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John Wayne and The Mystery of the 'Red River' Belt Buckle

Dad worked on numerous westerns, with his favorite being Red River. The 1948 Howard Hawks film starred John Wayne and was filmed in Arizona about an hour southeast of Tuscon. Hawks and his crew scouted thousands of miles across Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Mexico before settling on a vast cattle ranch near Elgin, Arizona as the film's location. The San Pedro River was used as the Red River. The crew toiled for months under a blazing Sonoran desert sun - from June to November of 1946. Red River would be released in September of 1948.

Dad would often talk about his work in making the film, recounting the relationships he built with Producer/Director Howard Hawks and actors John Wayne, Montgomery Clift and Walter Brennan. "We were all buddies", Dad said.

Having worked on five films together, Hawks and Wayne also developed a close friendship. During the filming of Red River, Hawks commissioned a silversmith to craft a handful of commemorative belt buckles as gifts to Wayne, Clift, Brennan, my dad and others. Each sterling silver buckle, embossed in gold, bore the Dunson Ranch brand (a big D with two wavy lines) along with the individuals' initials and the year Red River was filmed, 1946.

Hawks and Wayne would often swap buckles. Wayne wore Hawks' buckle bearing the initials HWH in other Westerns he made with Hawks.

Dad of course treasured his belt buckle. I was only 12 when he first showed me the buckle and recalled its history. "It will be yours one day", he would say.

And so it was. In 1980, when Dad was 70, he gave me the buckle for Christmas.

"Take good care of this, honey. It's very special," he said, handing it to me. I cherished it for years and years, keeping it in a safe-deposit box at the bank.

Less than a year later, Dad died in September of 1981. I was only 25 - a loss beyond words for this girl. He was such a huge presence in my life.

Years passed. I married again. I divorced - again. I married again. And yes, divorced again.

By 2011, I was a single mom living with my 18-year-old son Mark in an apartment in Agoura Hills, CA. I worked as a medical esthetician. Mark was getting ready for college and I needed to add more money for his college fund. After 30 years in a safe-deposit box, I finally made the heart-wrenching decision to sell the buckle. I called Christie's Auction House. They referred me to Heritage Auctions, a well-known brokerage for movie memorabilia. I met with a Heritage representative, Margaret. She told me that the buckle would first be placed in a silent online auction for several days, and then taken to Texas for a live auction. I signed the contract. Choking back my tears as I handed her the belt buckle I repeated my dad's words to her, "Please take good care of it. It's all I have."

Bidding for the buckle started at $8,000 during the silent auction. Days later, Margaret called. "Great news, Mara", she said. Within just a few hours bidders had already brought the price up to up to $17,000. Within days, it would be on a truck to Texas for the live auction where we expected it would fetch anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000 or more. I hoped the right person would buy the buckle and cherish it as I had. Time would tell.

Then silence.

For more than three weeks I heard nothing. I called Margaret, leaving her countless voicemails. I grew more nervous with each passing day. I reached out to others at Heritage. Again, no reply. Another week went by when I was suddenly awakened by a phone call at 6:30 AM. It was Margaret.

"Good morning, Mara. This is Margaret from Heritage. I have good news and bad news" she said. Still half asleep, I asked "What do you mean?"

"Well, somehow we lost the buckle in-transit, but the good news is my boss will give you something for it," she mumbled.

By this time I was fully awake, stunned, speechless and furious.

"I can't believe this!" I told her. "You will hear from my attorney", I screamed. I hung up the phone and sobbed. I didn't have an attorney or a clue of what to do.

I called my close friend Jonique, knowing she had many connections in the film business. Within hours she set up a call with her old classmate, entertainment attorney, Charlie Morgan, the son of actor Harry Morgan of MASH fame. Charlie and I set up an appointment to meet the next day.

All I could think about was the low-life who'd stolen dad's precious gift. My anger was mixed with guilt and deep sadness over my decision to auction Dad's buckle. How could I have been so naive and trusting?

My meeting with Charlie went well. He knew John Wayne's son, Patrick. Patrick told me that this was not the first RR belt buckle to go "missing". He said his dad's was stolen in 1981 from a silversmith who was supposed to make copies for the Wayne family. Charlie also knew a New York Times entertainment reporter, Michael Cieply. I spoke with Wayne and Cieply while in Charlie's office.

I then filed a police report and retained Charlie as counsel. Cieply, meanwhile, happily took my information and wrote a story about the missing buckle for the New York Times. And Charlie negotiated with Heritage Auctions. Heritage tried to low-ball me several times. I knew dad's belt buckle wouldn't sell for as much as John Wayne's, which had been valued at over $100,000. But I no longer cared about the money. It was the sentimental value that mattered.

As to Heritage, they offered me a measly $17,000. Charlie and I held our ground. We finally agreed on a better settlement. I would have, and still would do anything to get the buckle back. But there was no way I was going to let Heritage get away with it. To this day, I know in my bones that someone has Dad's buckle.

And so the mystery of the still missing Red River Belt Buckle continues.

To read the NYT story see:

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