Steve McQueen A Biography
By Marc Eliot
Three Rivers Press Copyright © 2012 Marc Eliot
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780307453228
Chapter 1 I left home at the age of fifteen because there really was no home. . . ._I have had no education. I came from a world of brute force. -Steve McQueen Terrence Steven McQueen was born March 24, 1930, orthereabouts, in Beech Grove, Indiana, a suburban community in Marion County.1His middle name was a joke given to him by the father he never knew."Steven" was the senior McQueen's favorite bookie and the name Stevenpreferred, Terrence being a bit too soft for him. Terrence William McQueen,Bill or Red to his friends, was a onetime navy biplane flier turned circusstuntman who had no idea what fatherhood was beyond the losing bet on acareless roll with a blond-haired, blue-eyed flapper he called Julia, whosereal name was Jullian. He impregnated her the first night they met. He marriedher out of an uncharacteristic burst of honor, and an honest stab at normalcythat lasted all of six months. By then, the unusually handsome McQueen hadpacked his travel bags and left Jullian behind to take care of herself and thebaby. Later that same year, unable to cope with singlemotherhood, Jullian took the infant back to her hometown of Slater, Indiana, inSaline County, where her parents, Victor and Lillian Crawford, lived. Theyagreed to help her as long as they were allowed to give the boy a strictCatholic upbringing. After only a few months of being back with her family,Jullian grew tired of church, prayer, and chastity and returned to Green Grovewith young Steven. She still hoped to find a rich man to marry her and provideher with a comfortable life. But after three more years of struggling to keepherself and Steven warm and fed, she returned to the family farm-this time justlong enough to drop off the boy with her parents before leaving again to resumechasing her own dreams. Abandoned now by both parents, Steven was again pushedaside when Victor's business failed and he was forced to move with his wife andgrandchild to live on Lillian's brother's farm in Missouri, about six hoursaway by train. Claude Thomson took them in but did not make them feelespecially welcome or comfortable. He had no use for his sister or Victor, hermiserable failure of a husband, and blamed his failure on Victor's lazinessrather than the Great Depression. He agreed to help them out only because hefelt sorry for the cute little towhead. The boy was the only one, Claudebelieved, who was not responsible for his own misfortunes, and Claude wanted toredeem him by loving him as if he were his own. The boy's mother was neverspoken of on Claude's farm. Claude, unmarried and childless, owned 320 acres of primeMissouri farmland dotted with thousands of head of free-roaming cattle andendless fields of corn. He also owned an intimidating reputation as a womanizerand possibly even a killer. Rumors ran rampant throughout the county that hehad murdered a man over a woman, but no one was ever able to prove such a storyabout this wealthy and devout Catholic farmer. His presence was imposing, hisbankbook fat, his political influence powerful. In a world where money talkedand influence talked tougher, Claude had plentiful amounts of both. But he had a soft spot for Steven. Not that he spoiledhim in any way or gave him a free ride. From the time Steven could walk andtalk, Uncle Claude expected him to pull his load, and every day woke him beforedawn to begin his daily chores of milking cows and working in the cornfields.2It was hard work for the boy, but for the first time in his life, he felt hereally belonged somewhere and to someone. When Steven tried to shirk his duties, such as cuttingwood, which for a boy of his small size was difficult, he was punished, but henever complained. He believed he deserved whatever he got, if not for being notstrong enough, then for his lack of determination. "When I'd get lazy andduck my chores, Claude would warm my backside with a hickory switch. I learneda simple fact-you work for what you get." Claude wasn't a total martinet. He gave young Steven hisown room and a bright, shiny red tricycle, which Steven became so good atriding he challenged other boys to races and never failed to clean them out oftheir gumdrops. And Claude always gave the boy enough money for a weekly tripto the Saturday matinee at the local movie theater. Steven loved the movies,especially the cowboys-and-Indians westerns, with their six-guns that blazedfirepower every two seconds and shot the bad guys, who fell off horses with allthe fury and balance of Russian ballet stars. These films instilled in Steven alifelong love of films and