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‘He Didn’t Even Pretend to Let Us Win’… Growing up With the World’s Biggest Stars

The sons and daughters of John Wayne, John Lennon, Caitlyn Jenner and others tell us what it was like to grow up with a world-famous dad.

The Guardian

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 Samuel L. Jackson. Photo by Paras Griffin / Getty Images for Roadside Attractions.

John Lennon by Julian Lennon

A lot of the happy memories of my father are from the late 1960s at Kenwood, the old Tudor house we had in Surrey, when I was a little boy. Without knowing it, I probably saw some of the greatest musicians in the world come and go through that house.

I remember sitting on the roof of that house with my dad making a balsawood aeroplane. There was a great view from up there. As a kid, I thought my dad was pretty happy – with the family, the family home and his place in the world. Who could have predicted that everything was about to change?

The Beatles had just released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. At the time, my dad had his famous psychedelic Rolls-Royce Phantom V, which I adored because it had a record player in the back. We also had a Honda Monkey bike, a mini motorcycle we used to ride around on. Ringo [Starr] lived down the road and my dad would take me to see him on the bike.

At Kenwood, my father and I were close. So close, in fact, that though my first name is also John, I started to get called Julian or Jules since when my mum would shout, “John, your dinner’s ready!” both my dad and I would react.

Then suddenly my dad literally disappeared off the face of the planet. At least, that’s how it seemed to me. He and Yoko Ono were deeply and publicly in love. And I felt as if my mum and I had been cast aside. Not everyone forgot about us, though. Paul wrote Hey Jules after dropping in to check how my mum and I were doing. (Obviously, the title of the song changed to Hey Jude).

Maybe 10 years passed during which my dad and I barely spoke. I was very angry about how he left the family. It was thanks to my mum that we started having conversations again. She was such a gentle soul, never vindictive in any way, shape or form. She always wanted me to have a relationship with him.

I was scared the first time I went to visit him in the US after my parents’ divorce. I was becoming more aware of the magnitude of this man. Much to my relief, the visit was a success. My dad was charming and funny and warm. From that trip on, I remember us getting along better.

I hesitated to enter the music business because of who Dad was. I would send him the odd cassette of me playing live, or song ideas I had recorded on a little Sony Walkman he had given me.

He warmly encouraged me to continue playing, but sadly, he never really got to see my career unfold, as he passed when I was just 17. When I did finally become a professional musician a few years later, I felt like I understood him better.

I try to remember my dad as fondly as possible. I strive for forgiveness and understanding in that area of my life, for the difficult times he put my mum and me through. I loved her more than anything and can’t forget how poorly he treated her. But our relationship was getting better before he died. He was in a happier place. He wanted to reconnect, not just with me but with the rest of his family. He never got a chance to do so. Even now, almost 40 years after he died, I hold my father’s memory dear.

Julian Lennon is a musician and photographer and the founder of the White Feather Foundation

Caitlyn Jenner by Brandon Jenner

My father spent the first 65 years of her life trying to avoid answering the question “How are you doing?” And because of that, she didn’t ask it often, either. And, though, I understand that she avoided the question because the answer would have laid bare too many struggles, it made my relationship with her challenging. People connect with each other through vulnerability, and you can only get someone to open up to you if you are willing to be vulnerable yourself. Because she was shielding something so important from herself, Dad remained distant for much of my life.

I don’t have many memories from before my parents split up and my father moved out. I was four at the time. They got divorced because my dad had decided to start transitioning to female. I, of course, was too young then to have any idea what was behind their decision.

I do, however, remember a few details from my early childhood that only made sense much later. For instance, when I was very young, I used to love to fiddle with people’s ears. Once when I reached out to touch my dad’s ears, he said: “Don’t do that. I just had surgery.” He pointed to a thin line of small black stitches behind his ear, grinned, and said: “They took my ear off, peeled my face back, and then stitched it back on.”

For the first few years after their divorce, my parents were amicable. Mom started dating David Foster, whom she later married. I never called him dad, but he was the one who lived with us, who told me to pick up my clothes and turn off the lights – all the typical dad things. So even though this is about Caitlyn, I could write just as easily about David. He was a wonderful father figure.

A few years after my parents divorced, Dad apparently decided that it wasn’t the right time to transition and had many of his surgeries reversed. After that, his relationship with my mother grew more hostile. She had worked hard to accept that the reason he couldn’t be with her was because he was working towards transitioning. When he started dating Kris Jenner, whom he would go on to marry, that line of reasoning fell apart. It was tremendously painful. The effect of my parents’ souring relationship was that I didn’t see my father more than half a dozen times between ages eight and 25.

Because of this, most of the memories I have of my dad are from the narrow slice of time before I was eight. I remember him betting my brother Brody and me $20 that he could beat us to the top of these insanely high giant sand dunes in Malibu and then just smoking us. He ran a flat-out decathlete sprint. He didn’t even pretend to let us win.

