the last four years of his life, Steve McQueen only let one person
come close to him: his wife, Barbara. For the first time she tells
their story and reveals the vulnerable side of a movie icon. By
Picture this: you are in
your mid-twenties and you meet the love of your life. You spend
every day together and are rarely apart; your life together is
an extended date. You ride motorcycles, fly antique aeroplanes,
sit side by side in rocking chairs drinking beer and watching
the sun set. Sometimes you'll get in the pick-up truck, go to
flea markets, collect cast-iron toys.
You're young. This person is older than
you - 23 years older - and looks out for you, cherishes you, makes
you feel safe. You plan to spend the rest of your lives together,
even though neither of you make plans because you live in the
moment. Then, after 31/2 years, it stops.
He dies, a messy, drawn-out death from incurable
cancer. For the last six months of his life you take care of him.
You watch the person you love, who was so virile and active, fade
away, and you are helpless. At 27 you become a widow. Do you ever
recover? Not really. You move on with your life, but emotionally
you stay frozen in time. Imagine too that this person is a film
star, mourned not just by you, but by the rest of the world. An
icon whose image is synonymous with speed, freedom, American cool
and low-key glamour; a private man whose death only enhances public
curiosity. If you turn on the TV and one of his films is on, you
switch channels. You can't watch or you'll break down. If you
open a magazine and his face stares out at you, you flip away
from the page. If you're in Times Square and his image looms from
a billboard, you stare at the ground.
For Barbara McQueen, this narrative has
been her life. It's easy to understand why, 26 years since Steve
McQueen's death, he's still haunting her. It wasn't just the films
- The Great Escape, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Cincinnati Kid,
The Getaway, Papillon - that cemented his iconic status. It was
the aura, the fact that he lived on his own terms, trusting nobody,
known by only a select few.
Barbara McQueen rarely speaks to the press.
She lives in the true wilderness area of Montana, where it seems
a grizzly bear could emerge at any second. Turning into the driveway
of a modest blue farmhouse is a handmade sign on the fence that
reads "If You Go Past This Point You Better Have a Damn Good
Reason" - a favourite staying of Steve's. Despite the warning,
the house is whimsical and playful. Fairy lights are strung out
on the porch above the rocking chairs the McQueens used to have
at their house in Santa Paula, California, and a stuffed teddy
bear hangs out of a second-storey window.
She greets me barefoot, wearing pink Mickey
Mouse pyjama bottoms, Gucci rose-tinted sunglasses, a black fleece
pullover and diamond studs in her ears. She is tall and slim;
her shiny black hair with a reddish tint is pulled back in a ponytail.
A headband conceals the fringe that a girl friend recently talked
her into cutting after they had both had a little too much to
I wasn't sure what to expect: the photos
in her book are from her modelling days in the late 1970s, and
then with McQueen while she was in her twenties. Now, just past
50, she has, like McQueen himself, remained ageless. When I tell
her she looks virtually the same - down to how she wears her hair
- she says it's the make-up. She is the type of woman who will
chop wood in pink lipstick. Her voice is deep and serious, but
she laughs easily and has a girlish manner. Friends call her Barbie.
She seems both naive and worldly, willing to let down her guard
- but only so much.
Her home resembles a doll's house, packed
with antique toys, second-hand furniture; many of the items belonged
to Steve. There is a cigarette machine at the bottom of the stairs,
a bed in the guest room, two saddles - one in the kitchen and
above it hangs the horsehair bridle - a wedding gift. Everywhere
you look, you feel his presence.
Barbara's bedroom could be the bedroom of
a 16-year-old girl, except she instructs me not to trip over the
rifle that peeks out from under the bed. Over the bed is a framed
poster of a young Steve McQueen, printed for the November 2006
auction of his estate, at the Peterson Automotive Museum in LA.
Hundreds of personal effects - motorcycles like his 1929 Harley
Model B and 1934 Indian Scout, clothing, toys, even a Master Charge
credit card that used to belong to Barbara - were auctioned off.
She says it was liberating. "It was
great stuff but I was worried about it - I had all of it in the
house in Arizona. And it was a classy auction." The Persol
sunglasses he wore in The Thomas Crown Affair went for $70,000.
