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Acclaimed biographer Marshall Terrill has recently released a brand new McQueen bio titled Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon
which features revelationary new discoveries which will interest both hardcore and casual fans alike. Discoveries of a deeply intimate and emotionally
powerful nature which bring to light information that Steve himself passionately sought but never found.|
Marshall talks with McQueenOnline about the new book.
MO: Congratulations on your new McQueen bio. I feel it eclipses your previous Portrait of an American Rebel and is undoubtedly the
best biography on McQueen on the market today. For those who are unaware you released Portrait in 1993, and did an updated and expanded version in 2005. When did you start work on Life and Legend and what were your energy levels for the subject?
Terrill: I started thinking about doing something in 2008 for I knew the 30th anniversary of McQueen's death was coming up in November 2010. At first I thought about re-releasing Portrait and expanding the first five chapters, which admittedly were weak. That's because there simply wasn't much information available at the time I started Portrait back in '89. Open records laws weren't as easy to access back then save for McQueen's FBI file. As I started writing, I realized I couldn't cheat readers with just an expanded five chapters and decided in the summer of 2009 to go for broke and write an entirely new book when I was tendered a contract by Triumph. A week before I started, Andrew Antoniades, my editor, came on board and was like manna from heaven. Andrew really kept me sane and my energy levels high because he buoyed my spirits with great edits. Writing a 610-page biography in the span of a year-and-a-half is insane but with the help of Andrew and a host of others working behind-the-scenes to help me, we got it done in record time. Andrew, by the way, is working on a Films of Steve McQueen coffee table book (produced by Dalton Watson) and our roles will be reversed this time around. He's going to write and I'm going to edit. I'm very proud of Andrew and what we've been able to accomplish. Look for his book in late 2011.
MO: How many new subjects did you interview for Life and Legend and who were the most significant?
Terrill: I think I interviewed about 60 new subjects for Legend and the most significant were Dr. Santos Vargas, who performed the last operation on McQueen in Mexico, and Terri McQueen, who is Steve's half-sister. She was able to provide a lot of good information on her father, William, as well as some great photos, which are in the book. I was also able to obtain interviews with actors Martin Landau and Robert Loggia, people who knew McQueen at the Actor's Studio. Writer John Gilmore, who had a very contentious relationship with McQueen, was also very insightful as was Jack Garfein, who helped McQueen get into the Actor's Studio. Janet Conway, who was McQueen's girlfriend before he met Neile, was also a great help. I hate to sound so politically correct, but every new voice was helpful because it helps to assemble the puzzle of McQueen's life. That's how I look at his life – one great big puzzle. He was a complex and complicated man and to piece it all together is the ultimate jigsaw puzzle.
MO: For me the most revelationary part of the book is all the information on Steve's father, William McQueen. How were you able to finally track him down?
Terrill: I was lucky because if there was truly a ghost in this world, it was William McQueen. There was not one shred of documented evidence that he existed at the time I wrote Portrait, and over the years, it was beginning to look like he was never going to be identified. Then when I started writing Legend, I went to Ancestry.com to trace McQueen's heritage... and lo and behold, there was William McQueen's name, birth date and date of his death on the McQueen family tree. That gave me all the tools I needed to find out who he was. In Chapter Twelve of the new book called “In The Name of the Father,” readers will finally find out who William McQueen was, where he went and why he abandoned Julian and Steve.
MO: And through the discovery of William's documents you were led to the additional revelation of the existence of Steve's half-sister Terri...
Terrill: Yes, the discovery of Terri was quite a surprise because not only was I not looking for her, but had no clue she even existed. What happened was that once I got a hold of William McQueen's pertinent information, I was able to access his military file. It addition to two mug shots of William (the first pictures I had ever seen of him), he listed under dependents his daughter Terri. That's when I went, “Bingo! Steve has a half-sister.” The question that remained was is she still alive and is she willing to talk? I had to hire a private detective to find her because Terri was hard to track down.
|William in the Merchant Marines|
Steve's sister Terri McQueen in 1963|
MO: Can you tell me about your initial meetings with Terri?
Terrill: It was a phone conversation in which I started, “This may be the strangest conversation of your life, but I believe you're Steve McQueen's sister.” She said, “Oh honey, I've known that for years.” I asked her why she kept it a secret for so long and she said, “Who would believe me?” When I asked her for documentation, she provided not only hers and William's birth certificates, but letters to her mother (Alma Doris Moody) from him and photos from William...and her photos matched the photos I had of William, so now I knew for sure we were talking about the same person. I can't believe it took more than 50 years to identify this man but now the puzzle has been solved. I met Terri in person last year at the Steve McQueen Days Festival. I invited her to come and she took me up on the invitation. We had already booked the guests and so out of respect for them, I asked her not to identify herself. She kept her word and no one knew she was there. We had a very nice visit. This year she'll won't have to remain anonymous and now people can meet her if they wish. She's looking forward to the festival and being recognized for the first time in a public forum.
