Cataloging the 'King of Cool" 

click to enlarge 'Life' Magazine, July 1963
  • 'Life' Magazine, July 1963
In 1963, the year Steve McQueen's exploits on a motorcycle in the film The Great Escape made him a star, there was a cover story about the icon in Life magazine.

I was 12 years old at the time, but I remember that story because it reported that whenever he bought a new pair of Levis, McQueen made a point of clipping the red tag off the back pocket. He didn't like the idea of walking around with a logo on his butt.

My preadolescent self thought that was pretty cool.

But what was even better was finding a mint-condition copy of that magazine in the Beech Grove Public Library's new Steve McQueen Birthplace Collection. The collection includes videos of all of McQueen's movie and television performances, with a special emphasis on the Western TV series that first brought him to prominence, Wanted: Dead Or Alive; an extensive print collection, featuring books and period magazines; and a large collection of McQueen memorabilia – toys, comics, and trading cards.

At the moment, the collection has a distinctly handmade feel. On the day we visited, all the items were lovingly arranged across a pair of banquet tables. It was an amazing spread, documenting the impact of an actor whose image remains iconic, though he's been dead for 30 years. Global financial firm UBS is the latest in a long line of advertisers to use McQueen for a jolt of cool; he appears in a montage of famous faces UBS is using for a new television ad campaign.

Little Flower origin

Beech Grove is McQueen's birthplace. He lived in Indianapolis for the first three years of his life – in a house in the Little Flower neighborhood at 1311 Drexel Ave. These bits of local lore provided the impetus for the library, with the help and friendly prodding of volunteer Steve Nontell, to create the Birthplace Collection. They also inspired biographer Marshall Terrill and McQueen's third wife and widow, Barbara, to visit Beech Grove for the first time at the end of October – on Halloween, no less – in order to kick-off an international tour promoting Terrill's new biography, Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon, as well as his recently published coffee table book, including an introduction by Barbara, Steve McQueen: A Tribute To the King of Cool.

"Beech Grove has always been a mystery to me because of its place in McQueen history," said Terrill, whose previous book about the icon, Steve McQueen: Portrait of An American Rebel, was a bestseller in 1993. "We knew he was born here, but we didn't know much else."

click to enlarge McQueen biographer Marshall Terrill and McQueen's third wife and widow, Barbara. (Photo by Daniel Axler)
  • McQueen biographer Marshall Terrill and McQueen's third wife and widow, Barbara. (Photo by Daniel Axler)
According to the biographer, McQueen was born into a pathologically dysfunctional Depression-era family in 1930. "His father had physically abandoned him and he was emotionally abandoned by his mother," said Terrill. The elder McQueens left only the sketchiest of paper trails and, when it came to telling his story, McQueen himself was a notoriously unreliable witness.

Enter Will Smither, a career librarian and Beech Grove native, who began researching McQueen's connection to Beech Grove in 1988. "I felt like I was the only one asking about McQueen being born here," said Smither of those days. He eventually discovered that the actor and his mother, Julian, lived with her parents at the Drexel address for three years, by combing through city directories at the State Library. This information overturned the long-held notion that McQueen's mother was a teenage runaway.

"She wasn't a runaway," said Smither. "She was living with her mom and dad. They moved [to Indianapolis] and she came with them. That changes the picture we've had of who she was."

Terrill credits Smither with documenting McQueen's whereabouts during the first years of his life. It's a slender connection, but more than has previously been known.

As far as Steve Nontell is concerned, that connection deserves greater recognition. Nontell arrived at the idea for the Birthplace Collection out of frustration that Beech Grove had, in his view, failed to sufficiently commemorate the city's centennial in 2006. "I had a desire to make up for that frustration a bit by trying to set up some sort of historical project with a sense of permanence – something that could be made use of and referred to throughout the years to come," wrote Nontell in an email.

When he started serendipitously coming upon various collectibles having to do with Steve McQueen, Nontell figured he'd found his subject.

Nontell readily acknowledges Beech Grove's minimal, if landmark, status in McQueen's life. That's why he chose to focus the collection on the early part of the actor's career, paying special attention to everything connected with the Wanted: Dead Or Alive series. "I made the proposal to work on the 'birth' focus, by way of seeing what could be donated concerning the TV show," he wrote. "This was approved, and we may now have the largest publicly viewable collection of items connected with the show."

A gentle, calm time

Nontell hopes the collection will attract local attention to Beech Grove at the same time that it piques the curiosity of McQueen's fan base throughout the rest of the country and the world. Most of all, he hopes the Birthplace Collection inspires citizens of Beech Grove to take a fresh look at the place where they live. "I would love to see people prompted to take a look and see that we do have a history of our own and that it deserves a better review, accounting and preservation."

Barbara McQueen seems to want something similar for her late husband. Steve McQueen had a reputation for being a difficult man to work with, let alone live with. Barbara, who lived with him for three and a half years and married him in 1980, the year he died from mesothelioma, sees him differently. "He was a guy I hung out with, I was married to, I was in love with," she said. Then, referring to McQueen's previous wives, Neile Adams and Ali MacGraw, she added: "I've got it figured out that the first wife had one part of his life. Ali had a second part. And I got the really good part because he'd been trained well. I got him at a really gentle, calm time of his life.

"He was really a sweet, sweet soul," Barbara McQueen continued. "We used to lay in bed in the evening and he made animal sounds. I grew up on a dairy farm and I thought it was so funny that he could make all these animal sounds. The favorite was the owl. He knew the girl sound and the boy sound."

Barbara maintains that she hasn't seen all of her late husband's films in their entirety. She said that running across his image in advertising and TV commercials "freaks me out," and that, with the exception of Terrill's work, she avoids books dealing with his life. "There's a lot of stuff I don't want to know."

"Steve represented change in a lot of things," she said. But Barbara takes his iconic longevity with a grain of salt. She told a story about a day not long ago when the son of her local mechanic returned her car after having it repaired. By way of saying thanks, she handed the kid a copy of The Last Mile, a coffee table book of photos she took during her time with McQueen. The cover image shows the couple on the back of a motorcycle.

"That's you," the kid said to her. "But who's the guy?"

Barbara told him: "Ask your father."

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