A rose among the thorns: Faith and healing with Steve McQueen’s widow
Barbara Minty McQueen has never stopped quietly reflecting on her blissful years with the King of Cool, who lost his valiant struggle with mesothelioma while receiving controversial alternative therapy in Juarez, Mexico, on November 7, 1980.
Why does McQueen still resonate today? Besides being the epitome of the quintessential American male that women lusted after and men wanted to drink a beer with, he brought a sense of determined realism to each character he inhabited. McQueen practiced laconicism and let his actions speak for themselves.
He had a soft spot for the underdog and never forgot his hard-scrabble upbringing and reprimand to the Boys Republic in Chino Hills, California. He could be a friend in low places, but head for the hills if you took undue advantage of him. The glamorous, glad-handing Hollywood game held little allure. McQueen preferred to hang out with gear heads and antique collectors.
The daughter of an Oregon dairy farmer, the professional swimsuit model who pursued that vocation strictly for the money met her match in McQueen. During their three and a half years together, Minty abided minimal crap and encouraged her eventual husband to abandon his self-imposed Hollywood sabbatical and return to movie-making with Tom Horn and The Hunter. Content to be one of the guys and accompany her husband on road trips and actually live temporarily in an airport hangar — former wives Neile Adams and Love Story heroine Ali MacGraw wouldn’t be caught dead “roughing it” — in 1979 the kindred spirits settled down in an 1892 Victorian ranch-style home situated on 15 acres in Santa Paula, a 25,000-strong community of avocado and citrus orchards about an hour north of Malibu.
Known as the “Antique Plane Capital of the World,” Santa Paula nourished McQueen’s final passions — flying and Christianity — amid declining health. Minty’s Last Mile co-author Marshall Terrill opens the proceedings on how the so bad it’s good The Blob foreshadowed the competitive actor’s religious conversion. The media-eschewing Minty takes over the duration of the conversation, elucidating McQueen’s respect for ace test pilot-Christian flight instructor-father figure Sammy Mason, the sense of peace that enveloped McQueen as he faced an insurmountable cancer bout, and the New Testament Bible that evangelist Billy Graham personally inscribed to McQueen on his death bed.
The salt of the earth former model later comically remembers the expletive that burly father Gene Minty hurled at McQueen if he ever endangered his baby girl, the charming wedding administered at the couple’s ranch because of prying paparazzi, paying the preacher with a dozen eggs from a nearby chicken coop, why she wound up with 13 cats upon McQueen’s demise, consciously picking up the pieces and moving forward instead of letting bitterness wear her emotionally down, and the Hallmark card-worthy tale of grandmother Vica Minty planting two rose bushes as symbols of the couple’s enduring love.
The Barbara Minty McQueen Interview
How does perennial cult classic The Blob foreshadow Steve’s conversion to Christianity?
Marshall Terrill: Co-star Aneta Corsaut, later Sheriff Andy Taylor’s prickly teacher-girlfriend Helen Crump on The Andy Griffith Show, once told a funny story to a movie magazine. She said everyone connected to The Blob was religious because the production company made Christian films, and The Blob was their first foray into the mainstream.
She said Steve drove everyone on the set crazy and the filmmakers would go into daily prayer meetings — they would pray to everything, including the makeup brushes. Corsaut said they would always finish by saying, “And God save us from Steve McQueen!”
On a more serious note, the executive producer on that movie said that he constantly preached the gospel to McQueen and even gave him a Bible and dog-eared the page for John 3:16. When he told me that, I got goose bumps, because as you know, McQueen was clutching the Bible when he died in Mexico. His gravitation to Christianity was a slow 20-year evolution, but I believe it started on The Blob.
What role did faith play in Steve’s life during your years with him?
Steve was always spiritual, but he matured in his faith in Santa Paula. He was heavily influenced by his flight instructor, Sammy Mason, who was a very strong Christian, and who accompanied us to church.
I put those into two different categories because I think you can be very spiritual without going to church. You can have all the beliefs as an every Sunday church-goer, and you can be just as spiritual as they are but in a different way.
Steve started going to church when we lived in Santa Paula. There was no bullshit about his faith, and he took it seriously. He had a meeting with evangelist Billy Graham near the end, who inscribed his personal Bible to Steve. In fact, the first person I called when Steve passed away was Billy Graham.
Steve wasn’t a horn blower. He didn’t go around talking about it — it was his private thing. He was never in your face, but I caught him many times saying his prayers.
As for me, I don’t go to church…but I still say my prayers. I cuss like a sailor, but I tell God every night, “Hey, I’m sorry, but it just sounds better sometimes. It’s a better definition of what I’m mad about, so please forgive me.”
How did Steve ask your dad for his daughter’s hand in marriage?
That’s an interesting story when Steve met my parents for the first time. My mom knew who he was, but she wasn’t real star struck. My dad clearly didn’t give a shit who he was.
We had a mini mountain out back that took about a minute to walk to the top. That’s where the talking place was if you were in trouble. So my dad took Steve on a little walking-talking trip up there, and they were there 45 minutes to maybe an hour.
I was my dad’s little baby, and he was gonna make sure I was okay. He didn’t want Steve, whom he considered much too old for me, to hurt me in any way. So they came down and Steve and Dad had a beer.
Steve whispered, “I told your dad that you’ll be well taken care of.” I then asked my dad what he told Steve. He said, “I told the sonofabitch I’d kill him if he ever hurt you.” True story!
What do you remember about your wedding day? Was it fancy?
We were going to have a church wedding, then we found out the minister we had been so enthralled with wouldn’t marry us because Steve had been divorced. That threw me for a loop because I was younger, and I had never been married.