"Can you believe that?" she says, genuinely baffled.
Fifty per cent ?of the money went to the Boys' Republic, the reform
school Steve attended in his teens. Some accused her of cashing
in, exploiting his legacy. "I got plenty of money - and I
don't care what people think. I earned it - I deserved it. I don't
care. You couldn't pay me - what I did with Steve when he was
sick? I earned it."
So why did she wait so long? Purging the
memory wasn't the motive, nor was seeking out the notoriety. Turning
50, she felt it was time. It was the age Steve was when he died.
She writes: "It's as if a veil had been lifted."
She also admits that the process of dealing
with it hurt too much. Going through the items, letting go of
them? she couldn't talk about him. And it's still difficult. She
has never spoken about him at such length, and the memory is still
raw. Yet she has been remarried, happily, for 16 years. Her husband,
Dave Brunsvold, must get frustrated with the ghost in their marriage.
How does he feel about the picture of McQueen hanging over the
bed? Barbara laughs. She says this house is her place to hide
out, whereas he prefers Arizona. She says sometimes she'll goof
and call Dave "Steve", then admits, yes, it's hard for
him. Later I'll meet Dave, and he is similar to McQueen in manner
and temperament. He is protective of Barbara, slightly aloof,
and in nobody's shadow.
We settle in downstairs. "The only
thing I won't talk about is Steve's death," she says. "I
don't think it's anybody's business. He's got children and grandchildren
and they don't need to know the truth."
She is still close to Chad McQueen, Steve's
son, and was close to Terry, his daughter who passed away in 1998
from a genetic metabolism disorder. While filming The Hunter,
Steve had a persistent cough. When filming stopped, Barbara made
him see a doctor. The diagnosis was terminal. A year later, Steve
died after surgery to remove a couple of tumours in his neck and
abdomen. The last six months were spent in Juarez, Mexico, where
he was getting alternative treatments. Why, with all the money
available for cutting-edge treatment at Cedars-Sinai hospital,
near their California home, would he choose Mexico?
"Mexico was his last hope for the alternative
medicines. He said to me when he found out he was sick, 'Okay,
honey, what do you want to do? You want to have some fun - go
live in the desert, travel, or try the alternatives.' And I'm
in love - of course I say I want to try the alternatives."
Did she trust what they were doing? She
laughs and gives me a look. "You don't talk Steve McQueen
out of anything. What he wants to do, he's gonna do." Often
without realising it, she speaks about him in the present tense.
"I could tell the hanger-onners - people who were out for
the bucks. But if that's what he needed to do, that's what we
were gonna do to make him comfortable." In fact, he had been
to Cedars and conventional medicine had written him off. "I
didn't know it, but they'd told him he had three to six months
to live. That it was incurable."
Mesothelioma is an aggressive asbestos-related
cancer. Nobody knows for sure how he got it, but it's believed
it came from when he was in the merchant marine (in ?1946-7).
One of his duties was to clean and scrape the ceiling in one of
the old ships. There's also the possibility that it could have
come from racing. The fireproof cloth that goes under the masks
was made of asbestos.
"They told me five to six years,"
Barbara says, sounding angry. After he passed away she went to
Cedars and let them know she was livid. "We could've gone
to the desert if I'd known it was that bad. That pissed me off."
If they hadn't tried to protect her and
told her the truth, she says she would have chosen differently.
"Had I known it would be three to six months, I'd have said
to him, 'Let's do whatever you want to do - it's your story now.'
But I got bad information. He says, 'What do you want to do?'
I wanted to do anything I could to get a couple more years."
Just then her voice becomes stern. "Don't delve on the death
part too much - it freaks me out." She pauses. Did he have
fear about his death? The phone rings and Barbara jumps up. "Perfect
timing! I don't want to talk about that."
It's her husband, Dave. He's driving on
his way up from their home in Arizona. When the call is over she
sits down again. "The other day a girl friend called me and
said, 'You have to watch Thomas Crown, you have to see what Faye
Dunaway was wearing.' I started to watch and I was wailing."