guns: "When I was eight, Uncle Claude would letme use the family rifle to shoot game in the woods . . . to his dyin' day UncleClaude remained convinced I was a miracle marksman with a rifle." The school he attended was four miles away from thefarmhouse and he had to walk it every day, regardless of theweather, but it wasn't the walk he hated, it was the school. His teachers soondecided the sullen little boy who never paid attention to anyone or anythingwas what was called in those days a "slow learner." Years later itwas determined that as a child Steven was probably slightly dyslexic, nothelped by an untreated hearing problem in his right ear that left him partlydeaf for the rest of his life. The boy would remember most about his schooldays that "I was a dreamer, like on cloud Nine." He was a dreamer back at the farmhouse as well. YoungSteven would often drift away in thought, and when Uncle Claude inquired whathe was thinking about, Steven always replied by asking where his mother was.Uncle Claude would say nothing, just pat the boy on his head and move along. Jullian was, in fact, busy marrying and unmarrying aseries of men. The final count remains uncertain. One day, when Steven wasnine, his mother suddenly showed up at the farm and politely informed Claudethat she was taking her son back. Claude put up no resistance. He took the boyaside for a few minutes and gave him the gold watch that he kept in his vestpocket, told him to always remember his uncle Claude, and sent him away withhis mother. Jullian took Steven, whose nine-year-old lean physique,curly blond hair, and blue eyes perfectly matched hers, to Los Angeles, whereshe and her latest husband were living. However, Steven's new stepfather,Berri, hated having the kid around, wanted him gone, and out of frustration andanger beat him whenever he got the chance. Steven was more than happy toaccommodate him, and often spent days and nights away from the house, sleepingin back alleys when there was no place else available. Film documentarian RobKatz describes this period of time as the "black hole" of McQueen'sextraordinarily lonely and violent youth. Within months he had joined one of the tough L.A. teenagegangs that regularly prowled the neighborhood, breaking into shops after dark.And the streets had something else for Steven. When he was thirteen, a youngneighborhood girl took him to heaven for the first time. He referred to thisevent years later in several interviews but never gave any details except thatshe was the first of many street girls who would dote over him and give himwhat he wanted because of his warm smile, blond hair, and blue eyes. Unable to deal with her son's increasingly rebelliousbehavior and her husband's resentment of the boy's presence, a desperateJullian called Claude and pleaded with him to take Steven back. She didn't haveto cajole; he was more than eager to have him. During their phone conversationJullian was surprised to learn that Claude, now pushing seventy, had recentlymarried one of his young housekeepers, Eva Mae, thirty-three. Upon Steven'sreturn to Missouri, Eva Mae efficiently stripped the teenage boy naked andbathed him head to toe. There was no place like home! One day a traveling circus came through town and Stevenwent by himself to see it. There he met a fast-talking carny who convinced himhe would see the world if he joined the traveling show. Steve never evenreturned home to pack his few belongings or to say goodbye to Uncle Claude andEva Mae. Taking only his uncle's gold watch that he was never without, thefourteen-year-old hitched a ride with the circus and rode with them out ofMissouri and into his future. Claude, meanwhile, searched desperately for the boy,unaware that he had run away and fearing something terrible had happened tohim. After several days, he gave up and went back to the farm. If Steven wasfound alive, Claude vowed, he would never forgive him. If Steven was founddead, Claude would never forgive himself. Life in the circus proved more sawdust than stardust forSteven when he discovered the constant traveling was taking him nowhere fast.He wanted out of the life but could not go home again to face Uncle Claude. Hetook once more to living on the streets, hitchhiking from town to town andriding the freight trains with the hobos until eventually he found himself backin Los Angeles, where he reluctantly showed up at Jullian and Berri'sapartment. His mother was happy to see him but withheld her affection out offear of setting off Berri, who greeted the boy with an indifference thatbordered on anger. The street kids' greeting was not much warmer than that.They were always suspicious of members who came and went unless that