Duking it out

And not leaving Las Vegas

John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth

by Michael Munn; New American Library. Hardcover, 408 pages, $25.95.

"The most important American of our time is John Wayne," theater critic Eric Bentley once declared. Did Stalin agree?

A new biography makes the surprising assertion that Newport Beach's favorite transplanted son was the subject of repeated assassination attempts by Soviet agents as well as Chinese and American Communists.

According to Michael Munn, author of John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth, Wayne told him in 1974 that "the Communists have been trying to kill me since 1949," the year Wayne emerged as one of Hollywood's leading anti-Communist activists. Citing interviews with the late Orson Welles, the late Peter Cushing and the late stuntman Yakima Canutt, Munn explains that Wayne was targeted because "in Stalin's warped mind, the Americans had invented some new secret weapon, more subtle than a nuclear bomb."

Enthusiastic, if vague, Munn describes three incidents: in 1952, KGB agents masquerading as FBI men attacked Wayne's office on the Warner Bros. lot but were captured by the Duke himself, helped by screenwriter James Edward Grant and two real FBI agents. A year later, American Communists—impersonating detectives sent by Wayne's estranged wife to the Mexican location where the star was filming—sought to break into his house. In 1955, stuntman Cliff Lyons infiltrated a cell of commie fanatics still acting on the now-deceased Stalin's orders and, together with Canutt, foiled their plot to kill the Duke.

Wayne kept these events secret, Munn says, to protect his family. Not so the widely reported incident during the star's June 1966 trip to Vietnam, when a Marine base came under sniper fire while Wayne was signing autographs. According to Wayne, according to Munn, the shooter turned out to be an elite Chinese agent trying to collect a bounty placed on the star's head by rival superstar Mao Zedong. The absence of a smoking gun (or any documented evidence) in this case—as in Munn's accounts of the previous ones—suggests that John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth is not so much revealing the man as printing the legend. (J. Hoberman)

The Last Honest Place in America

by Marc Cooper; Nation Books. Hardcover, 304 pages, $24.95.

Since the 1940s, when mob money transformed the place, Las Vegas has been the American Dream's other side, the city where all comers with cash could do what was illegal back home, could gamble and sin, flesh out virtually anything fantasy allowed, pack with high rollers and celebs, and imagine hitting it so big they could flip off the foreman back in Peoria, be somebody now. Life is a gamble anyway, more about luck and connections than slaving away while driven by some ancient ethic. Of course the deck is stacked, but most know it and don't care. They continue the chase.

LA Weekly contributor Marc Cooper's The Last Honest Place in Americainvestigates this addiction through his memories of treks to the desert mecca, beginning with family trips in the '50s. The fact that he's also an addict risks the investigation, since his main purpose is to measure the social, political and economic dimensions of this city's seductive power over masses of Americans, especially after Sept. 11.

But Cooper isn't seduced like your average luckless wagerer. He sees gambling as sport—a perspective that produces gushes of brilliant prose—and is put off by fanny-packing tourists and other miscreants of the New Vegas who can barely be bothered to try and figure out the games. Like Hunter Thompson bourbonized by the Kentucky Derby, Cooper believes his reporting benefited from the "low-level fever that Vegas induces, that resonant, electrified hum that—after sufficient exposure—inevitably replaces your normal body rhythms. Those times I got lost in Las Vegas are probably the same moments when I stumbled closest upon its greater significance."

Probably? Cooper has always been committed to social and political alternatives, but buzzed by the hypermainstream of the casino system, he breaks the spell to discover that Vegas is the "American market ethic stripped completely bare, a mini-world totally free of the pretenses and protocols of modern consumer capitalism"—stripped like a naked hooker. In Vegas, Cooper says, escapees from the collapsing American Dream play at being masters of their fate, suspending the serial hypocrisies of everyday life, knowing the house always wins but also that the real economy has become a ridiculous gamble anyhow. There's also hope in Vegas, the "one city where unskilled labor can still—thanks to vibrant unions and very wealthy and efficient employers—earn middle-class wages." That's honesty, if not kismet, baby, and it beats the outside world. (John O'Kane)

 
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