Lisa Napoli explores the volatile relationship of McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc and his philanthropic wife Joan
By Bliss Bowen
Drive cross-country on the interstate highways, and at times you could swear you see as many golden arches as mile markers. That ubiquitous architectural feature of the McDonald’s chain has become a symbol of fast food, corporate power and the unhealthy contradictions in American culture.
The mercurial dynamo who propelled the McDonald’s name and ethos into the corporate stratosphere — Ray Kroc and his glamorous, quietly philanthropic third wife Joan — are the subject of Lisa Napoli’s engaging new book, “Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away.”
Napoli skillfully positions the soap opera glitz of their volatile courtship and marriage within the context of their time, so that their story becomes a prism through which to consider post-WWII suburban development, car culture, shifting social mores, changes in American family structures, and the massive overhaul in food production systems. Initially bonded by a shared love of music, their passive-aggressive relationship weathered scandal, family tragedy and his alcoholic rages.
Napoli was inspired to write “Ray & Joan” after seeing Paul Conrad’s “Chain Reaction” sculpture in Santa Monica and discovering it was funded by none other than Joan Kroc, “St. Joan of the Arches,” wife of the infamously conservative McDonald’s CEO.
The stunningly generous philanthropist insisted that most of her gifts remain anonymous, but Napoli’s extensive Appendix details posthumously announced gifts to the Salvation Army ($1.5 billion) and NPR ($225 million), along with a plethora of smaller donations over the course of decades.
Napoli barreled into the “edict of silence” Joan demanded of associates during her lifetime, though she eventually gained some access to Joan’s daughter and granddaughters.
“It was an incredibly hard book to research, but it was a really hard book to craft,” says Napoli, who wanted to “write a book that read like a story” instead of a news article. “Because I wanted to let the narrative flow with the stories of Ray, Joan and the creation of McDonald’s, and all these things intertwined.”
For years Ray Kroc decreed that women couldn’t work the counter at McDonald’s, and they couldn’t be too attractive; he ordered McDonald’s flags be flown at full staff after Kent State; he had a brother-in-law and a business colleague inform his ex-wives that he was leaving them; he removed the loyal June Martino from her job after she refused to side with him or Harry Sonneborn in their corporate power struggle; and he probably struck Joan while drunk. What were some of the trickier challenges of writing about such a domineering asshole?
He’s like that — a real Trump-like character, not to politicize the story. What’s fascinating about all of this is that McDonald’s is so reviled, and understandably so for its nutritional and environmental impact. But I don’t know how people would have reacted to knowing all this back in the ’70s about a famous businessman. That’s what’s interesting to me. The more I dug into Joan’s life, it was easy to think, “She’s amazing, she gave away all this money, it’s exactly what I would do.” But it was so much more complicated than that, especially when you found out it wasn’t this idyllic, “I happened to marry a man who was enormously wealthy” kind of marriage.
There was this mythology built up around Ray [by] people who knew him, of Ray as this Horatio Alger figure who helped the Boy Scouts and went from rags to riches. You can go to business school, apparently, and study Ray and erroneously learn that he was the person behind this mastermind fast-food operation, when in fact he didn’t come up with the things he was credited with coming up with. There were many complicated layers, and many roadblocks along the way. McDonald’s executives were very antagonistic toward me; McDonald’s the corporation had no interest in talking with me.
Ray Kroc’s early emphasis on food quality and local food sourcing is surprising, given what we know now about nutrition and “pink slime.” How do you think he would have reacted to “Fast Food Nation”?
I think he would have been angry, but on a certain level I think he would have agreed. There was a whole mythology among executives that you couldn’t call it fast food; it had to be quick serve, or some euphemism. But by the time Ray died in 1984, McDonald’s did not resemble the thing he had fallen in love with in the desert in any way. He was very resistant to processed foods early on. … It’s really important to point out that Ray didn’t invent the McDonald’s system, but he saw and really believed in the McDonald brothers in San Bernardino and their incredible system of hamburger delivery that was really efficient, family-friendly and super clean. Ironically, he wanted to preserve the quality of the food by keeping it local.
Do you think the passionate love bond between Ray and Joan lasted?
She said that the best years she had with Ray were at the end of his life. By then he was in rehab and feeling old, so presumably he settled down, and she said that was their best time together, the last two years. You know, it depends how you define what you want from a marriage and what marriage should be, and theirs was certainly super complicated, but it lasted a long time.
Joan sought spiritual counsel from Father Henri Nouwen, among others, and you question whether those friendships helped her make peace with her wealth and past. What’s your conclusion?
I think that she had this nascent spirituality that she wasn’t exactly sure how to express, and she had the ability to connect with these folks who were rock stars of their faith. Her daughter said to me that Joan felt this incredible responsibility with having this money. She was trying to reconcile that. She wanted to make sure she honored this wealth that she got. To help her do that, other people walked her through it. I think she was very respectful and admiring of people who had dedicated their lives to service. She obviously never went quite that far; she gave tons of money away, but certainly didn’t take a vow of poverty.
Approximately how much money did she give away in total?
At the end of her life she dispersed $3 billion. That to me is what’s so amazing: She chose to give it away. She didn’t keep it in a foundation. If she had kept her foundation going, her name would exist today like the Ford Foundation still exists today. But she chose to decide where to give it, and give it all away, and that was it. She wanted to be done with it. She didn’t want it carrying on her name forever. That says something about her.
Lisa Napoli discusses “Ray & Joan” at 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17, at the Ann and Jerry Moss Theatre at New Road School, 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $30 at livetalksla.org and include a copy of the book.