Hayward, Wayne may have been victims
by W. Winston Skinner
Tough movie cowboy John Wayne and Susan Hayward, the Academy Award-winning actress who lived for several years in Carroll County, may have died as a result of exposure to radiation while making a film.
Wayne and Hayward were in the cast of ‘The Conqueror,” which was filmed in Snow Canyon, Utah, in the 1950s. Both stars, as well as others in the cast and crew, developed cancer which cost them their lives.
The possibility of nuclear exposure leading to those deaths is the topic of a new book, "Who Nuked the Duke?,” which was named best general non-fiction title of 2014 by San Francisco Book Festival.
“The Conqueror” was a biopic of Mongol leader Genghis Khan – with Wayne playing Khan and Hayward as his love interest, daughter of a tribal chief.
San Francisco author John William Law wrote “Who Nuked the Duke?” Law’s book concludes the filming location was close to a ground atomic blast – called Dirty Harry – at the Nevada National Security Site and that the blast left contamination that impacted the health of Hayward, Wayne and others.
"The morning of May 19, 1953, started off a bit overcast, but overall an ordinary spring day for the residents of St. George, Utah," Law said. "But it was far from that. In fact, it would be a day that would mark a dramatic change for the community and anyone who might inhabit the local surroundings for the foreseeable future."
Law writes that even though the cast and crew of “The Conqueror” would not set foot in Utah for another year, the deadly fallout had already amassed in the area where the film would be shot and the intensity of the radioactive land spelled doom for not only the movie stars, but for the supporting cast, crew and local community members who came out as film extras or to watch the stars at work.
"The movie was filmed largely in an area called Snow Canyon, a place that acted, in many ways, like a reservoir for nuclear fallout," Law said. "Because the government would only support nuclear detonations when winds were directing blasts away from Los Angeles or Las Vegas, Utah became immediate the focal point for collecting nuclear debris after the blasts."
The cast and crew spent months filming in a region soaked in Harry's radioactive fallout, according to Law. In the years that followed dozens would be diagnosed and die of cancer related illnesses.
"Susan Hayward suffered terrible effects from cancer, and John Wayne fought the disease secretly for years," adds the author. Cast members Agnes Moorehead and John Hoyt also died of cancer, as did Dick Powell, who directed the movie.
Law speculated about why it has taken so long for the story to be fully told.
"Many of the key figures in the story smoked and it was easy to suggest that smoking was the cause of their cancers,” he said. “In addition, government denials of responsibility kept facts hidden. And because the story is told over a 30-year period, it's a puzzle that took years to piece together."
Several years ago, there were reports that 91 cast, crew and visitors to the set were diagnosed with cancer or non-malignant tumors. A doctor concluded that number was three times the expected number.
Hayward married Carrollton businessman Floyd Eaton Chalkley in 1957. They are buried at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Carroll County.