BOOK REVIEW: ‘Steve McQueen’: The Troubling Real Story Behind the Legend of The King of Cool

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Steve McQueen': The Troubling Real Story Behind the Legend of The King of Cool
Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott? 
 Maxwell Scott: No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. — “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” 1962

Wouldn’t it be great if the image we have of Steve McQueen in, say “Bullitt” or “The Great Escape” or “The Sand Pebbles” or “The Thomas Crown Affair” — the ultimate Mr. Cool —  matched the reality of a man who was unable to remain faithful to his first two wives, Neile Adams and Ali MacGraw and who beat them, relates Marc Eliot in “Steve McQueen: A Biography” (Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group of Random House, 368 pages, photos, filmography, index, $26.00).

 It was OK for McQueen to openly flaunt his infidelities, but he literally pounded out the admission from MacGraw that she had had an affair while they were married. After all, he had stolen MacGraw, the number one female star in the world,  away from her husband, producer and actor Bob (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”)  Evans, while they were filming “The Getaway” (1972).

Eliot says although McQueen was born the same year  1930 (in Beech Grove, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis)  as Clint Eastwood(also the subject of a biography by the prolific Eliot), he was obsessed with a fellow Midwesterner born in 1925, Paul Newman, from Cleveland, Ohio. They were on screen together in “The Towering Inferno”  (1974).

The story of the credit placement of the names of the two superstar actors on the theater poster shows how important these matters are to the ultimate narcissists of Hollywood. Why — and how —  would anyone become a movie star if they weren’t a narcissist!   Think about it: McQueen, who died of the complications of mesothelioma in 1980, was a contemporary of Eastwood, who is still active. Eliot says that Eastwood kept his eye on the franchise prize, especially with the Harry Callahan  series which began with “Dirty Harry”, directed by Don Siegel in 1971.

That was fully three years after “Bullitt”, which directly inspired Eastwood’s franchise, even to the setting in San Francisco. It also made possible chase films like “The French Connection” (1971) and “Duel” (1971) Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut.    Instead of following up with more “Bullitt” movies, beautifully directed by Peter Yates with a great cast and a magnificent score by Lalo Schifrin, McQueen jumped around in genres, often coming up with critical and box office duds.

Eastwood in those days was all about the money, Eliot says, while money to McQueen was something to be spent on lavish estates, along with more than 20 cars, 100 motorcycles and scads of motoring memorabilily that was auctioned off in Nov. 1980 by his third wife, Barbara Minty.   McQueen was the ultimate Method actor, studying with Method teachers in his New York stage and TV years. Maybe this is why the relatively short (5-8) actor used his blue-eyed, blond physical beauty, his soft-spoken manner, his tempered roughness, and his aching vulnerability had women swooning and men wanting to be just like him.
His life was an act  and during his lifetime public relations specialists managed to keep it that way. Thirty-one years after he lost his battle against cancer  McQueen remains “The King of Cool.” Yet, few know the truth of what bubbled beneath his composed exterior and shaped his career, his passions, and his private life. In this very comprehensive biography Marc Eliot accomplishes this goal.

About the Author

Marc Eliot is the “New York Times” bestselling author of more than a dozen books on popular culture, among them the highly acclaimed biographies American Rebel: The Life of Clint EastwoodCary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart; the award-winning Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark PrinceDown 42nd Street; what many consider the best book about the sixties, his biography of Phil Ochs, Death of a RebelTake It From Me (with Erin Brokovich); Down Thunder Road: The Making of Bruce SpringsteenTo the Limit: The Untold Story of the Eagles; and Reagan: The Hollywood Years. He has written on the media and pop culture for numerous publications, including Penthouse, L.A. Weekly, and California magazine. He divides his time among New York City; Woodstock, New York; Los Angeles; and the Far East. His website:


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