MO: So she is attending the 2011 'Steve McQueen Days' events?
Terrill: Yes, she'll be making her first public appearance at the festival in Slater, Missouri, on April 29-30. She is trying to get as close to Steve's spirit as possible and is glad that she no longer has to hide in the shadows. Terri is a very sweet lady and people are really going to respond well to her because she's got a pure heart.
MO: You write that Terri tried too contact Steve while he was making Bullitt, passing a letter to one of Steve's people. Yet Steve never responded to her. Do you think it is possible the “message” never got relayed to Steve?
Terrill: Yes, that's quite possible...but the feeling I got from Terri is that he knew of her existence. In fact, I believe I uncovered another one of William McQueen's kids in the West Coast, but he did not want to be identified and wanted to remain private. I believe Steve knew about him as well and now, so does Terri. And this kid is yet from another woman that William was with.
MO: What leads you to believe that Steve knew about him?
Terrill: Because a person I interviewed who is related to the subject suggested they had a relationship. This is all speculative and I can't prove it, but it came from the interviewee's mouth, not mine. However, they were freaked out that a.) I knew of them and their family history in regards to William McQueen and b.) I could possibly expose the relationship. After a second phone call with this lady, she shut me down and told me she had talked out of turn and hoped that I would not pursue them or my line of questioning. I had no intention of upsetting their lives and so I respected their wishes. In Terri McQueen's case, she wanted vindication that she was Steve's half-sister and gladly spoke to me. This other person who I believe is William's son wants to remain private and anonymous. He does not go by the McQueen name. There's just a whole can of worms and family dynamics that would be exposed and so I didn't pursue them. He doesn't want to talk or cooperate and so that makes it hard to prove...
MO: One of fascinating things about William McQueen is that he had friends who were in the TV and Movie industry. You specifically reference the fact that he was a friend or acquaintance of Dick Powell who was the boss of Four Star Studios, the producers of Steve's TV series Wanted Dead or Alive. This is an amazing "coincidence..."
Terrill: Look, I think it's pretty clear I am not a sensationalist and would not have written about it had Terri not produced the picture and letters. I staked my entire professional reputation on Terri because she's shown me beyond a shadow of a doubt that William was her father and that some of his famous friends included Dick Powell, Nat King Cole and Hoagy Charmichael. No one was more was blown away than me when Terri told me about Dick Powell and even more blown away when she produced the picture. (editors note: Marshall provided this interviewer with a picture, which at this time cannot be published, of William McQueen and Dick Powell standing together in swimming trunks at the beach). The implication that Powell, who hired Steve for Wanted: Dead or Alive, knew his old man is just staggering. But I've heard from another McQueen family member since Legend has been published that this was well-known within the McQueen family. Steve won the role through his sheer talent, no doubt about it, but it does make one wonder..
MO: Do you mean to say that the family knew Powell had been friends with William McQueen?
Terrill: A lady I met in Beech Grove in October 2010, who happened to be an extended family member of McQueen’s, said it was common knowledge in her family that William knew Dick Powell. This was at a book signing after Legend was published. She gave me a photo of her branch of the McQueen family and it matched the family tree in the book. When people have documentation or photos, it’s very easy to verify who’s a fake and who’s a phony. She was legitimate.
|Dick Powell (from Terri's album)|
MO: On the topic of unknown kin, in your research, have you ever found strong evidence to suggest Steve may have “other” children?
Terrill: Honestly I can say no to that question. Many people have called me over the years and have claimed or been told by their mothers that Steve was their father. I haven’t found any indication where there’s a Steve McQueen love child on the loose. Many people, however, would like to think they’re McQueen’s kids. When I was in Bradford, England in November 2010, a gentleman came up to me and Barbara and said his mother told him he was McQueen’s love child. He was about 63 and said his mother told him McQueen came to England for 10 days in 1947 during his stint in the Marines. He was a nice gentleman and I tried to break it to him gently that I didn’t think that was possible. I knew McQueen sent about 75 percent of his paycheck to Julian that first year (it states so in his military file) in the Marines. I told him I didn’t think he could afford an airline ticket to England because he was notoriously broke and air travel was extremely expensive at the time. I then said let’s look at a second scenario: What if McQueen took a military ship? That would certainly be cheaper, but it would take him 12 days to get to England and 12 days to get back. Tack on the 10 days of leave and you’re talking about taking 34 days off. I’m not a military expert (I am a military brat) but I can say with almost 100 percent certainty the United States Marines would not allow a grunt 34 days off in his first year of service, and certainly not in a row. He was starting to see my logic and shook my hand and said, “Well, I had to check it out. It looks like I’m back to square one.” It was very sad because he told me his mother told this to him on her death bed.
