Durham News: Opinion

July 18, 2014

Wilson: Duke dust-up not worth the horse it rode in on

Of all the things Duke University has to worry about, bottles of bourbon bearing the likeness of actor John Wayne isn’t one of them – unless, of course, Dukies make the whiskey their official party juice.

Of all the things Duke University has to worry about, bottles of bourbon bearing the likeness of actor John Wayne isn’t one of them – unless, of course, Dukies make the whiskey their official party juice.

As much of the civilized world knows by now, the John Wayne estate is selling small-batch Kentucky bourbon under the “Duke” moniker. And there he is – the other Duke – striding out of the scene with his trusty Winchester ’73 in hand.

Just to make sure you understand that you’re in the presence of The Duke, Pilgrim, there’s an image of the butt end of of a .44-.40 “catridge” (as he said the word) on the bottle.

And you are going to somehow associate a bottle of stumpjumper with the name Duke on it for one of the world’s great universities?

Not likely, pard, but Duke worries that you will and thereby tarnish the Duke University brand. Which is a bit arch, considering that alcohol abuse among its hard-partying students has been a problem at Duke for decades.

This is not the first head-butting between the North Carolina Duke and the California Duke over the use of Duke. The two began to go at it in 2005 as John Wayne Enterprises began to expand its reach, some 26 years after Wayne’s death from cancer.

None of this would be worth the warm contents of a saloon cuspidor if an Iowa boy named Marion Robert Morrison hadn’t owned a mutt named Duke. The name migrated to the future John Wayne and stayed with him through life and now beyond the grave.

Sometime late in his movie career, which began when Wayne was a student at the University of Southern California in the 1920s, he assumed a mythic status unlike that of any other American leading man. He became the Duke.

Hold the mayo?

And the Duke he remains, unique in life and death. We don’t speak of the Duke University or the Duke’s mayonnaise (how about that one?). Sure, there’s the Duke of Wales and years ago a country comedian deemed the Duke of Paducah, but these are little-leaguers in dukedom.

I wager that it’s unsporting of Duke University to try to strip Duke Wayne of his honorific. Both are registered trademarks. True, one (Wayne) was firmly in the right wing of American politics and the other (the university) leans precipitously to the left, and never the twain shall meet.

As Ethan Wayne, administrator of John Wayne Enterprises and named for one of The Duke’s most memorable roles, put it recently: “They’re academics, they’re athletics, they’re research. I have no issue with them other than they try to keep me from using Duke with John Wayne all around the world.”

Ethan is right that Duke is involved in manifold enterprises, but as Wayne Enterprises’ suit against the university says, it “is not and never had been in the business of producing, marketing, distributing, or selling alcohol.” Therefore, it’s highly unlikely that anyone with the brainpower of, say, a cabbage would conflate Duke University with Duke bourbon.

In fact, Duke seems to harbor suspicions that Wayne Enterprises wants to monopolize its name, knocking the university out of lucrative branding deals.

Such are the vagaries of show biz, I suppose. One doesn’t really die in Hollywood; you just live on via other means, in this case a trademark.

Duke the University should buck up and give Duke the Actor some space. Duke has Cameron Indoor Stadium, The Duke has Monument Valley. That’s plenty of romping room for the two of them.

Besides, if Duke University ever gets into the whiskey business a la The Duke (and the way cultural norms are falling, don’t dismiss the thought lightly), the bottle will surely sport the ubiquitous Blue Devil.

Nobody will confuse that one with John Wayne.

Meanwhile, the reviews of how Duke bourbon fares against its competitors aren’t in. You can be sure, however, that it will taste more like sour grapes than sour mash if The Duke is banished from the bottle by the Duke of Durham.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.

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