Easy rider

McQueen: the biography

Christopher Sandford<em> HarperCollins, 497pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 000257195

When Steve McQueen was dying of mesothelioma, a type of cancer caused by asbestos poisoning as well as smoking, he sought treatment from William D Kelley, a former dentist who "was being investigated by more than a dozen federal agencies", and who was "fighting a guerrilla war against what he calls 'the vast cancer industry' in America". The day before his death, McQueen had a tumour removed from his liver in a Mexican clinic. At this point, intimates Christopher Sandford, the author of this biography, something strange and horrifying might have happened. "One story that never surfaced even in the tabloids," Sandford tells us, "was that Steve McQueen, as Kelley now insists, was murdered."

This certainly makes you sit up. Steve McQueen murdered? By the time you get to this passage, you have read more than 440 pages of serious, well-written stuff; Sandford is not a boggle-eyed gossip merchant. "One of McQueen's doctors was asked to take the excised tumour to a pathology lab in Mexico City for analysis," he tells us. But the doctor didn't turn up, so Kelley himself caught the flight to Mexico City, "clutching the jar containing the five-pound mass". Upon examining the contents of this jar, the pathologist said: "I've never seen anything like this. It's completely dead." But McQueen was already dead - he had died of a heart attack in the night. Had he been taken out by sinister establishment forces? Was he injected with a coagulant?

It's a shocking story. But it's also an appropriate way to end a book about a man who was known, for slightly more than two decades, as the ultimate rebel. Frank Sinatra called McQueen "absolutely the greatest Zeitgeist guy. Ever." He slouched and shrugged through his films as if he'd been born with a grudge against the world. Almost all his characters were outsiders, and most of them dreamed of one thing - running away. Think of the films - The Getaway, The Great Escape, Papillon, The Thomas Crown Affair. The characters he played, Sandford believes, were in fact versions of the real McQueen. "When he played a loner or a hustler, an emotional basket case, you could be sure it was coming from deep source material and not just a script."

He was born in a suburb of Indianapolis in 1930, and had a nightmarish upbringing, the sort of childhood you read about in biographies of serial killers. "Long before his 15th birthday," Sandford tells us, "Steve knew what it was like to be dyslexic, deaf, illegitimate, backward, beaten, abused, deserted and raised Catholic in a Protestant heartland." He scavenged in dustbins, stole from shops, and committed "a little arson". His mother was an occasional prostitute who told him: "Don't talk to me about love. I feel the same way before, when and after I fuck somebody - like shit." When McQueen was 14, his mother and stepfather "signed a court order" committing him to reform school, where he might well have been "homosexually raped".

This, it seems, was McQueen's material, the substance on which he drew when he acted. As he became older, and more successful, he never quite felt settled. Even while he was married to his first wife, Neile Adams, a "small, stunningly svelte" Broadway dance star, he regularly had sex with other women. President Kennedy once said to him: "Don't you find you have a headache if you don't have at least a poke a day?" In 1960, Sandford tells us, McQueen "was nearing Kennedy's ideal. The tally was 'two or three hundred' a year." He apparently liked being "breastfed", and staring at his women's bodies for long periods of time, taking in every detail. One of his girlfriends, Emily Hurt, pointed out that, although it was McQueen's women who "took the precautions", McQueen himself "wore a condom over his heart".

In the end, you get the impression that McQueen was a good, even great, film actor because of the depth of his urgency to escape the real world. With no emotional safety valve, all he had was pretence and make-believe. According to Sandford, "McQueen never fully understood acting, or he chose not to". And this makes a kind of sense - it chimes in with the rest of McQueen's impulsive world - the sex, the drinking, the womanising, the mad, suicidal motorbike rides through the desert in the middle of the night. ("A good set of wheels gets me hard, he'd say.") It even chimes in with the decision he made, very late in his life, to have his terminal cancer treated by Kelley. But was he "executed"? We shall never know.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The SAS story they want to suppress