For 15 and a half years Neile McQueen Toffel was Mrs. Steve McQueen,
the woman who shared everything with him. Neile has just re-released, in a new special 20th Anniversary edition, her highly successful and deeply intimate 1986 memoir of her marriage to Steve, My Husband, My Friend. In this exclusive interview with McQueenOnline Neile talks candidly about her life with Steve, her reasons for writing the book, and it's unexpected impact on her life.
MO: There are so many people out there who still, today, are so passionate about Steve McQueen,
even though he's been gone since 1980. As his wife, I guess you wonder why other people get so connected to somebody they've never met.
Neile: I don't think you can explain that. I think you walk into a room and there's a stranger across the crowded room and you go right to them. So you just never know. But on the other hand,
with Steve and I, because our backgrounds are so similar, I mean because we had all the stuff going on in our lives, it was just a natural chemistry that drew us together. We just understood each other right from the very beginning.
MO: That's a very special thing and it's hard to find.
Neile: Yes, yes... So he moved in with me in a few days time, because it was either me move into his place, which was awful (laughs), or he move into mine, which was fairly good because I was a working Broadway dancer.
MO: When you first released My Husband, My Friend you expressed that you were unhappy with
the books that were out at the time, and that you wanted to clear up misconceptions.
Neile: There were a few things that happened, I mean I didn't really do that to 'set the record straight', I hate that phrase anyway. I just wanted to... just say it the way it was, and also describe him the way he was, because most of those people had never even met him. Like if you look at certain books that came out after mine, most of what they write is taken from my book, and then they give me credit for saying... "Neile said this" and "Neile said that", "according to Neile"... you know what I mean... there's a lot of that shit that drove me crazy (laughs). But there was another writer who said, "I was the only journalist that he would talk to." I mean... I was around at that time, I thought to myself, "when would he meet with Steve, at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning? That's ridiculous."
Also, somehow, I think the very first book on Steve, I believe when he was still doing Wanted, for some crazy reason they put his height at 5'7", which is totally ludicrous. I've got his passports to prove that he was 5'10 1/2", 5'11". And they said, "well he looks tall because you're little." I said, "That's not the point, I always wear heels, too." (laughs) He was the same height as Bob Redford and Paul Newman,
they were all the same height. Like bookends.
MO: People still argue about that today.
Neile: It's ridiculous. And I'm there to tell them that it's not so and they'll argue with me!
And they've never even seen him! It's insane (laughs).
MO: So he was definitely 5'10 1/2"?
Neile: Oh yeah (laughs), in fact the last 2 passports had him at 5'11", I think it depended on his shoes.
MO: A popular legend is the rivalry between Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. Some writers would have it appear that it consumed Steve...
Neile: Oh, it didn't. But when the opportunity would arise, like when it did with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Towering Inferno, he would rise to the challenge and say, "Oh shit, this is my chance" (laughs) "I'd better do this". But no, he was not consumed by it. And they were friends... Friendly rivals they were.
MO: You've brought the book up to date with present events...
Neile: I changed the cover, and I added a new epilogue, which encompasses
Neile: I changed the cover, and I added a new epilogue, which encompasses
Steve's, my daughter's and my husband's deaths.
MO: You also include more photos?
Neile: And I put more photographs in there, just to update it.
MO: You said that you had to be sensitive when you started to write the book back in 1985 because of Al.
Neile: My husband, yes. He was so kind, and so sweet. Because I had all this stuff inside me that was just waiting to get out, because when Steve died I had just gotten re-married, and it was very difficult to grieve in front of a new husband, so consequently it all started coming out on paper, and Al said "Oh for God's sake, let me get you a word processor, and let's get this out of the way." And he said, "but I'm warning you, this is going to be the end of it, OK, because as much as I love you, and I know you love me, this shit has got to stop." (laughs) So I said "just let me get this out," and true, as soon as my book was over, as soon as the tour was over for the book it was fabulous, it was a fabulous feeling of relief, and then my marriage started with Al really.
MO: So it was a very complete thing for you emotionally.
