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May 26: John Wayne’s Birthday

It’s John Wayne’s birthday. Born in 1907 in Winterset, Iowa, the Duke was a true American icon whose cultural influence extended far past his work as an actor. He became the very symbol of the no-nonsense rugged individualism that seemed to be slipping away in the latter half of the 20th Century. So did the Duke drink? Are you kidding me? There was very little daylight between his hard-drinking onscreen personas and man himself. “He drank enough whiskey to float a PT boat,” Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, and that’s not mentioning all the tequila and beer he put away. Studio directors learned to shoot as many of Wayne’s scenes as possible before noon because by afternoon he was usually well into his cups and unwilling to put up with a lot of finicky nonsense like retakes and direction. True story: According to Wayne biographer Steven Travers, the Duke’s anti-communist sometimes whiskey-fueled speeches so infuriated Joseph Stalin that he ordered the actor’s assassination, only to have the plot foiled by the FBI. Latter-day Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, however, was an avid fan of Wayne’s films, and when the hard-drinking duo met at a diplomatic function, they very quickly began trading rounds of tequila and vodka. It ended up being a draw, and down the road the pair would exchange cases of Russian vodka and Mexican tequila via mail. Such is the unifying power of alcohol.