Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away, by Lisa Napoli (Dutton, New York, NY, 2016, 353 pages).
Book Review by Dennis Moore
January 3, 2017 (San Diego) - Virtually everyone in the world has had and tasted a McDonald’s hamburger at some time or another. In my case I have actually had thousands, and as a matter of fact, my first job at the age of 19 was preparing burgers and fries at a McDonald’s in Kansas City. Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away, is an intriguing book about fame and fortune, and how it all began.
Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away, by Brooklyn born and raised Lisa Napoli, is the first astounding in-depth look at the passionate and tumultuous relationship between billionaire fast-food magnate Ray Kroc and his third wife Joan, a liberal and brash Midwesterner who risked her marriage and reputation to promote controversial causes in which she believed.
Napoli, who has lived for the past dozen years in Southern California, where she was inspired to write this book by a public artwork with a mysterious provenance. In her three decades as a journalist, she’s worked for The New York Times, MSNBC, the public radio show Marketplace, and a variety of other outlets. Her first book, Radio Shangri-La, is about the remote Kingdom of Bhutan, where she was invited to help start a radio station at the dawn of democratic rule.
In the 1950s, salesman Ray Kroc was hired to help brothers Dick and Mac McDonald franchise their own fast-food burger stand. When the unhappily married Ray arrived at a St. Paul dinner club in 1957 hoping to license a hamburger franchise, he instead found the love of his life, a blonde beauty named Joan Smith. Little would he know that before they ultimately would marry, Ray would marry and divorce his second wife, buy out brothers McDonald, and see his fledgling business, on the brink of bankruptcy, transformed into the international brand we know today.
Once she finally accepted his proposal, Ray and Joan were unstoppable, but explosive. Lingering behind the glamorous picture of wealth – complete with lavish homes, private airplanes, custom yachts, even the purchase of the San Diego Padres baseball team – lay a darker side to their fairytale romance. Although no one spoke the word out loud, it was clear Ray had a drinking problem as well as a temper so strong that Joan filed for divorce less than three years after their sudden nuptials. The couple mysteriously reconciled a couple of months later, but Ray’s drinking plagued Joan throughout their marriage, and led to their first philanthropic endeavor, the alcoholism education program, Operation Cork.
There’s also a much buzzed-about movie called The Founder coming out in December starring Michael Keaton and Nick Offerman. While the film only covers a handful of years of Ray’s life, Ray & Joan is a sweeping portrait of the entire McDonald’s story – from how Ray’s billions were acquired to how Joan gave them away. The film will no doubt create a renewed interest in the life and legacy of the Kroc family. I actually saw the preview of this movie just last night, while going to see the August Wilson inspired movie Fences, starring Denzel Washington. There are actually parallels between the two movies that I am sure will resonate with readers of this book by Napoli.
Napoli, the author, writes in Ray & Joan a passage that resonates with me: “My intention in writing this book, in general, and with this list specifically, is not only to bring attention to Joan’s inventive philanthropy, but to inspire others to give, in whatever ways they can. Naturally, most of us cannot give on the scale of the Krocs. But that shouldn’t stop us from giving in other ways – of our money, our time, and our compassion.”
Specifically, from this list of giving that the author speaks of, she points out a $10,000,000 donation in 1975 to Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. It was this hospital and a Dr. Grant Geissler that saved my son Damien’s life after a gunshot injury. Conceivably. One could point to this donation as being a determining factor in my son’s survival, as it had a trauma center that was setup to provide the life-saving operation and care for my son. I thank God for Ray and Joan Kroc, for this alone!
I am simply amazed at the many charitable and philanthropic causes that the author lists in this well-written and documented book attributed to The Ray A. Kroc Foundation and the Joan B. Kroc Foundation, such as $3,000,000 to the St. Vincent de Paul Homeless Shelter in San Diego in 1986 and $25,000 to Rachel’s Women’s Center (homeless women) in San Diego in 1984. Incidentally, I once lived next door to Rachel’s Women’s Center.
Noteworthy, in this book, is the author stating: “Before the likes of Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg received deserved acclaim for pledging their fortunes to charity, Joan Kroc did just that, with no fanfare.”
Additionally, Napoli points out the financial gift in 1972 to the “PACE Program/Cook County Jail”, where I would later be a volunteer with my church’s Prison Ministry.
This book resonates with me in so many ways, as indicated earlier by my getting my first real job at McDonald’s in Kansas City, and later, my sons Darius and Damien getting their first real jobs at separate McDonald’s in the Chicago area.
Napoli provides many rich and insightful anecdotes in Ray & Joan, which will keep and captivate the attention of the reader.
There are so many intriguing aspects to this book, including a historic and disturbing tragedy at one of the McDonald’s restaurants in San Ysidro, California. In the San Ysidro community, just across from Tijuana, Mexico in the early 1980s, a McDonald’s restaurant had the miserable distinction as the site of the worst massacre in US history to date by a single gunman. The author points out that a James Huberty, armed with a variety of guns, would shoot to death twenty-one people. The day after this carnage, and the subsequent killing of Huberty by a SWAT sharpshooter, Napoli notes that Joan Kroc would be driven from her home in a light blue Rolls-Royce to the home of Mrs. Etna Huberty, for her to commiserate and give her condolences to her loss of her husband. Again, this aspect of Napoli’s book and story resonates with me, as I once lived in this same San Ysidro area, just across the border in Tijuana, Mexico.
Perhaps it was this tragedy at the McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro, and Joan’s subsequent meeting with the widow of the shooter of the twenty-one innocent people, that would be the impetus behind her donating to so many causes afterwards such as Rachel’s Women’s Center (homeless women) in 1984 and “Money to family of James Byrd” in 1997.
There are so many noteworthy insights revealed in this book by Napoli that touches on human nature and the benevolence of Ray and Joan Kroc. This is a book that I highly recommend.
Dennis Moore has been the Associate Editor of the East County Magazine in San Diego and the book review editor of SDWriteway, an online newsletter for writers in San Diego that has partnered with the East County Magazine, as well as a freelance contributor to EURweb based out of Los Angeles. Mr. Moore can be contacted at email@example.com or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.