The Time John Wayne Accepted a Challenge from Harvard Students to Visit the ‘Most Hostile’ College

by Suzanne Halliburton
Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images)

John Wayne, with all his cowboy swagger, was an outspoken conservative back in his day. He didn’t like some of the movies Hollywood made, thinking that communists had taken over. And he didn’t mind saying so.

He even called “High Noon,” an iconic western from 1952, un-American.

But back in January, 1974, he decided to meet with some liberal elites, aka the “most hostile” students on the staff of the Harvard Lampoon. They’d challenged him to make an appearance at the scenic campus outside Boston for their Hasty Pudding Awards.

Specifically, students with the Lampoon called John Wayne “the biggest fraud in history.” So Wayne decided to come for some debate, an award, a likely roast, and a lot of Q and A.

Besides, it was good publicity for his new movie, McQ. John Wayne wasn’t a cowboy or a soldier. He played Lon “McQ” McHugh, a detective in Seattle. Surely, there would be good footage of Wayne staring down some hippie students, right?

John Wayne rode in a procession with a couple of armored personnel carriers. Members of Troop D of the Fifth Armored Cavalry were there with him. They were the Black Knights, so to speak.

There were all sorts of groups protesting the appearance of John Wayne. There was the anti-war crowd. That was a given. A group was there protesting on behalf of Native Americans. And then there were those who simply didn’t like Wayne’s politics.

Remember that Wayne used to be part of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. He presided over the group from 1949 through 1953. The goal of the group then was to protect “the American way of life” in movies, guarding them against “communists and fascists.”

Eventually, John Wayne arrived at Harvard Square Theater. He sat on a chair, on stage, and answered questions from the crowd. Any and everything was asked. Wayne joked that it was akin to having lunch with the Borgias. He also noted the group’s last honoree was porn star Linda Lovelace.

Mostly, John Wayne was John Wayne.

A student asked him about his pro-war support. Wayne quipped back: “Good thing you weren’t here 200 years ago or the tea would’ve never made the harbor.”

Another asked him how he looked at himself, given his views. “I look at myself as little as possible,” Wayne replied.

Then there was a tacky question, about Wayne’s hair piece. John Wayne cracked: “This is real hair. It’s not mine, but it’s real.”

A student asked Wayne what he thought of the women’s movement. The Equal Rights Amendment was a big topic in the mid-1970s. Wayne said of women: “I think they have a right to work anywhere they want to … as long as they have dinner ready when we want it.”

Wayne even took a shot at Richard Nixon, who resigned later that year. A student asked if Nixon ever gave him movie suggestions. Wayne quipped: “No, they’ve all been successful.”