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, ...
“Most of us aren't really interested in the real McQueen, we just want the tough guy from Bullitt. Fortunately, author Marc Eliot isn't in that group. In Steve McQueen: A Biography, readers meet a complex, haunted man who might not make many most-admired lists….Eliot doesn't pass judgment on McQueen. Instead, he essentially retells the classic American drama: a man coming up from nothing and but for a quirk of fate — in McQueen's case, possession of a steely gaze that would do nothing on a stage but rivet a camera.”—USAToday.com, 3 out of 4 stars
“As Marc Eliot reminds us, Steve McQueen was just eight weeks older than Clint Eastwood. He might be alive still, as prominent, laconic, and anti-heroic a screen figure as Clint, and maybe even a notable producer and director. Eastwood has won just about every prize there is, and he has made the journey that probably appealed to him the most—from a working-class kid to a movie cowboy to one of the most esteemed figures and authentic stars remaining in American show business. Eastwood is an auteur and a respectable American. McQueen was none of those things…. [Yet] you can’t take your eyes off him. As an actor, he is more compelling and mysterious than Eastwood. “—David Thomson, The New Republic
“A fine biography that makes us feel like we know and understand its subject.” —Booklist
“McQueen’s life and the cultural context Eliot explores make for a good read.” —Library Journal