She doesn't know exactly why she was crying so hard, but she didn't
recognise the man on the screen. She doesn't see McQueen as a
movie star, and never has. "I didn't marry a movie star.
I married a guy named Steve who had a scruffy beard and long hair
and liked to ride around in pick-up trucks and drink beer. That
was my guy."
By the time they got together, McQueen wanted
to be nondescript and unrecognised. But if it went on too long
and someone gave him that everyday snub, all of a sudden he would
turn into Steve McQueen the movie star. "But it didn't last
long," Barbara says, dismissing his need for attention. "They
could gush over him for a little bit and then it was done. We
had a really simple, easy life."
How they met, in 1977, is described in the
book. After seeing her photo in a Club Med ad, McQueen devised
a way for them to meet: he arranged through her modelling agent
to audition Barbara for a role in his new movie. She flew out
to LA, thinking she was meeting Paul Newman. "I didn't know
the difference. I saw The Towering Inferno in high school - they
were both in it." The meeting took place over lunch at the
Beverly Wilshire hotel, where he was living at the time. "In
walks this grizzly, gruff man and the first thing he said was,
'My, you're tall.' I'm 5ft 10in and we looked eye to eye - and
we sat down and he ordered two beers with ice. That was his deal,
he always had to have two of everything. I think it was something
from his childhood."
Barbara knew right away that she would marry
him, even though during their initial meeting she didn't say a
word. The following day she was by the pool at the hotel in a
bikini and he appeared standing over her. He had his two beers
and took her to the sauna. Everyone was kept out while he grilled
her about her values and personal beliefs. "They were really
personal questions: what I thought about this and that, my family?"
Was he auditioning her as a girlfriend? "Honest to God, I
have no clue. Women were swarming him. He asked if I wanted to
have dinner. There was an instant attraction: he had something
that just meshed. I've never had that before."
Later that evening when she went to his
room for dinner, he opened the door and two blondes were in the
room. "These chicks turn around - this was Steve McQueen,
the movie star - everything was gold, white shirts, huge tits,
tight pants. I start to walk away and he grabs my arm and says
they were just leaving, and he kicks them out."
It was the July 4 weekend. After dinner
they got in his car and drove up the coast. When they got to a
motel, McQueen handed her a T-shirt, socks and a toothbrush and
made her floss her teeth. "The rest is history," she
The scenario is not unfamiliar. A young,
pretty model and an older, charismatic Hollywood actor. But what
distinguished this encounter is that McQueen was notoriously distrustful.
He was known to test people - to assume everyone was trying to
con him. But with Barbara there was an immediate trust and intimacy.
Other than a few paparazzo shots and publicity stills, in his
last five years he didn't let anyone other than Barbara photograph
He allowed himself to relax in front of
her lens because he didn't question her motives. "I didn't
want anything from him. He felt that." Why was he so distrusting?
"His whole life he'd been screwed by people. Stuff that happened
in his childhood?" She doesn't finish the sentence and instead
tells a story about his need for reassurance. "He didn't
like me to work. But once, I had to take an assignment and I went
to San Fran. I was ready to go to bed and he called me and said,
'Honey, I don't feel good. Can you come home?' I'm like, 'Now?'
He's like, 'Yeah.' So I got home at 3am and he was fine! I guess
he just wanted to test how much I cared."
Unsure about how having revealed his insecurity
would be interpreted, she adds: "Everyone's insecure. I got
tested constantly. Now I understand it. Then I didn't, but if
you love someone - I could hear it in his voice - he needed me."
When Barbara decided to publish her archive
of photos and co-write the manuscript, she knew she would only
tell the loving and kind side of Steve. But some of the stories
hint at a darker side, a complexity that is not explained.
The Steve McQueen who was difficult to live
with and demanding on set is not on the page. She mentions his
ego but only teasingly. By the time she "got him", he
had nothing to prove. He had found someone he could be happy with.
Someone with no ulterior agenda. "He liked that I didn't
know he was a movie star. It took a long time to figure out, 'Oh,
this is what you do.' We never watched his movies or did anything
Surely they argued about some things? "He
didn't argue with me. He had a temper, but not with me. He treated
me really well. I heard stories about his other wives but he never
laid a hand on me. He left all that crap behind him."
