James Hill is a former senior editor for The Washington Post News Media Services.
Make no mistake about it, Ray Kroc was no Willy Loman.
Unlike the troubled character in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” the hard-charging Kroc knew what he wanted and set out to get it by all the means he could muster. When he died in 1984, he commanded an empire that spanned the world, changed the eating habits (probably not for the better) of a generation of post-World War II Americans, and made him and many of his associates unbelievably rich — all thanks to a hamburger stand he came upon in Southern California. Golden arches would become this salesman’s Midas touch.
Yet attention must also be paid to his third wife, Joan, a dashing blonde with a talent for the keyboard who caught Kroc’s eye one night while playing a Hammond organ in an upscale restaurant in St. Paul, Minn. Impoverished as a child, and not much better off in early adulthood, she dreamed of better years to come — and did they ever.
It was a long time before Kroc married her, but when the wedding finally came about (it was complicated, as we will get to later), Joan Beverly Mansfield Smith Kroc joined the ranks of America’s super-rich. And in doing so, she became St. Joan of the Arches.
Lisa Napoli’s entertaining biography of the Krocs is subtitled somewhat misleadingly: “The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away.” Ray Kroc, at the urging of his publicists, was a bit of a philanthropist himself, as evidenced by his generosity to Dartmouth College, his corporation’s belief in community outreach and the Ronald McDonald Houses for families of children undergoing long hospitalizations. By no means did St. Joan clear out the family checkbook; nor did she die destitute in 2003. And she looked after her heirs.
What Napoli captures so well is a woman who, having gotten so much for the simple act of saying “I do,” decided that others were as equally entitled to her good fortune as she was — and acted accordingly.
Not that it was easy. As Napoli writes: “There were civic obligations, of course. Mrs. Ray Kroc was thrust into the circuit with the likes of other high-society wives whose lives were dedicated to the betterment of the communities where their husbands had become (or been born) rich, boosters of the underclass and afflicted. Fancy luncheons and demure garden parties filled the days, in the service of planning galas that occupied their nights, all in the name of supporting important and worthy, if predictable, causes: children’s hospitals and museums and the committee to save, fix, or cure this and that malady or social ill.”
And there was Ray’s drinking. Not that Joan was a teetotaler. Yet it is obvious that Ray’s boozing weighed heavily on her. She refused his first proposal (Napoli doesn’t speculate on whether drinking was to blame), and he married another woman instead. When she came back into his life and finally agreed to a marriage, the relationship was often stormy. Even before his death, she started Operation Cork (Kroc spelled backward), which dealt with the problems of alcoholism.
Widowhood was Joan Kroc’s liberation. In San Diego and around the world, she ran with her own rat pack, which included Helen Copley of the publishing fortune, former San Diego mayor Maureen O’Connor — an heir to the Jack in the Box hamburger millions — and the actress Mercedes McCambridge. Kroc started doling out money, much of it anonymously, and, when her time on Earth was nearly over, she wrote up a will that disbursed more than $2.7 billion, including more than $1 billion to the Salvation Army and $225 million to NPR.
But mostly, she became a voice for the voiceless, as seen in her brave attempt to bring order and sanity out of the chaos of a madman’s rampage in 1984 at a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro, Calif., that killed 21 and injured 19. She took it upon herself to start a fund for the victims, donating $100,000, and she insisted that the widow and two young children of the gunman would be among the beneficiaries at a time when most people in San Ysidro were still enraged over the killings.
Napoli has given us a book that is a snapshot of 20th-century America, particularly in the postwar years. That her two main characters were both rags-to-riches stories makes it all the more appealing. The author’s portrait of the eccentric Joan Kroc is particularly engaging. Piecing together her character was no easy task; despite Joan’s close friendships with Norman Cousins, the legendary Saturday Review editor, and Los Angeles Times political cartoonist Paul Conrad, two of journalism’s royalty, she was press shy — perhaps a reason no one had attempted a biography until Napoli, a veteran reporter, appointed herself to do the job.
“She hated the idea that someone might write a book about her,” Napoli notes. “Her death wouldn’t mean the end of the edict for silence.”
That silence has been broken. Maybe St. Joan will now approve.
By Lisa Napoli
Dutton. 353 pp. $27