The most famous case I can think of is actor Fred McQueen (aka Fred Spiker). My gut told me he was bogus just base on his actions. For example, he did most of his acting in Japan and didn’t take any acting jobs in the States. If you make a claim like that in the American media, you’d better be prepared to back it up because it’s going to be checked out. So he does a couple of movies in Japan and tells reporters over there he’s Steve McQueen’s illegitimate kid, and got a lot of attention without being questioned. He did come to Santa Barbara for a 2008 screening of Best Wishes for Tomorrow. A reporter there name Barney Brantingham did an interview with Spiker as well as the cast and crew, and they all had their doubts. I guess Spiker would tell them he was McQueen’s son, but then would drop it. Through his body language he was letting it be known that was all he would discuss. He uses the McQueen name but doesn’t want to be questioned about it. Red flag. So Barney reads Legend in late 2010 and emails me. He wrote, “I was surprised you didn’t write anything about Fred McQueen,” I responded, “Because Fred McQueen is not who he says he is and he’s a fake.” I challenged him, “Call Mr. Spiker and ask him to show proof he’s McQueen’s kid. I guarantee he can’t offer any.” Barney did his due diligence and called Spiker’s agent. Within five minutes Spiker calls him at his desk. Spiker pleads with Brantingham not to do the story. Brantingham stood his ground and said Spiker gladly used the McQueen name to promote Best Wishes for Tomorrow so he had an obligation to his readers to set the record straight. Realizing the jig was up, Spiker said, “I quit using the name. There was no proof, and I decided it just wasn’t worth it. This is stupid. I am me, and this is my face.” He also told Brantingham he was quitting acting. Just quit right there on the spot and crumbled like a house of cards. You can read the story here in the Santa Barbara Independent.
MO: Can you tell me how you found out about Janet Conway (Steve’s girlfriend)?
Terrill: Pure luck. I was put in touch with Liz Charles Williams (McQueen's secretary in England) through Bonhams when she put up a pair of spurs in Barbara McQueen's November 2006 auction. I was assembling the Tribute book at the time and so we started a phone and email correspondence. Fast forward to February 2007. Barbara and I held a book signing at 'Book Soup' on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles and I invited Liz to join us. She came with a lady, a family friend, named Ellen Taylor. We all went out to dinner that night and Ellen said, “My aunt, Janet Conway, actually dated Steve in the 1950s. I should put the two of you in touch.” What's the likelihood of that? Steve McQueen's British secretary has a friend who has an aunt who dated McQueen in New York? It's like that old saying, “The harder I work, the luckier I seem to get.” Pure dumb luck, but you know what? I bust my ass on these McQueen books and so I deserve a little manna from heaven every now and then. So I phoned Janet, who is an absolute hoot, and we just clicked. She sent me a contact sheet of her, which I used in the Tribute book. She gave me great insight into Steve and the whole 1950s acting/dancing/Broadway scene in New York. And most of all, she was kind and sweet towards Steve's memory. That's the greatest thing about my job – I get to meet the coolest people and maintain friendships with them. My life is so enriched through my work on Steve McQueen.
MO: As arguably the most knowledgeable McQueen biographer in the world, you must get asked lots of questions by fans. Can you share some of the best/funniest ones?|
Terrill: The most frequent question I get asked is how tall he was. For some reason, that seems to intrigue people. Another question I get a lot is, “Did you know McQueen’s best friend, so and so?” I was recently asked that question in Palm Springs with Barbara McQueen and Pat Johnson in the audience. This gentleman was so convinced that his friend was Steve McQueen’s best friend. He was so astounded I never his name that I had to finally say, “Sir, I’ve studied Steve McQueen’s life for 20 years and I’ve never heard that name. His widow and his best friend, who are also in this room, have also indicated that they don’t know who you’re talking about. I think we can safely say he might not have been Steve McQueen’s best friend.” And inevitably no matter where we are, whenever I’m with Barbara, they want to know about Steve’s time in Mexico and why he chose the alternative treatment route. There’s always one in the crowd. Barbara always handles it tactfully, but she lets them know it’s a sensitive subject that she will not discuss and cut it off right there. But Barbara once provided a very funny answer to a question, and everybody in the place doubled over with laughter. The first year we were in Slater, a local farmer asked, “Hey, did you ever notice that Steve married all brunettes?” And without missing a beat Barbara said, “Yes, that is true, but there were a lot of blondes in between.” She won everyone over at that very moment and Slater just fell in love with her.