After Dad met and married Kris, family became a business for him, and I stayed away for most of my teenage years. I didn’t want to be a part of their dynamic. When I was in my 20s and his daughters with Kris – Kendall and Kylie – were teenagers, Dad and I began to re-establish a relationship. He wasn’t as needed around the house and, I think, was looking for someone to talk to. Although, to be honest, instead of talking, we did things. We worked on my car or flew radio-controlled planes in the park near his house. But even then, it always seemed Dad had his guard up.

Once he decided to go through with the transition, I was the first of her children she confided in. As soon as Dad said it herself, I was so happy for her.

As her son, I wish my dad had been able to transition sooner, not only because I think she would have been happier, but because I think we could have built a stronger relationship earlier. Now, I’m making up for lost time. I speak to my dad almost every day, and every time, she asks me, “How are you doing?”

Brandon Jenner is a singer and songwriter

Jeff Bridges by Isabelle Bridges Boesch

My dad came from a family of actors. His father, Lloyd, was an actor. His mother, Dorothy, was an actor. His brother Beau is an actor, too. He knows firsthand how weird and challenging it could be to have an actor as a parent, which means he is very good at being a famous actor father.

When I was growing up, my dad was really hitting his stride. He made many of his greatest films, from The Fabulous Baker Boys to The Fisher King to Fearless, before I was 10 years old. He was often away shooting for weeks at a time, leaving my mother to look after me and my two sisters. She likes to say she takes care of the empire – and she does.

But when my dad was at home, it was like having the greatest, most imaginative friend in the world. What makes him such a wonderful actor is the same thing that makes him a wonderful playmate: he’s a great pretender. He relished opening up his rich inner life to share with me and my sisters, and he was always happy to be part of ours, too. My sisters and I loved to dress him up, put flowers in his hair – he’s always had a nice head of hair – and decorate his face with makeup. When Dad was around, we’d draw or paint or just play pretend for hours. He has such a playful spirit. The only time he ever brought his work home with him was the day he returned from shooting Blown Away still in makeup, his face appearing all bloodied and bruised. I think he wanted to scare us, but we just loved peeling off the stretchy plastic fake blood from his face. It was really satisfying.

But, of course, he couldn’t always be at home. When he was away, Dad made sure we stayed connected. He’d call every night. He’d say something like, “Isabelle, when you’re asleep tonight, you’ll see a building. Go through the front door and climb up to the attic. What do you see?”

“I see the branch of an oak tree by the window,” I’d reply. Then he’d ask, “Do you see the tree house nestled in the crook of the branch?” I’d laugh and say I did. “Let’s meet there tonight,” he’d say. “What are we going to do?” “We’ll jump on our horses and ride to the mountains.” “Sounds like a plan,” he’d say. In the morning, he’d call again, and we’d go over the adventures we’d had in our dreams the night before.

I always knew my father was loving and sweet and playful, but it’s still funny to me that he’s become so closely identified with the Dude. By the time The Big Lebowski came out, I was in high school, and, just like a typical teenager, I had zero interest in my father’s work. (I still haven’t seen some of his films from that period.) What I remember most is that around that time, we were on vacation in Hawaii, and my dad was wearing those hideous Sun Jellies from the movie. They’re one of the most well-known parts of his costume, but they were actually my dad’s own shoes. Anyway, my sister and I were so embarrassed by those godawful jellies, we threw them into the ocean. Today, they’d probably be worth a lot of money.

Another funny thing about people conflating Dad with the Dude is that he’s not really a laid-back guy. He gets anxious. He experiences stress. Before he goes onstage, he always says he doesn’t want to do it, and afterward, he is critical of himself. Though he describes himself as “Buddhish”, he doesn’t project Zen calm. He is, however, extremely present. Even more so now that he’s older and a grandfather. I have two kids of my own, and he is very focused on being in their lives. We live in Oakland, but he and my mom visit often. And when he’s not able to be with his grandkids, he calls to plan dream meetings with them, too.

Daddy Daughter Day by Isabelle Bridges Boesch and Jeff Bridges (Penguin Random House) is due to be published in October

Samuel L Jackson by Zoe Jackson

My father is a big nerd, in the best way possible. He is completely different from his cool-guy persona. When I was 10 we would go to the comic store every week religiously. They even kept a pull box for my dad (the store pulls the new comics on a customer’s list and keeps them behind the counter). Dad’s pull box was full of weird and really violent comics that I wasn’t allowed to read. He and I didn’t start exchanging comic books until I got to college, and when I was there, whenever I went to the comic book store alone, I was sad. I wanted my dad to be there.

Though I was largely shielded from it at as a child, my dad was struggling with addiction during much of my childhood. When I was eight, he entered rehab. He was gone for 60 days, which was a confusing time for me. I had no idea anything was wrong. I never saw him drunk that I know of. I just thought he was a dude who slept a lot.

We moved to Los Angeles for my mum, LaTanya Richardson: she got a role in a shortlived TV series. But soon my dad’s career really took off, and my mum stopped working as much to take care of me. It’s funny that my father is the better-known actor, because my mum was the one who pushed him to act in the first place. They met in a teacher’s office (They went to different colleges but the teacher taught at both places.) Mum was doing some makeup work. She said, “You need to be in my play. Do you act?” Dad said, “Actually, I don’t,” and my mum replied, “Well, you do now.” And that’s how it went, and how it has gone ever since. My mum turns the key and sends Dad out into the world.