Neile: Yeah, it was a closure.
MO: You really managed to capture Steve in such a real way that the reader can feel his personality coming through the pages. Can you tell me about the creative process you went through in writing My Husband, My Friend?
Neile: I just did the book from beginning to end, as life unfolded. I had to leave some stuff out, because it got too long, we had to edit out a few things, but on the whole it's all there. I had tons of scrap books - probably about 40 scrapbooks from the time we got married in 1956 till 1968.
So the scrapbooks were there to begin with, and I just would paste everything. So it was our life
together. On top of that I also kept journals, which I still do. And with the scrapbooks and my journals,
when I needed a point of reference, it was pretty easy to really follow it through.
MO: When the book came out in 1986, the Hollywood press were very hard on you for talking about the worst aspects of the marriage breakdown....
Neile: That drove me crazy at the very beginning... they were sort of
unforgiving towards me because I was revealing secrets, so to speak. Priscilla Presley actually started that, and then I did it. But now they understand more... they thought at that point in time I was just calling Steve a wife beater, which is ridiculous. The man never laid a hand on me for the first 14 years of our life together, but the fact that I'd had an affair just really drove him over the edge, and I expected that, really, because I knew him so well, but I didn't think it would destroy our marriage. But it did.
MO: It was a very emotionally "explosive" time for you both..
Neile: Yes, he had... fortunate on one hand and unfortunate on the other...
he had me up on a pedestal, the man really adored me. But he just couldn't help himself as far as the women were concerned, and plus his mid-life crisis coincided with the sexual revolution and the drug culture and all that... I always say that the 'flower children' ruined my life. Because that's when it all really began. While he was discrete in the beginning when he would have a fling here and there, now he would say " well why do I have to hide?" So, anyway, he had me up on this pedestal, and when he found out that I'd had a fling to get even with him, it was difficult for him to take.
For the first 14 years of our lives together he never laid a hand on me. He would explode and he'd be angry and we'd be arguing and all that but he never, never laid a finger on me.
But unfortunately one night, in Le Mans, he gave me some coke. He didn't force me, but he kept saying
"oh please do"... and I was so exhausted and I knew he was not going to let
me go to sleep if I didn't have some coke with him. So I said "OK let me have some." And as soon as I had some.... I don't do any of that stuff, I don't even drink... and it hit me like a ton of bricks, and I started to giggle, which was really surprising. And Steve, having the insticts of an animal, he really did have that, he, I think, knew somewhere along the way that his wife had had an affair somewhere... had done something, because he kept saying, "well you know baby, I'd understand. I would really understand if you had because I've put you through hell." And then I said "really honey?" Well, that was all I had to say... that was my big mistake. Because I never, never would have said anything to Steve. But when I said "really," and I suddenly saw that pain in his eyes because he knew... I thought, "Oh my, this feels good," so I kept on, boy, and that was it, that really started the end.
MO: As much as Steve was dealing with his own pain, you were dealing with your own too because you'd gone through a lot.
Neile: The funny thing is, had he not turned violent on me, I would most likely, I would say 90 percent likely, I would have stayed in that marriage and just rode it out until he got tired of all that shit, which eventually they all do. But unfortunately I couldn't handle the terrorizing more than anything else.
MO: His violent response to you was horrible. I believe it's highly likely that you were the only adult link in his life which represented unconditional love.
MO: You were the only link that he'd ever had in his life. And when that failed, it was like it devastated some fragile aspect of his soul that he'd been very precariously holding onto all his life. And he snapped.
Neile: That's absolutely correct, and he was never the same after that. And unfortunately for poor Ali, who was really crazy about him... it was a whole different deal, it became a whole different life
altogether. He just let himself go, he let his beard grow, he gained weight... all that stuff... he just didn't care. You know... it was like... I mean I really had done it to him, and I really felt guilty about that, I didn't mean to.
MO: Will you have much creative control over the recently announced upcoming film version of My Husband, My Friend?
