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Book Review: Steve McQueen: The Last Mile

by pete on May 21, 2008

Steve McQueen: The Last Mile
By Barbara McQueen, Dalton-Watson Publishing
Hardcover, 233 pages
ISBN-13 978 1 85443 227 8
$49.00 USD

Click here to order

Book Review by Pete Vack

The Gospel According to Barbara

steve mcqueen
Peter Borsari caught Barb and Steve enjoying an ACE motorcycle.

Steve McQueen would have loved the Legend of the Motorcycle (LoM) shows gaining in popularity in California, (see report by Michael T. Lynch), for McQueen was, at heart, a down-to-earth motorcycle and car enthusiast. Both forms of transportation (as well as vintage planes) competed for his attention in the last few years of his life.
According to Motor Trend’s Matt Stone who wrote “ McQueen’s Machines”, the actor owned over 200 bikes at the time of his death in 1980. Today, there is a Steve McQueen Award at the LoM, This year it was won by Tim Gilligan’s 1966 Triumph T120R, given by McQueen’s son Chad. “To say that Steve loved motorcycles would be like saying Mother Teresa was a very kindly lady,” wrote McQueen’s widow.

While Stone’s most worthy book tracked and highlighted the many cars and bikes owned by McQueen, Steve’s widow Barbara gives us a much more personal view of McQueen, a unique and touching remembrance of the guy most of us considered the “King of Cool.” But very few people ever knew that side of McQueen, and his widow gives us an inside look. Barbara, who met McQueen in 1977, stayed with him until the end. He died of cancer at the age of 50 in November of 1980, but she kept quiet about McQueen for 25 years, until she herself turned 50 in 2003. As she re-examined her life, it now seemed appropriate to write the book she had originally planned with McQueen in 1980. But she would not write about his death. “I have purposely chosen not to write about that chapter in his life…Steve was a private man and want that part of his life kept quiet for a reason.” And so, she says, “..this book will only be sweet, kind and nice. It’s from my heart to his”. The resulting book was published late last year by Dalton-Watson.

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Barbara Minty posing for Harper’s Bazaar in the mid Seventies.

Not very far into the text, we wondered where the book’s author was taking us, or perhaps if it was worth the trip. Barbara McQueen’s (maiden name Minty, currently married to David Brunsvold) memoirs often read like a schoolgirl’s diary. When a date was arranged for her with McQueen by her agent at McQueen’s request, Barbara thought at first she was lined up with Paul Newman. Both Newman and McQueen were starring in the Towering Inferno. Upon meeting McQueen, he looked so different that she had forgotten that this was the young gunslinger in “Wanted Dead or Alive, whose poster had adorned her bedroom. As we proceeded through the book, we were glad we persevered, for eventually, Barbara McQueen paints an eloquent, beautiful and honest picture of Steve McQueen. After a quarter of a century, she had retained her initial awe, yet now sees everything through more mature eyes. She carries it off well, and as an added bonus, correctly identifies the cars trucks, planes and bikes that are scattered throughout the book.

The author gives us just enough information about herself to understand the larger story. Born in 1953 to an Oregon farmer, Barbara Minty grew up to be a model whose face adorned dozens of fashion and women’s magazine covers. By 1978, she was famous in her own right, and on her travels with McQueen, fans chasing them would often be after her autograph, not his.
She picked up Nikon camera, learned how to use it, and spent three years almost constantly taking photos of McQueen. This images constitute the majority of the photos in the book; they are unique portraits of a very private McQueen, but enough to say that while Barbara Minty earned plenty of money in front of the camera she probably did not earn much if any while behind it.

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One of Barbara’s first photos of McQueen.

Perhaps the stories she developes are in better focus than some of her photos. There is truth, unvarnished and unexpected. Barb and Steve are cruising down the highway in his Rolls Royce convertible. McQueen is playing his favorite tape (no doubt an eight track) at full blast, and singing along–in falsetto– to the lead song of the movie “Saturday Night Fever“, “Stayin’ Alive.” “You’re fuckin’ Steve McQueen!!!!” screamed Barbara. “I can understand cranking the volume, but the Bee Gees??? This ain’t cutting it.!”

steve mcqueen
Steve’s driveway in Trancas Beach was cluttered with things like the XKSS, now at the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA.

Barbara never minded his bikes (a rare quality in a wife or girlfriend). “He owned them all”, she wrote, “…Harley, Norton, Ace, Yamaha, Velocette….” and was almost addicted to Indians, primarily because his first bike was a 1946 Indian Chief. McQueen was a walking encyclopedia of the marque as well. Indians were expensive before McQueen came along, but his name added to the sticker price. In 2006, the ex-McQueen 1934 Indian Sport Scout was auctioned for $177,500, a world record.

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McQueen poses wifh a 1941 Indian.

McQueen had a hard time figuring out where to settle in, and seemingly was on the road a lot. He loved Idaho, he loved Colorado, he loved the Malibu beach, but he found a hangar a small town in California named Santa Paula. He bought a Steerman biplane, learned to fly but flunked his pilot’s test three times–McQueen, it seems, was dyslexic. Barb lived with Steve in that hangar for six months until they found a suitable house about three miles away. It was to be his last residence.

In a very poignant section which can be interpreted many ways, Barbara writes that after he learned of his cancer, McQueen, urged on by Barbara’s 6’2” 300 lb rancher father, asked for her hand in marriage. Sort of. “It was a classic Steve moment. ‘Here, are you satisfied?’ he said, a little sheepishly, slipping the ring onto my finger…Then he headed toward the fridge for a beer.” But one comes away with the impression that his behavior was indeed typical McQueen, for the couple seemed to be a good and happy match.

steve mcqueen
He had trouble getting his pilot’s license but did it, and flew his Stearman biplane with the same expertise as he displayed racing Porsches.

At the end of the evening, when we had reached the last page of the “Last Mile“, we set the book on the coffee table. Well damn, this reviewer said. That was a pretty good story after all. Barbara McQueen’s book is honest and sincere and therefore believable, says many things I had not heard or read, and above all I seemed to have come to know the real Steve McQueen if ever so slightly. If you are were. are or want to be a fan of Steve McQueen, read this book.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Nannette February 15, 2009 at 10:44 am

I’d been having dreams of Steve McQueen lately. . .curious, I hadn’t thought of him in years. So I googled him and found this. Very nice book review. Thanks.

Debbie September 3, 2009 at 8:38 pm

I met Barbara Minty McQueen, a few years ago in S.V. Idaho. She is a sweet lady, and still very beautiful. It was fun posing for pics with her. I still have them. It’s fun when I get asked who she is…and when I tell people her name, they want to know more about her. I just tell them, she is a very gracious lady.

Neil Francis September 18, 2009 at 9:49 am

I was and always will be a huge Steve McQueen fan – hi was truly the King of Cool.
May his soul rest in peace and I am very sorry for Ali McGraw – ..

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