but become increasingly loveless and, reported by Aissa in her book John Wayne: My Father, increasingly sexless.
The Westerns actor had a lifelong love of Latin women. He was instantly smitten when he was introduced to smoldering aspiring actress Esperanza in Mexico by fellow Hollywood leading man Ray Milland.
However, the raven-haired beauty was already hiding scandalous secrets according to Aissa: “In truth, Chata was a dark, voluptuous, high-priced call-girl. By the time my father discovered the facts of her life, he’d fallen in love.”
Wayne’s friends tried to persuade him against marriage and director John Ford even apparently barely spoke to his long-time collaborator for two years when he ignored his warnings. Ultimately, everybody was proved right.
Aissa said: “For the seven stormy years they stayed married, they separated numerous times. When the marriage finally shattered, the allegations made for a lurid trial. Too much angry suspicion, too much hard liquor, and not enough fidelity.”
Access to Wayne’s testimony from the divorce trial makes for eye-popping reading where descriptions of the star constantly finding his wife and her mother drunkenly passed out at home were minor details.
The most explosive section related to Chata’s conviction that her husband was having an affair with co-star Gail Russell on 1947’s Angel and the Badman, just one year into their marriage. Wayne came late one night from filming and was almost shot by his wife on their doorstep.
In court, Wayne said: “My wife refused to let me in. I could hear her and her mother talking about me loudly. I rang the bell but they wouldn’t open the door. Then I broke a glass panel, reached in, and opened it myself. Chata and her mother, they came charging out. Chata had a forty-five in her hand. She and her mother were fighting over it.”
Under oath, Wayne testified that Chat, again drunk, accused him of sleeping with Russell and then turned the gun on him and threatened to shoot.
Chata testified that she thought he was a burglar. Since both were under oath, one of them was lying in court.
Over the following days she accused her husband of infidelity and 22 acts of “physical cruelty” across the years. She repeatedly said that he had “clobbered” her and the phrase soon hit headlines. Wayne responded with 31 charges of his own and said he had only ever touched his wife to protect himself from her drunken attacks.
Both parties soon realised the bad publicity the trial was generating and settled for an “uncommon divorce’ where neither side conceded to any of the charges.
By the terms of the 1954 divorce, either party could remarry after 12 months. Wayne kept his sprawling Encino estate but agreed to pay off all of Chata’s debts, in addition to giving her $150,000 ($1.45million today) upfront and a further $60,000 ($583,000 today) a year for six years.
Esperanza Baur had become a very wealthy woman. However, her addictions followed her and shortly after those payments ended she was found dead in a hotel room in Mexico City. The cause of death was given as a heart attack, but the room was strewn was alcohol bottles.
Wayne had immediately tied the knot for the third and final time to a beautiful 21-year-old actress Pilar Pallete. They had three children – Aissa, John and Marisa. Although they remained married until his death in 1979, they had separated in 1973, when he started an affair with his secretary Pat Stacy.