For years, I believed that the late Joan Kroc was an angel. When San Diegans called her “St. Joan of the Arches” (as in the golden arches of the McDonald’s burger chain), I didn’t feel embarrassed for them. Here was a stunningly beautiful, kindhearted woman who inherited $3 billion from her late husband and gave much of it — if not most of it — to needy charities, preferably secretly.
When she died at age 75 in 2003, I thought she deserved all the kudos she received — and then some. She was a very talented musician and appeared to be the type of diva that opera librettists call “chaste,” even though I knew she had had two marriages and a daughter and had enjoyed at least one peccadillo.
On the other hand, I always thought her late husband, Ray Kroc, deserved the appellation “no-good bastard,” although I grudgingly admitted that he was a helluva good businessman… or, at the least, a very lucky one. He had made “McDonald’s” a household word and changed America’s dining habits, although he refused to change his bad habits, such as excessive alcohol consumption and fiery, childish blowups. He died in early 1984 at 81.
Now there is a book that presents a balanced picture of both of them. It’s Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away, by Lisa Napoli, published by Dutton. The publication date is November 15, and Napoli gives a talk about the book at 2 p.m. December 3 at the La Jolla library.
Consider the “chaste” designation. Joan was married to a McDonald’s franchisee. She and her first husband were widely admired in Rapid City, South Dakota, where they had their franchise and he was known as “Mr. McDonald’s.” However, tongues wagged when word got around that the “vivacious blond piano player” would have “a cigarette in one hand and a martini in the other when kids came over to play after school,” writes Napoli. When Ray Kroc would meet Joan and her husband in Rapid City, local gossips thought Joan was leaning toward Ray “a bit too suggestively.”
She had met Kroc in 1957 while playing the organ at a posh St. Paul restaurant — surrounded by heavy cigarette smoke, as usual. She wore a dress “that flaunted her figure,” says the book. “She loved to flirt, to chat up strangers.” The dapper popinjay Ray Kroc walked in and was immediately smitten. Long into the night, they talked. Both were married, and Ray was lining up a second marriage. Ray was 26 years older than Joan and wallowing in debt that had piled up in his efforts to get a national fast-food chain going full bore.
Soon, Ray and Joan were having a secret, long-distance affair, although Ray told his lawyer that it didn’t involve sex — yet. Writes Napoli, “Every so often, she’d impose on a friend to mind her daughter for a few days, offering up a vague excuse with a wink for her need to get out of town — without her husband. The friend couldn’t help but wonder: Was it to see Ray?”
Joan wanted to make it in the big time — and, particularly, to get out of Rapid City, which she called “Wretched City.” In the early 1960s, she agreed to marry Ray. They would move in together in Woodland Hills, about 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles. First, they had to move to Las Vegas temporarily. No-fault divorces could be quickly attained there. They had to wait six weeks to legitimize their union in the eyes of the law and social convention. In the fifth week, Joan backed out.
Her mother did not approve of her abandoning her husband. And according to the book, Joan’s teenage daughter Linda told her, “If you marry him, forget that you have a daughter.” Her husband, of course, was deeply saddened by the whole thing. So Joan returned to Wretched City, sans Ray.
However, the clandestine affair had given enormous satisfaction to both of them. In 1969, having divorced their spouses, they married.
By that time, they were very rich. In April of 1965, McDonald’s went public by selling stock to outside investors. The stock opened at $22.50 and by week’s end was $36. At age 63, Ray was worth $33 million on paper and had $3 million in cash. Finally, Ray could strut legitimately, and Joan’s life was changed forever. Eventually, he would be worth $500 million.
But there was a problem: Ray’s drinking. In his younger days, when he was struggling, he constantly gulped a brand of booze that Napoli calls “rotgut.” Even after Ray was worth more than $30 million, he still gulped that rotgut.
And, as in the past, Ray would fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. Joan was often his target. In 1971, when they were living in one of Chicago’s richest areas, Joan filed for divorce, claiming that Ray had “a violent and ungovernable temper” inflicting upon her “physical harm, violence, and injury.” He moved out of their luxury Lake Shore Drive quarters. Meanwhile, the Boy Scouts presented Ray with the Good Scout award for his support of a national beautification program.
But the old pattern returned. In early 1972, she called off the separation and the couple reconciled. Joan would never speak of the incident again — just as she attempted to keep his alcoholism secret.
Because Ray had purchased the San Diego Padres, the couple moved in to a luxurious home in Fairbanks Ranch. Word about Ray’s drinking was hard to suppress. In one game, typically, the Padres were getting whipped. Ray, cocktail glass in hand, barged into the public address announcers’ box. He grabbed the microphone, apologized for the team’s play, and said, “This is the most stupid ball playing I’ve ever seen.”
In 1976, Joan set up Operation Cork, which informed doctors and health workers of the dangers of alcoholism. The secret about Kroc’s drinking was out. She attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to understand his behavior. She had minor vices, too. She would go “off to Vegas to gamble for sixteen hours straight,” writes Napoli.
After he died, and particularly after she learned she had little time to live, she accelerated her giving: the universities of Notre Dame and San Diego to promote peace, Salvation Army, an animal center, San Diego Opera, KPBS…the list goes on.