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John Wayne’s Not So Happy Wives

The rugged and handsome cowboy saves the day through unconventional or morally dubious means before riding away to his next adventure. Did I mention he always gets the girl…?

Now, in real life, John Wayne wasn’t chasing outlaws or collecting bounties. He did, however, have a wandering eye for the ladies, which caused him many problems in his personal life. Nobody ever said marriage was easy, but for one of the generation’s biggest stars, it proved incredibly difficult.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

1st Marriage: Trouble Begins

Wayne’s first marriage was to Josephine Saenz, a 16-year-old girl from a prosperous family at the time. Ironically, the two met when Wayne took Josephine’s sister, Carmen Saenz, on a date. While it clearly didn’t work out with Carmen, his attention turned to Josephine, with whom he had now fallen in love.

Unfortunately, Wayne was not well-liked by Josephine’s parents. From their perspective, he was a 19-year-old wildcard with roots in a troubled past and from a “disadvantaged” household. The cherry on top was that Wayne was Presbyterian rather than Catholic.

However, the couple obeyed her parents’ wishes and dated for seven years before marrying. Wayne had created and secured his career by this point, resulting in significant financial security. His increased financial standing earned him the respect of his future in-laws, who allowed them to marry on June 24, 1933.

Unfortunately, the problems did not stop there.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Fall of the First (Marriage)

The newlywed couple’s first few years were blissful normalcy, but subsequently, difficulties with parenting methods, loyalty, and working long hours began to sink the marriage. For starters, Wayne put in long hours on set. The continual separation began to drive a deeper and deeper chasm in their relationship.

Second, Wayne and Saenz appeared to disagree on parenting techniques. They had four children together, yet their approaches to raising them were strongly opposed by one another. But it was Wayne’s almost uncontrollable curious eye for other women that sunk his matrimonial ship. Throughout his three marriages, John Wayne had several affairs, the most infamous of which being his affair with German actress Marlene Dietrich.

Dietrich and Wayne co-starred in a number of films, many of which featured an on-screen romance. Eventually, Josephine had had enough of Wayne’s infidelity and divorced him, despite several attempts at marriage counseling.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

His Second Wife Who Almost Took His Life

While still married to his first wife, Wayne originally met his second wife, Esperanza Baur, in Mexico City in 1941. There is no evidence that the couple had an affair before the end of his first marriage, but the couple married in January 1946, three years after the first divorce.

Unfortunately, their new marriage began to crumble quite quickly. Esperanza, whom Wayne affectionately nicknamed “Chata,” grew more envious of Wayne’s care and loyalty to his four children from his first marriage. Furthermore, despite his new spouse, Wayne’s old behaviors seem to follow him closely behind. His old wandering eyes began to wander again.

Esperanza eventually accused Wayne of having an affair with his latest leading lady, Gair Russell. Russel was an actress who collaborated with Wayne on films including The Badman and Angel. The problems became more serious from there, and Wayne was charged with infidelity by his furious wife. It only became worse when alcohol-fuelled domestic violence and emotional trauma became more prevalent.

These problems developed until they culminated in a literal “boom” one night.

Wayne was returning home from a night of drunken festivities, and Esperanza had reached her limit. She was too concerned with the possibility that Wayne would do to her what he did to his ex-wife and cheat on him. As Wayne entered the house, “Chata” was standing there with a small gun, almost shooting the western hero. Wayne, fortunately, was never shot. Chata, sadly, spent the remainder of her life behind a bottle. She took up residence at a hotel in Mexico, where she drank herself to death.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Third Time’s The Charm (Or Not)

You’d think Wayne would realize at this time that “maybe this marriage thing isn’t for me.” He did not have this thinking, however, because the rugged wrangler married his third wife, Pilar Pallete, in 1954. When they first met, they were both still legally married to their prior spouses, but their marriages were annulled before their lavish Hawaii wedding.


Pallete hailed from a wealthy family, as her father was a senator in Peru at the time. The pair met in Peru while Wayne was scouting locations for a film. To no one’s surprise, Wayne continued to have affairs, including a 9-year affair with an actress named Merle Oberon. However, once Wayne was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964, their relationship, much like his health, began to deteriorate drastically.

Wayne was eventually cleared of lung cancer, and he delved fully into his work to distract himself from the rising stressors in his life. This finally caused the breakdown of his third marriage to Pilar. Despite the fact that the couple decided to separate in 1973, they were never legally divorced. They were lawfully married until Wayne died of stomach cancer in 1979.