Steve wasn’t fond of the response, so we got somebody else at the church to do it, Rev. Leslie Miller. By that time, the press were in town and following me. I had no experience with the paparazzi, and it was all very new at the time.
I used to drive around Santa Paula in a funky old pickup truck, and they’d follow me. They scared me, and so I’d go to the police station, and they’d take me home. They were hovering like a bunch of bees when we got married in the living room.
The paparazzi are nothing like they are to these poor people today. I truly feel sorry for current young movie actors and actresses. It’s horrible what the press does to them, but back then it was just a little here, a little there.
We had our friend Norman stand outside the gate of our home with our ranch foreman Grady Ragsdale ready in the backyard. They were both armed with shotguns and not afraid to use them. They wouldn’t kill anybody, but a good shot over the head pretty much scares anybody.
So we got married in the living room, and I paid the reverend off. He wouldn’t take money, so I went outside and got a dozen eggs out of the chicken coop and paid him in eggs. You could say we had a farm wedding [laughs].
It was small and sweet, nothing big, and it was my first marriage. I would have probably liked to have done something different, but hey, when you’re in love, you take what you can get.
How did Grady Ragsdale fit into the grand McQueen scheme?
Grady Ragsdale was a sweetheart, and he was always there. If it was 2 a.m., and there was a fly on the wall Steve didn’t like, Grady would come over and fix the problem. That’s how wonderful Grady was.
I never would have made it through Steve’s cancer battle without Grady. He wrote a beautiful little book in 1983 called Steve McQueen: The Final Chapter, which is now out of print.
I read it, and every word in there is true. He had a heart attack and passed away in 1986. But his widow, Judy, and kids are still around.
What was it like being married to the King of Cool?
I loved it, since that was one of the best times of my entire life. It was a very sweet time. I loved the ranch and the farmhouse we shared. He gave me full rein of redoing our little house. It was the most beautiful 1920s Victorian farmhouse. Everything came from second-hand stores except for the TVs and beds.
It was every little girl’s dream. Steve was so sweet to me because he didn’t like me working. I worked a little bit here and there until I finally said, “Hey, I’ve got to make a living. I’ve got bills to pay.”
From that day forward I never had another bill to pay. Steve, however, did have a grocery list on the counter, expecting me to cook. I don’t cook, and he wisely hired a little old lady to cook for us.
Every time we got into a fight, he would bring a kitten home. When he passed away, I had thirteen cats that I drug up to Idaho with me. Altogether, we had thirteen fights the whole time we were together. That’s not bad considering we were together for three-and-a-half years.
What do those final images of Steve from late spring 1980 mean to you?
That work shed was Steve’s reading place. Every single morning he’d sit out there, drink coffee, and read his paper by the open fire. Then the dogs and cats would crawl all over him. He knew he was sick then, but he was living in the moment.
Why did you stop taking photos?
Steve’s death broke my heart and for a long time I couldn’t pick up a camera. I eventually thought I needed to start taking photos again because I always enjoyed it immensely. For awhile, I was content to use my iPhone camera, but I thought, ‘No, I need a better camera’.
It took me 25 years to publish a book, and it took me 30 years to get a new Nikon camera [laughs]. Digital is so much different than what I did, so it’s been a learning process.
How did you pick up the pieces after Steve’s passing?
Actually, I don’t know what I did. You do what you do to emotionally get by and try to forget the pain. I began traveling, and I tried to learn to fly again, but my heart wasn’t in it.
I got back into horses — I played polo — which I absolutely adored. I went as far as I wanted to go, and I still admire the sport. I kept riding motorcycles, but I’m not the rider I used to be. Skiing was a great hobby, too.
It was a longer healing process than I probably would care to admit. To be honest, I’m still not over it. There are times when I’m cool and everything’s fine, but then all of a sudden, one day something will hit me in the face like a brick.
I have to sit down and regroup. Almost 40 years later, it’s still incredibly painful to talk about, but I know I am healing.
Could you tell us the rose bush story?
It begins when Steve had to ask my parents if they were comfortable in him becoming their son-in-law. Remember, he was almost 25 years older than me and “an actor from Hollywood,” so they were suspicious at first. Steve did a good job convincing my father, because my dad certainly wouldn’t have let him out of his sight if he didn’t.
My grandma, Vica Minty, was the next one up on the list, and she grilled Steve. I have no clue what they talked about. When she was finished, she and I went to a nursery and came back with two beautiful, red rose bushes.
She planted them and remarked, “I’m planting one for you and one for Steve. This will symbolize your love, and as long as the roses are still here, you’ll always love each other.” That was so sweet of her to do for me.
Fast forward to 2008 — it was my first trip back to Santa Paula since Steve’s death. My coauthor and close pal Marshall Terrill and I did a signing at the airport for The Last Mile. The people who owned our home graciously asked if I wanted to see the old house.
I’ve always said no in the past, but this time around, I said, “Let’s do it.” I knew if I got to feeling weird, Marshall would grab me and get me out of there.
I’ll tell you what, there were those two rose bushes, still blooming. I was immediately blown away. I was like, ‘Wow, Steve’s been gone since 1980, and those bushes are still there.’ I asked the lady if I could get a cutting from them, and she said yes.
I’ve got a green thumb, and I’ve spoken with a horticulturist. I’m gonna grow them at my Idaho home. Isn’t that an incredible story?
Our little house in Santa Paula was put up for sale in 2011. It’s been tidied up a bit by the new owner. For a moment I thought about buying it, but then I thought, ‘You can’t go back as much as you might want to.’
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