The popularity of the Duke has never waned. But are John Wayne’s heirs going too far in profiting off of his legacy? And what does Duke University have to say about it? 

This is installment #8 of our Estate Planning Lessons From The Stars series, which is based on the Celebrity Legacies TV show for which we provide commentary as the estate legal experts. See other articles in the series here.

John Wayne Estate Duke University

With a movie career that spanned fifty years, there is no disputing that John Wayne is one of the most successful and treasured actors of all times. He was in the top ten list of actors whose films generated the highest box office gross earnings for an astonishing 25 years in a row. The Duke also holds the record for most leading movie roles of all time – 142. To this day, he remains in the top ten list in the annual Harris poll of favorite Hollywood actors and actresses. In fact, the American Film Institute ranked Wayne as number 13 on the list of top male actors of all time.

John Wayne is the rare actor who transcended the entertainment industry to become an American icon. The inscription on the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to him in 1979, the year he passed away from cancer at age 72, reads, simply, “John Wayne, American.”

It should come as no surprise that John Wayne’s heirs are profiting handsomely from his ever-lasting popularity. In 2013, the Duke was a near-miss on the Forbes top-earning dead celebrities list. In 2011, his son, Ethan Wayne, put up over 700 items of Wayne’s memorabilia up for auction, generating $5.38 million for the heirs.

Ethan Wayne operates John Wayne Enterprises, which was created to manage the Duke’s name, image, and likeness. It was owned by his seven children, from two different marriages (Wayne’s second of three marriages did not produce any children, and two of his children have since died, with their interests passing onto grandchildren). When Ethan took over operations, he decided to hold the auction and explore new ways to raise money based on his father’s name and legacy.

In doing so, Ethan has been at the center of a number of legal fights over John Wayne’s legacy. In 2006, Ethan led the company in a battle against the widow of his half-brother, whose production company was in possession of several items of important memorabilia. In 2010, Ethan’s sister sued him and the company to force them to buy out her interests in John Wayne Enterprises. The siblings could not agree on the value of the company, $10.7 million or $15.4 million.

Most recently, Ethan and John Wayne Enterprises started Duke Spirits, with an eye towards using his name and image to sell a new brand of Kentucky bourbon. Ethan opened some boxes from John Wayne’s house that hadn’t been touched in the thirty years since the Duke died. He found Wayne’s handwritten notes about making good bourbon and unopened bottles of his favorite brands. Ethan partnered with a wine-making company to create the new drink.

The only problem was Duke University. It opposed the trademark applications of John Wayne Enterprises on the ground that the term “Duke” might be confused with the University. Ethan Wayne led the court fight against the University, arguing that they only intended to use the Duke name with John Wayne’s image, name, and likeness, so no one could confuse it with Duke University.

Preview of John Wayne Celebrity Legacies Episode

Duke University representatives said they agreed to allow the Duke name to be used, as long as it was only used in connection with John Wayne. Ethan and his legal team said they never wanted to use it in any other way. Despite that, at last report, the dispute remains unresolved.

Some have wondered if Ethan Wayne is going too far to profit off of John Wayne’s all-American image. Ethan explained that he tries to uphold his father’s legacy with everything he does, such as when he looks at new products, “I work to make sure that we incorporate his spirit into that product. If it’s a mug, it’s a great mug. If it’s a pocketknife, it’s a terrific pocketknife. Something that can be used and enjoyed.”

It’s clearly not all about the dollars. Ethan Wayne also serves as the director of the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, which was formed by the family to fight against cancer in John Wayne’s name.

While few people need to worry about whether their legacy will be used to promote mugs and pocketknives, everyone has a legacy they leave behind. Sometimes it’s a family business or treasured home. Other times it’s a dedication to a favorite charity. Or it could be as simple as sentimental items, such as family photographs.

With good estate planning, including a proper will and trust, you can pick the person you believe will best carry on your legacy, and minimize the chances of a family fight. And more detailed documents usually work better, with specific instructions for your important assets – whether they have monetary or sentimental value.

While the John Wayne family battles involved more money than most families have, court fights when a loved one passes are far from uncommon. This is especially true when a person put in charge of the estate or trust makes controversial choices, or when the documents are unclear or too vague. Take the time to plan out how you want the things that matter most to you to pass on, and who should be the one to carry out your wishes, no matter how large or small your financial legacy may be.

Celebrity Legacies is a documentary series airing on the Reelz cable channel featuring Danielle and Andy Mayoras and other experts, to explore the lives, legacies, and estates of a different celebrity each week.  Click here for upcoming show times.

Danielle and Andy Mayoras are co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, television hosts and keynote speakers. You can find them on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn. For all the latest celebrity legal news, be sure to check out their blog.


    Danielle & Andy are a husband-and-wife team, on-camera media experts, attorneys, authors, and keynote speakers. Together, they explore celebrity cases while sharing valuable legal lessons.

    The dynamic duo has served as experts for countless media sources including the Rachael Ray Show, Access Hollywood, Forbes, Entertainment Tonight, CNN, NBC Nightly News, FOX and NBC affiliates, The Associated Press, ABC News, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, among many others.

    In addition to authoring the best-selling book, Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!, and hundreds of articles for Forbes and other outlets, the charismatic couple appears as TV hosts and legal experts on the celebrity documentary series, Fortune Fights, on the REELZ network.