McQUEEN: The Untold Story of A Bad Boy in Hollywood. By Penina Spiegel. Doubleday. 367 pp. $17.95; MY HUSBAND, MY FRIEND. By Neile McQueen Toffel. Atheneum. 326 pp. $17.95.
TERRENCE Steven McQueen was born in 1930 into a family of midwestern hog farmers as rife with fractured eccentrics and rural burn-out cases as the bleakly mythical family in the Sam Shepard play, Buried Child.
McQueen's father fled the family when his son was 6 months old, and the two never saw each other again. When his mother left not long afterwards, he was shuttled among the households of largely indifferent relatives, and eventually ended up in a juvenile institution. By age 14, he was on his own, making his way in the world as a pool shark, hubcap thief and shoplifter.
As proof that old habits die hard, Nile McQueen Toffel, McQueen's wife of 16 years, and the author of My Husband, My Friend, one of two new books on McQueen, reveals that he was still shoplifting in the late 1950s, even after he'd become a TV star in the series, Wanted: Dead Or Alive.
It was in the 1960s that McQueen's Hollywood career really began to flourish. And by the late 1970s, films like The Sand Pebbles, The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt and Papillon had made the former hubcap thief the world's biggest box office star and its highest paid actor. (He received $4 million for I, Tom Horn, his next to last picture, released in 1980.)
By late 1980, he was dead, at age 50, of mesothelioma, a particularly virulent form of cancer.
McQueen's tempestuous life-story is told from considerably different perspectives by these two authors, one the ex-wife, the other a professional biographer. While Penina Spiegel, the biographer, relates it with more dtail and a bit more objectivity in The Untold Story of a Bad Boy in Hollywood, Neile McQueen Toffel tells it from the more intimate and admittedly narrower perspective of the personal confesssion in My Husband, My Friend.
Spiegel's The Untold Story is, as you might surmise from the title, a standard star biography -- albeit a solidly researched and cohesively compiled one. The author, a veteran entertainment journalist, gives us a wealth of information, some journeyman critical analysis, and even an extensive filmography of McQueen's lengthy career -- far more than Toffel's book offers in this area.
Spiegel's main preoccupation, however, seems to be capturing the immensity of McQueen's celebrity (recalling the mobs that flocked to his rare personal appearances, cataloguing his huge collection of nearly 200 racing and recreational vehicles, etc.) and chronicling the extent to which he reveled in the excesses of the Hollywood star system. (For instance, she relates how, in 1965, he prepared for the role of a professional gambler in The Cincinnati Kid by requisitioning a $3,000-a-day production associate and $25,000 in cash from the film company and going on a two-week gambling and cocaine binge in Las Vegas.)
Spiegel similarly spares no detail as she delves into McQueen's later years, when he slipped first into a bizarre Howard Hughes- like reclusion, then into terminal illness. HER RESEARCH, THOUGH, is hampered by a prose style that all too frequently has the cadences of a flopping tire; often, the only thing more torturous than McQueen's hard- fought but futile battle against cancer is the fusillade of exclamatory sentences and misfired metaphors Spiegel uses to describe it. (Of one McQueen acquaintance she writes, "Under the businessman-like exterior, however, beat a heart just as dashing as that of a movie star.")
In writing what proves to be the more ambitious and satisfying of these two books, Spiegel obviously had access to Toffel, the author of the other. And, ironically, in her own book, she gives subtle (and most likely unintentional) endorsement of Toffel's My Husband, My Friend. "Neile," Spiegel tells us, "knew him (McQueen) better than anyone else did."
All the same, My Husband, My Friend gets off to a less than promising start. Toffel's factual detail in the early chapters is irritatingly sketchy, and her narrative has the tepid gloss of coffee-table chatter. Like Spiegel, she, too, frequently lapses into "golly-gee- whiz" prose excesses.
In fact, it's not until more than 200 pages into her book that Toffel finally gives in to the painful candor of the scorned wife and gets down to the kind of lurid, nitty-gritty details (car crashes, drug binges, scenes of domestic violence, etc.) from which great Hollywood "tell-alls" are fashioned. When she does, her unresolved anger and sense of injury spills out across the pages, nearly as palpable as printer's ink.
Both authors, each in her own way, seem to rail valiantly against the conclusions toward which their revelations irretrievably lead the reader; which is to say, they both struggle against overwhelming evidence to make McQueen seem likeable. Sadly, in both books, the man who ultimately emerges is, despite immense surface charm and fierce personal magnetism, rather unsavory: abrasively selfish, recklessly irresponsible, a wife-beater and compulsive philanderer. He is seen as a shabby opportunist who never escaped the rapacious mentality of the teen- aged hubcap thief or the hopeless insecurities of the abandoned child; and was far more interested in "the scam" of his profession than its potential for art.
The McQueen the reader encounters in both books is a man driven by a heedless compulsion for adventure (whether it was in the form of fast cars, group sex or exotic drugs) that his star-struck friens often mistook for courage. He is recalled by these two biographers as a man who was frighteningly short on real courage or compassion, until the final months of his life, when he was confronted by death itself.