MO: Regarding the Kelley Institute's metabolic therapy program for cancer cure, and Steve’s last days under that program at the Plaza Santa Maria in Mexico...to my mind you paint a much less favorable picture of that organization in Legend than you did in Portrait.
Terrill: You're absolutely right and here's why – when I wrote Rebel I was a recent college graduate with no life experience or journalistic training. About five years after Rebel was published, I became a journalist at the age of 35. I did things backwards – usually you're a journalist first and then an author. My point is that I was green when I wrote Portrait but it was the best that I could do at that age. Now I'm 47, have so much more life experience under my belt as well as ten years as a journalist. That definitely affects how you think and question other people. When I re-read Teena Valentino's 800-page diary as a cynical journalist, I saw things I didn't see before. And having training as a journalist helped me to see many red flags. For example, I saw how Dr. Kelley continually pestered McQueen for a press release. When you're a doctor, your job is to take care of your patient and protect them from harm's way. You don't present to them a press release and ask them to sign a document that will benefit your clinic. Second, I took notice of the fact that Kelley claimed he saved thousands of people from cancer and yet not one soul stood up to be counted in the press. If Kelley saved my life, I would do everything I could to repay the man, and strangely, nobody did. The one person claimed Kelley saved her life, a very sweet lady I knew as “Kaye”, never wanted to be publicly recognized. She died in the mid-1990s of cancer and I have always kept my word to never identify her. However, I find it interesting that she always wanted to remain anonymous.
There was also a lot of suspicious behavior at the Plaza Santa Maria, mainly the upper brass. I have no problem with nurses Teena Valentino or Annie Martell. They are good people and were there to genuinely help cancer patients. Others such as Bill Evans, the hospital's administrator, I definitely had a problem with because he openly smoked at the Plaza and in front of cancer patients. I don't know why that angered me so much but it did. McQueen showed up at the clinic with a cigar in his mouth, so it seemed par for the course, but reading that about Evans just irked me. Another person who turned me off was an evangelist named “Lydia,” who rubbed oil on McQueen's belly and proclaimed him cured from cancer. That was just an outright con, and poor Steve believed it. McQueen was even going to attend, unannounced, one of Lydia's Chicago evangelistic meetings later that month and then hold a press conference to announce to the world he was a born again Christian and that he was fully healed from cancer. In Neile McQueen's memoir, she talks about bumping into Lydia and how her showbiz attitude appalled her. Another person worth noting is Rudolpho Rodriguez, the proprietor of the Plaza Santa Maria. He gave McQueen his private cabana for privacy when the press started coming around and then emotionally blackmailed him into making a public announcement that Mexico was saving his life. Reading about how that episode unfolded just made you say to yourself, “Everyone is taking advantage of McQueen.”
Then there was Brugh Joy, who was a “spiritual doctor” who claimed to have healed himself from cancer in 1974. His interview and subsequent prediction that McQueen was probably going to die so upset Steve that he left the Plaza for good. I requested an interview with Joy in the early nineties and again in 2009, and he refused both times. He said both times that McQueen was a client and that it was privileged information. I didn't buy that excuse and pointed out in an email exchange I had with Joy that he had met him just once and how could he be a “client?” I then told Joy that he audio taped their interview, which the world has seen in print and heard many times over, and that it wasn't as private as he thought it was. I added for good measure that he came off very badly in the interview, and that perhaps he should reconsider his position because he made a lot of people cringe when they read Portrait. He was living here in Arizona during our email exchanges and agreed to meet with me at some point in the future. Then I stopped hearing from him for a while and later read on a web site that he died in December 2009. I didn't get good vibes from the man. I found out in subsequent years he charged thousands of dollars from people for these spiritual retreats he led. He took money from wealthy clients and used it to buy lots of land. He acted as if he were some sort of spiritual guru who had the answers to all of life's mysteries. He made a pretty nice living from telling people how he cured himself of cancer. Then he ends up dying of cancer.