Neile: Oh yes. That's the reason this book has never been done, is because I need to have some creative control... especially with the young people today who are emerging as producers, because they don't have the life experience, so they are going to go for the womanizing and the drugs and the violence. I know that is what's going to happen because I've had talks with them, and all they can see is that. They forget that the thrust of this story is the love story between two people, and that other stuff is all sidebars. I'll be consultant. We haven't got a home yet, but we will.
MO: So you're confident that your vision will hit the screens?
MO: Hypothetical Question...Clint Eastwood has made some of his biggest and most successful films in his 60's with The Unforgiven and in his 70's with Million Dollar Baby. If Steve was still alive what sort of films do you think he would have been making?
Neile: He was not a film maker. Steve was too subjective. I don't think he would have been able to produce the way Warren Beatty or Clint Eastwood do. That's why Le Mans was such a disaster. I mean, now it's become a cult film, because of the racing and all that, but he couldn't even decide on the leading lady for God's sake, but of course all 'the problems' were arising then, so maybe I'm short changing Steve in that area, but I don't think so... because he did a lot of directing for Tom Horn. (editorial comment: Tom Horn is a great but deeply flawed film.) He was wonderful with details, you know, but he didn't have the overall vision that Clint Eastwood does.
MO: Then as an actor (you played a major part in helping him pick his best roles) what sort of roles would you have had him play in his 50's and 60's?
Neile: That I don't know, I would have had to read the script, but certainly... play his age.
I wouldn't have had him playing opposite a 20-year-old when he was 60 pretending to be 30.
MO: Do you think he would have turned into a good character actor?
Neile: He really was a fabulous actor. And that Enemy of the People, when he first told me about it, I forgot about Ibsen, I was thinking, "Oh, OK... he's doing a western." But when he took me to see it, and I suddenly realised what I was looking at... I didn't even recognise him for the first seven minutes I think, and I finally said, "My God, is that you?" He said, "shut up!" (laughs) Cuz he was fat, and he's got this beard, and these glasses. But once I settled down, settled back and just relaxed to see what was going on... I mean he really did work hard on it... he had a kid working with him from UCLA for his lines and all that stuff. But he was wonderful, he was very good, but it was just not the sort of thing people would come to see Steve in.
MO: Why do you think he made An Enemy of the People?
Neile He had to do a film for First Artists, he owed them that, and they kept saying "you've got to do a movie... you've got to do another movie for us." And one day, at Ali's and Steve's house... there were some books there... and he grabbed a book and he said, "OK this one," he opened the pages and he said, "I'm gonna do this one," and it happened to be An Enemy of the People. It's as simple as that.
MO: You mean to say that it could have been any book in the pile?
Neile: It could have been any book (laughs).
MO: Would you say there was an animosity towards First Artists?
Neile: He was just irritated at the company telling him "you've GOT to do a picture". He owed them one picture. The Getaway was a First Artists picture, and he owed them another picture, and this was already 1978 (laughs).
MO: You were very influential in helping Steve pick his best films. I think the last role you chose for him, the title role in Papillon, represents the peak of his career...
Neile: You know how that happened to be... My decorator read Papillon, and he gave it to me, he said "read this Neile, I think it might just be great for Steve," and it was. Steve was concerned about the accent, because it happens on Devil's Island which is a French region. And I said, "look, I saw a movie with Humphrey Bogart about Devil's Island, everybody spoke with an American accent, but it was believed... everybody believed they were in a French colony." So that's why nobody had an accent in Papillon. He was fabulous in that movie, I don't know why he didn't get nominated.
MO: You're still performing yourself, you're still singing, and you've got four CD's available at the moment.
Neile: I do. I've got another one coming up soon too. We're working on it now.
MO: Can you give any details about the songs on the new CD?
Neile: You know I do, almost always, Broadway show tunes, but the opening this time, for me, which is a departure from what I do, is a Keith Urban song called 'I Wanna Love Somebody Like You.' And so I tried that, and I think it turned out OK. But then the rest are show tunes. It generally details the story of my life. I've got a section there which I call the bio-medley which is a series of songs about me and Steve from the time we met.
Neile's personal websites: