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The Tumultuous Marriage Behind the McDonald’s Empire

The first couple of fast food argued over way more than just who got the last nugget

When Ray Kroc met Joan Beverly Smith in a Minnesota piano bar one night in 1957, he was instantly smitten. No matter that he was 25 years her senior, or that they were both married to other people, or that he was still hustling franchises for a fast-food hamburger stand owned by two other guys. Eventually his business acumen transformed McDonald’s into an international sensation, and a dozen years after they met he convinced her to marry him, with a called-off engagement and divorce filing in between—not to mention rumors of alcoholism and nasty fights. But the two had an enduring passion for each other as well as for building the most iconic restaurant in history.

After Ray’s death in 1984, Joan spent the rest of her life (she died in 2003) giving away a $3 billion fortune to organizations ranging from NPR to the Salvation Army, while also underwriting films, struggling zoos and theaters, and handing over million-dollar checks to anyone she met along the way whose story moved her.

Though the marriage looked happy from the outside, the reality was a darker, more complex story. Ray and Joan, by former New York Times technology reporter Lisa Napoli, is a thorough, careful look at the complicated romance that drove the brand. Napoli spoke to MEL about fast love, fast food and fast fortunes.

Author Lisa Napoli, Photo by Preston Wiles

I’m surprised to learn the people behind the most famous fast food restaurant in history had such a volatile relationship. How did you uncover that?
Writing a book like this takes a lot of time, if you don’t know somebody up front, and I spent four years going through archives, newspapers, legal documents and sleuthing people out who helped me paint this picture. And they all seemed to corroborate the story.

And that story has so many twists and turns. They meet in this piano bar in St. Paul, Minn., in 1957, and she’s this hot blonde playing the piano, and they are both married to other people, but it’s love at first sight for him.
They meet, and they carried on an affair for many years, and it was fraught from the beginning because they were living this double, guarded life. But he fell in love with her, and he was just so passionate about Joan and wanted to be with her so badly.

And she’s charmed by him, too.
She had met her first husband, Rollie, as a teenager, and their whole romantic framework was framed around this idea of, “Okay, we got married, we have a family, we have to make the family go, whatever it takes.” Then along came this dashing older gentleman with an interesting thing going on, and a passionate love of music. He was very natty and complimentary and there was something very enticing about that.

So he proposes, even though they are still married to other people, and it looks like they’re going to drive off into the sunset together, but that goes off the rails at the last minute.
She runs off with him a couple years after they meet, back when you had to go to Vegas to get a quickie divorce. They’d filed for that, and then at the 11th hour, she reneged and went back to her first husband. There’s this whole curiosity there, where you say you’re gonna run off with somebody, you do it, you tell your kid you’re leaving, and then you go back.

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Any idea why?
I never could fully ascertain that, and it’s a fine line between taking information and making suppositions based on fact. Even people I found who knew them then—for instance, her divorce attorney at the time—were not clear why she made that decision.

Possibly guilt, and you mentioned her family was not supportive of it?I’m sure it was all those things. I think it may have been the first time she got a sense of his volatile personality, too. If you have an affair with someone and suddenly you’re spending more time than you did together—I think his personality started to present itself to her in a different way than seeing him on occasion. He was a heavy drinker. And there was also the social stigma of leaving your spouse for someone else. At that time, “good” people didn’t do that. She did say her mother was disappointed in her, and of course she had a young child whose life was going to be seriously impacted by it and was. All those things.

So she stays with her husband, but he doesn’t go back to his wife. He marries someone else. Another blonde. With a similar name—June.
He gave up that Joan would ever be available. And he described his second wife, June, as a sunny personality. Joan was the exact opposite, always a volatile, passionate person.

So how in love with Joan was he really? It seemed like once he thought she wasn’t an option he just moved on pretty quickly to the next lady.
Well, I think like I said he’d given up on Joan. And also he wasn’t a very good bachelor. He didn’t like being a bachelor. He’d been married since he was 20. I think he was charmed by his second wife, and I’m sure there were other women around, as there always are, and he just liked her. They had dinner and two weeks later they were married. That was a time when you married when there was physical intimacy. Look at Liz Taylor. You didn’t just sleep with people; you had a sense of propriety.

Also, it was a different time. If you’re in love with a passionate, volatile person you adore and have this fiery relationship with, and then she’s gone, maybe you think this new person is so easygoing, so that’s much better. And she was. When Joan reneged, he just went through the divorce anyway because he couldn’t be back in the old situation with [first wife] Ethel. That’s actually pretty honest. If he were dishonest, he’d have gone back, and said, “Oops, my lover has reneged and I can’t be alone.” But that would’ve been too hard; it was too painful to be with Ethel.

Also, June did want to be that more conventional spouse-of-a-man-in-business kind of person. And that was what he was used to with his first wife, Ethel, so he might have gravitated back toward something more reliable. June was in his social circuit in every other way, but different from Ethel — she was glamorous and lived out here in California. She had worked for John Wayne. Even though Ray wasn’t rich when he married her and was still struggling, he was on this path and she fit that new persona.

But eventually he and Joan run into each other at a convention, and pretty soon after he just up and leaves the second wife the night before a cruise for their fifth anniversary.
I think it’s probably nice to think it’d be great to be married to someone who was sunny all the time, but in his heart, he loved the volatile passion of Joan, who would never say yes, it’s beautiful outside, even if it was. It was just baked into both of them, these combative personalities. They were both so raw, and volatile.

So something like 12 years later, Joan finally does marry him.
Finally she did agree to marry him years later, and again they had a runoff to Vegas, but this time followed through. Theirs was a relationship that was fraught from the beginning, and then it always had this rockiness to it.

Which is evident when not two years later, she files for divorce. Any idea why?
Well, there are clues in that divorce filing. It said the reason was a “violent and ungovernable temper.” Today if “violent and ungovernable” was in a major CEO’s divorce filing it’d at least be the front page of the business section. This made the paper but it was just a tiny little box.

She’d also taken out a restraining order against him. Later, I found out he was served papers when he came home from a business trip, and told he couldn’t even go back to their apartment. It’s incredible that never made the papers, but maybe it was the unspoken code of the time in Chicago, or the power of the McDonald’s cabal. Extreme mental cruelty was mentioned, and the filing was ultimately continued and continued, and by a certain point they would be officially divorced, but before that even happened they reconciled.

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Did you find out why?
Even people closest to her said she just said, “I’m dropping the case, I’ve sorted it out.” Not long after that she started going to Al Anon and got help for herself. She just decided to stay and to try to make it work.

Do you think she was threatened to stay?
Well with the first wife, there was this whole business of “Ray’s divorcing you, here’s what you’re getting, and if that’s not acceptable you’ve got family in the McDonald’s business, and we will take away their franchises.” I don’t think Joan was threatened. But there were reporters in the ‘80s who asked her about it, and she said, “I’m not going to talk about it.”

You write about how much she disliked that wealthy-wife social circuit.
Yeah, in part I think the trouble with that was because from the beginning, her role in the marriage was always unclear — as opposed to some younger women who would marry a guy like that and know my job is to be the young, beautiful spouse. She seemed to have a problem with that, it was not a role she relished or wanted to settle into. There was this notion with the people around them that Joan just needed to find something to occupy her. Part of the problem probably was she was bored, but it was deeper than that. I think he was a terrible alcoholic. But the idea was just, keep that woman busy and she will calm down. It was so sexist, but she had a visceral response to that lifestyle, the luncheons, and I think she had to give it up.

So why do you think Joan finally decided to marry him?
Maybe she went back the second time because he was now fantastically wealthy, though her first husband, Rollie, had made good money as a McDonald’s franchise owner, too, in South Dakota. But Ray was in a stratosphere that was completely different. That second time maybe she went into it, and thought, “Hey, I’m going to get the hell out of Rapid City, South Dakota, my daughter is older, I can be with this man who obviously adores me,” and then got there and realized, Ray’s personality may have gotten worse. I think he was consistently not a nice person, and always a drinker. That combination made for difficulty.

That was the challenging part as writer and woman or person. You want to understand and know all the particulars and having read dozens and dozens of interviews, I kept getting up against that personality, so how do I explain it? I just laid out the facts, and I let you as the reader figure out what it could’ve been, instead of telling people. Any relationship is like that — you tell me one thing, I witness something, and there’s reality in between.

But people did see them fighting and throwing things.
People did witness them fighting terribly. When they were on their yacht, and had a ship-to-shore connection where Ray was being informed about a baseball player they were going to buy [for the Padres] for $400,000, and they wanted $4 million. Joan overheard this call, and she went ballistic when she heard he was going to spend more, and they started screaming. I’ve also heard many examples of people on the private plane with them and a fight barking out, and one turning to the third party and saying, “Who do you think is right? What do you think about this fight?” Her daughter said they were a lot like Liz [Taylor] and Dick [Burton].

What do you think their other passions were? They liked music, and piano playing, smoking cigarettes, drinking.
They loved McDonald’s. Even before Joan left Rollie to go ultimately live with Ray, she was so high on McDonald’s that she met people and would say, “McDonald’s is great, you gotta buy in.” She had seen it from the ground up. She was genuinely into it, really excited about it. I think of those first years of the dot-com revolution [that I covered] where people who were in it, it was just so intoxicating. They had gone through this evolution of this business and emergence into this worldwide phenomenon. The way both military spouses will respect the source of the assignment, this is the same sort of thing—they both understood how powerful a force that was. Having built this.

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I think it’s obvious he really loved her — he chased her and remained devoted to her. But given her tendency to be skeptical of him and then the early divorce filing that she mysteriously withdrew, do you think she really loved him?
Various people I asked who knew them well during this time, would say, “Hey, was it money? Was it just the money?” Absolutely not. It might seem easy to say to the outside eye that it’s just money. But this was a long passion and a deep passion. I really feel like they had this ineffable connection that’s impossible to ever describe — why you fall in love with that person as opposed to another.

That said, she didn’t talk about it. I found a newspaper article later in life and women who worked with her at her charity, Operation Cork, raising awareness about alcoholism, who said they would ask her, “Did you love him? Do you love him?” And she would be dismissive about it. She was clearly — she reacted to his drinking, and at one point in this article she points to the picture of the two of them with the dog that got installed in all the Salvation Army Centers and said disparagingly, “Well, I like the dog.”

There’s evidence she stuck it out or got into it because of money, and she was pragmatic about love and her circumstances, probably because of her background in poverty. But I think it’s much more complicated and they really did have a connection. It wasn’t as easy as they were the love of each others’ lives the second they met. Or as simple as only being in it for the money. But it’s some sort of in-between, which is how most of our lives are.

And she had to figure out how to be his wife, too. She’d given up playing piano in the clubs too, which she loved — do you think she missed that?
Well they dealt with it by playing together at home. They had parties. With the Kroc Foundation, her brother-in-law was running it and she saw an opportunity to take that over. As Ray was getting older, Joan realized after she started Operation Cork that she wanted her hands on the philanthropic foundation. And that’s why she flourished after he died.

But you mention in the book things got better between them toward the end. What were their good times?
When times were good between them, I think they lived parallel lives. In several interviews before and after his death, she said the best years of her life were with him when he was older. He was not able to drink, he was much more calm than he had been. That had a yacht they enjoyed. They went from house to house for a while, and he was removed from McDonald’s and became an emeritus, so it didn’t have that same force on him like it did when he was active.

After his death, did she ever date again?
She had lovers, but never married. She had a long term on-again off-again with a man who she knew from back home. The last 10 years of her life, she never lived with him, and he didn’t even live near her. So that’s a telling personality indication.

There’s a love story here, but not a conventional one, and it’s full of heartbreak too.
The real sad reality here is, and you find this when you look into the weeds of anyone’s life, but relationships are super complicated. People don’t necessarily get married because of the things we think. Maybe it’s great sex or unbridled passion at first, but do they stay married because of that? What draws people together isn’t always what keeps them together, and so many factors along the way can blow up and interrupt the greatest passions.

I think they always had a sense of union over what they’d been through. A tumultuous time to get together, a parallel time with McDonald’s. She recognized what having this fortune meant, and that she could do incredible things with it. And he was fine with that.

That’s powerful and intense, but it’s not what we read in the storybook. Here is this iconic brand, all this money she gave to cool things he wouldn’t have necessarily supported, because she was open and creative and met all these fascinating people and wanted to finance them. And then this woman, for all these complex reasons, took this fortune and did all this great stuff.

We are so drawn to this case because there are many other love stories out there, with fascinating people. But there’s not also $3 billion.