|And let's look at what eventually happened to Dr. Kelley...I think he slowly lost his mind. From what I understand through a couple of his associates, he was starting to get paranoid after Steve's death. I'm sure it was a crushing blow to him and his practice but he began carding reporters who showed up at his seminars to verify they were the media and not a government agent. He accused almost anyone within his organization of espionage and claimed the Jews and Scientologists were out to destroy him. He also claimed that a government agent entered the room the night McQueen died and injected his IV with a blood clotting solution. He didn't say that when McQueen first died. He claimed it was an embolism. Kelley ended up living in squalor with a girlfriend in an apartment above a garage and together they would dumpster dive and slam liters of Coke. He claimed it had health redeeming properties. He also began writing hate and racist literature, which blew any credibility he ever had. Today no one from the Plaza Santa Maria will talk about him. Here's what I have come to believe over a period of twenty years of observation: I think Kelley had this infallible belief in his method of treating cancer and that he felt it was the only way. I don't think he was a con artist because he dedicated his whole life to his research and methodology. With that said, I think that if he was so passionate about treating cancer, then he should have gone to medical school (he was a dentist by trade) and become a doctor...and then if he still didn't believe traditional medicine worked, he should have worked within the system and to find alternative ways to treat cancer. What you don't do is badmouth traditional medicine, go to Mexico and work outside of the law.||Dr. William Kelley |
A recent report from the Centers of Disease Control just came out, which was very positive. It states that nearly 12 million Americans are cancer survivors. That's nearly quadrupled from 1971. More cancers are being diagnosed earlier and there's also more effective care and treatment. Cancer used to be a death sentence, but that's no longer the case in many instances. I think whatever an individual decides to do is their business because no one else is in their shoes. Alternative medicine is not the route I would go for treatment but to each his own. The bottom line is that you wouldn't see this sort of activity and shenanigans at a legitimate hospital. It needs to be pointed out that Steve McQueen chose the Plaza Santa Maria of his own free will, and was desperate to find a cure because the doctors at Cedars Sinai Hospital told him to get his affairs in order. He was in a very tough place.
It also needs to be stated that the times were different. Alternative medicine was at a fever pitch in 1980, and many cancer clinics and dissenters promoted this paranoia that the American Medical Association was ripping off the public and controlling medicine. I'm sure some people still feel that way. It was a merging of a couple of things – you had this new media in place with The National Enquirer, a tabloid who was leading the pack when it came to scooping the traditional media. Then you had alternative and traditional medicine warring, and McQueen was stuck in the middle of this firestorm. The only good that came out of that situation is that the media descended upon the Plaza and exposed it for what it was. Unfortunately, they also exposed McQueen at a very vulnerable time in his life and no matter what anyone says, it will always be a part of his legacy.
MO: Other than the Plaza Santa Maria, are there any issues or facts that you have changed your opinion on since writing Portrait?
Terrill: Yes, plenty. I think I've clearly established a few new facts in Legend that Steve McQueen's father, William, was a merchant marine and not a barn storming pilot. I've also established that his mother, Julian, was not a teen runaway. Census documents show that she grew up in the Indianapolis area and that she was living with her parents, Victor and Lillian, when she gave birth to Steve. Julian continued to live with them until Steve turned three. Then, of course, there's the whole chapter devoted to William McQueen, his whereabouts all those years and how he and Alma Doris Moody had a child, Terri McQueen, who is Steve's half-sister. Like Steve, Terri never met her father, and for that matter, never met Steve. There's so much more new information in Legend that it's really tough to list it all.
MO: You used an interesting method in the book, the inclusion of the opinions of a psychologist (Peter O. Whitmer) at various points. Did Whitmer's insights change your viewpoint on Steve in any ways, or did he mainly validate what you had previously felt?
Terrill: Neither. The best way to answer this question is that I knew something was off about McQueen and how he reacted to things, which I knew weren't normal, but could never quite put my finger on how to use that information. I was never able to make sense of his life because I came from an opposite place. I was raised in a very loving and nurturing home, so I couldn't understand how a man who had everything couldn't escape his demons and just shake it off.
Peter was able to clearly articulate the things about McQueen that I had a gut feeling about. Peter laid it all out so beautifully for me and unlocked the mysteries of family dysfunction, substance abuse, mental and emotional abuse, why McQueen sabotaged himself at times, why he was paranoid, why he had a hard time forming intimate relationships, why he cheated...all the things that we already knew as facts but never really knew the reasons why. I needed to know why because I wanted to take Legend to the next level. I could have repeated the same old facts but I knew I would be cheating the reader. Peter's additions will fill in a lot of gaps if they read it with an open mind.
MO: Thanks for doing this interview Marshall, and I hope to talk to you again soon when the filmisation of Portrait of an American Rebel gets underway.
Terrill: Yes, keep your fingers crossed that something big will happen in 2011!