revolvingdoor had bars on it. To make his bones and "win back the other kids'respect he meant to become the baddest ass of them all . . . ifthe gang leader decreed that ten hubcaps were to be stolen today by each gangmember, Steve would bring back twenty." Besides stealing, the gangs frequently rumbled, fightingother gangs for cock-of-the-walk rights. Occasionally a police roundup wouldbring them to court. The first time Steven came before the local judge, infront of Steven's mother, he threatened to put the boy away for a long stretchif he ever saw his face again. Jullian took him home, and Berri laid down a much toughersentence. He beat Steven mercilessly and finished him off by throwing him downa flight of stairs. When the boy was finally able to stand up, bruised andbloody, with Berri hovering over him, he stared into his stepfather's face andsaid, "You lay your stinkin' hands on me again, and I swear I'll kill ya." Soon enough, Steven was caught with a bunch of other boystrying to steal hubcaps, and Jullian tearfully signed the court ordercommitting him to reform school. It was that or prison. The California Junior Boys Republic at Chino was foundedin 1907 by Margaret Fowler, a wealthy widow who devoted her life to socialimprovement and helping troubled youths straighten their lives out. BoysRepublic was and still is located on 211 acres in the southwestern corner ofSan Bernardino County, a farm community that, besides the institution, alsohoused two state prisons, one for men and one for women. Boys Republic was oneof the more progressive reform schools for juvenile delinquents that sprang upduring the last years of the Industrial Revolution and was filled to capacityin the Depression and again during World War II, times when many boys who gotin trouble were either fatherless, gang members, or runaways. Steven was allthree. On February 6, 1945, five weeks before his fifteenth birthday, StevenMcQueen became number 3188. The institution ran on a trust system operated by theboys themselves, supervised by adults. Steven twice escaped from the unfencedgrounds, but was quickly apprehended and returned. The other boys did notappreciate having their privileges taken away because of one bad apple, andalthough paddling was the preferred discipline by the authorities, they hadtheir own way of treating tough kids like Steven. "The place had a boardof governors made up of boys. They tried me and condemned me. They gave me thesilent treatment and all that jazz." And they kicked his ass. More thanonce, Steven was subjected to physical abuse. And on days when the"good" boys were rewarded with trips to the movies, Steven was heldback by those who didn't go and was forced to run the athletic track, over andover again. And when he still didn't break, they made him dig ditches all day. He didn't care what they did to him because he wasalready planning another breakout, a great escape that would leave the othersin his dust. That is, until he first became aware of Mr. Pantier, one of theschool's superintendents, who disdained physical punishment in favor of talkingthings out. He believed that all boys were redeemable, including Steven. Mr.Pantier talked to him without talking down to him, and spent long eveningstrying to convince the boy he was worth more than the kind of life he washeaded for. Pantier's kind words of encouragement touched somethingin Steven, and his transformation was swift. He became a model of good behaviorand soon enough was elected to the self-governing boys' council. That positionmeant a lot to him. While Steven was inside, Jullian had undergone somechanges of her own, beginning with the untimely but not entirely unwelcomedeath of Berri, from a heart attack, even as Jullian was preparing to divorcehim and move by herself to New York City to find a new and better life. Aftershe buried Berri, she visited Steven one last time and told him that when hegot out he should look her up. However, despite her determination to do betterthis time, she quickly slipped back into the familiar world of drinking,smoking, and "entertaining" men. In April 1946, having finished his full fourteen-monthterm at Boys Republic, sixteen-year-old Steven left for New York to be with hismother. What he didn't know was that one night while at a bar Jullian had metan old friend from Los Angeles by the name of Victor Lukens. They had quicklybecome lovers, and Lukens wasted no time taking Steven's place and moving intoher tiny Greenwich Village two-room cold-water flat. Continues...
Excerpted from Steve McQueen by Marc Eliot Copyright © 2012 by Marc Eliot. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of thi excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.