I do think it was very hard for my mum to give up her career to raise me for as long as she did, though. She’s happy for my dad, of course, but it’s complicated. There’s a sadness there.

I was 12 years old when Pulp Fiction came out. After that, my dad became cool. Or, he thought he did. And though much of the world agrees, he’s still just a big nerd to me. He goes through phases. Once, he gave me a sweatshirt he got from working on Django Unchained. He said, “I signed it for you!” I was like, “Dad, thanks. Now I can’t wear it!” It’s up to my mum and me to pull him back down to earth. I mean, isn’t that what family’s for?

Zoe Jackson is an Emmy Award–nominated television producer and director

John Wayne by Ethan Wayne

I was born in 1962, at the height of my father’s career. He named me after Ethan Edwards, his character in The Searchers, which many consider to be his best role.

My father was tough, but very loving. He was old school. I don’t know how else to describe it. He didn’t talk much, but he could make his few words very, very impactful and meaningful. Other actors fight for lines; my dad tried to remove as many words as possible. His friends called him Duke, his childhood nickname. It was the name of his dog, an Airedale. Dad used to deliver papers with Duke. The local firemen called the pair Big Duke and Little Duke. The name stuck. He told me, “Now when someone calls me John, I don’t even turn my head.”

In his free time, his life was centred on the ocean. We had a converted Second World War minesweeper called Wild Goose and every summer, we would sail up to British Columbia and Alaska. Every winter, we would take it down to Mexico.

When he wasn’t on the boat, Dad was working. So I was raised on movie sets. They were rugged in those days. Our family would stay either in a small rented house or in a little motel. I had a tutor three hours a day, but I learned a lot from my father, too. He never told me “do this” or “do that”, but led by example. You never wanted to disappoint him.

Once when we were at a friend’s ranch, he asked me to drive to the house in an old pick-up truck and grab some things for him. I was 12. I got the truck stuck and I had to go tell him. He was in the middle of a card game. He didn’t get up or offer to help. It was clear that I was expected to figure out how to get the truck out on my own.

Some of my proudest moments came from living up to my father’s straight-ahead toughness. When we were in Cabo or La Paz, Mexico, we’d anchor the boat far from the shore and swim in. It was about a 25-minute swim. I remember once, when I was seven or eight, swimming into a bunch of sea snakes and saying, “Holy crap. There are sea snakes here, Dad!” He replied, “Yeah, just keep swimming, kid.”

Once we made it to shore, we walked around until our clothes dried. He gave me a big hug and said, “Good job, Big Stuff.” I was just so proud to have made it through, proud to be my father’s son.

My father died on 11 June 1979. I was 17. At the time, it was just him and me alone in the house; my mother had moved out. That day, he said he wasn’t feeling well, so I drove him to the hospital. As we pulled up, there was a crowd of photographers waiting for him so we had to go through the back. I was worried, but I was also a naive teenager and thought he was going to be OK. He just always got through things. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the last ride I would ever take with my dad.

Ethan Wayne is the chairman of the John Wayne Cancer Foundation and president of John Wayne Enterprises

Miles Davis by Erin Davis

People think of my dad as the prince of darkness (the name of his 1967 album), a moody performer who turned his back on the audience out of disregard for them. That wasn’t him at all. But this wasn’t something I truly realised until I stood onstage with him as part of his legendary band: Dad wasn’t turning away from the audience; he was turning toward the band. It wasn’t a sign of disrespect for those there to hear him; it was a sign of respect for those there to play. And I was lucky enough to be there to play.

I knew he was a famous musician, but didn’t quite understand how famous. As a kid, I was always telling him I wanted to be a musician. Finally, when I was 14, he asked if I wanted to go on the road with him in the summer. Of course, I said yes.

I learned a lot, not only about music, but about my father, during those summer tours. As I stood in the wings, I saw that playing the music live was the most important thing to him.

Those tours were the first sustained amount of time I spent with my father. What I discovered about him was how he could break down what was going on in any musical performance – and find something to take away from it. I remember once watching a heavy metal show on MTV, and when Slayer came on, I thought, “Dad’s going to hate this.” He watched for a bit and then said, “Huh. That drummer is really laying it down, isn’t he?” Then he just walked away.

He finally asked me onstage for a tour in 1990. He was giving me a chance and I was terrified of blowing it. I played electronic percussion, which was a genre my dad kind of invented. I didn’t even get any rehearsals. I watched the guy who did it before me for a couple of shows, then I was just kind of on it, in the seat. It was nerve-racking for me, but at the same time, it felt wonderful to have my father turn toward me, to listen to me and to play with me as an equal.

Erin Davis, along with his sister and cousin, is an executor of the Miles Davis estate

Joshua David Stein was restaurant critic for the New York Observer until April 2016. He is the author of “To Me, He Was Just Dad,” “Food & Beer,” a cookbook, and a children's book, “Can I Eat That?” Follow him at @fakejoshstein on Twitter and Instagram and at joshuadavidstein.com.

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This post originally appeared on The Guardian and was published March 29, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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