McQueen had been married twice before: to
his first wife, Neile (with whom he had his children), from 1956
to 1972, then to Ali MacGraw, his co-star in The Getaway, from
1973 to 1978. Was there acrimony over his legacy? "I'm not
going there," she says. "I will not talk about the ex-wives,
although Ali MacGraw is a very wonderful woman.
"People take liberties when they write
about him," she says, referring to the countless books and
documentaries. "He was a gentle person. He was my husband
and lover, and we were together for four years. He was really
vulnerable. He put on a strong front." When asked why people
are still obsessed with him, she shrugs. "He was this beautiful,
magnificent man. A hunk. And he screams charisma."
As for what drove him, she thinks everything
stemmed from his childhood. "I was adopted and wanted to
find ?my birth parents and he said, 'No, don't do that, you'll
only make yourself miserable.' He tried to find his father, and
when he found him he was dead. His mother died when he was, I
think, with Ali, and he never had much contact. It scarred him
for life. Thank God she put him in Boys' Republic - that probably
saved him." Steve McQueen was born in Indiana and raised
by his uncle in Slater, Missouri. His mother had left him but
reappeared several times, ?and when Steve was 12 he was taken
to live with her and his abusive stepfather in California. Soon
afterwards he ? was placed in the Boys' Republic, a "home
for wayward boys". McQueen never knew his father, who left
when ?he was six months old. It's been written that he was a ?stunt
pilot for an aerial circus and that Steve's attraction ? to flying
was a way to connect to him.
Barbara and Steve's days were simple. He
would get up, have coffee, read the papers, feed the animals -
go flying, maybe go downtown to a Chinese restaurant. He had plenty
of money but was seeking a less complicated existence, so they
lived in smaller houses and, for a while, in an aircraft hangar.
McQueen would be in his late seventies now.
After his death, Barbara went to her house in Idaho. She was drained.
She began dating someone else and, even though that relationship
lasted four years - the same amount of time she was with Steve
- she was still, in her mind, married to him. Does she think about
how her life with him would be now? "If we'd still be married,
we'd have half a dozen kids, be living on the ranch. I try not
to think too much about it."
She keeps his name because he told her to.
"When we were married, he was getting skinny and I thought
something might be wrong. He said, 'Honey, you're a McQueen, you
earned that name, you keep it.' " Did he know his legacy
would be this strong? She pauses. "I think so."
There is a trunk that used to belong to
him in a corner. She hasn't opened it and doesn't know what's
inside. "I've had times when I've been alone and found something
I didn't know I had - I break down on my knees, wailing about
how much I miss him." She begins to cry, goes upstairs. When
she reappears she tells me our conversation is digging up a lot
of feelings. "I keep myself extremely guarded." It doesn't
seem likely that she'd have been in therapy, and when asked, she
responds without hesitation: "No! Budweiser ? therapy, that's
it. My therapy's the country - the land. Crying is good, but I
refuse to do it all the time. Steve wouldn't want me to do that.
He taught me strength. Keep your chin up, don't let anyone fool
you. I had a couple of months watching someone die. Being there
24/7 - it was the long goodbye. He always said, 'Be strong, honey
- it's inevitable, it's going to happen.' "
So much of his world became her world, even
before he got sick.He was the first person to turn her on to Kiehl's
beauty products. He took good care of his hair. And he had lotions
for his face. Even when he looked his scruffiest he was vain.
"Let's just say he was very clean," she says, laughing.
"He had great hygiene." She still uses the same brand
of shampoo he used.
The talk turns to her plans for the summer.
She's going to learn clay-pigeon shooting and work on decorating
the house. She might put a target at the back of the garden and
learn to shoot a bow and arrow. Her relationship with McQueen
has shaped and defined her life. When she's alone, he's sitting
on the sofa next to her. And because of him, she feels there is
nothing she can't get through. Even an interview.
"He was a great teacher. He taught
me so much. I don't take shit from anyone. He made me a strong
woman. He made me what I am." s