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Steve McQueen: Wife Beater and Drug Addict

February 28, 1986

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The late actor Steve McQueen once told his wife: ″I’m gonna die young, so I gotta take a big piece out of life.″

And so he did.

McQueen lived 50 tempestuous years, filled with teen-age rebellion, studio battles and fast cars. They also included wife beating and drug addiction, according to Neile McQueen Toffel’s new book, ″My Husband, My Friend″ (Atheneum, $17.95).

It is a startling story. But Mrs. Toffel, who was married to McQueen for 15 1/2 years, insists it is told with affection.

After her husband died of cancer in 1980, she declined publishers’ offers to write her story because she thought it was too painful to tell so soon. ″But then I became infuriated with other biographies of Steve,″ she said in an interview. ″I thought it was time someone told the story in a way that wasn’t exploitive and sensational. I got started when the children started asking questions about their father.″

The children had known about the tenseness between their parents, but never knew the reasons. They were shocked when their mother finally told them.

″They are adults now - Terry is 26, and Chad is 25 - and I felt they should know what really happened,″ Mrs. Toffel said. ″As kids they were never exposed to the troubles that Steve and I had. Steve had been an abused child, and often that results in an abusive parent. But even in his drug- abused state, he always stopped short of harming the children.″

Abandoned by his father, McQueen was raised by an often-married mother who left him with relatives. He became part of a street gang in Los Angeles, and his delinquency prompted his mother to send him to a home for troubled boys.

His rebellion continued in adulthood. As a star, he made outrageous demands from studios and sometimes was unble to film because of drinking or narcotics. He refused the co-starring role in ″Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid″ - the part went to Robert Redford - because he insisted on top billing over Paul Newman.

He also was an avid and reckless auto racer, once cracking up a car in Europe. The accident was hushed up.

Steve McQueen and Neile Adams were married in 1956. She was a Broadway dancer who had been on the cover of Life magazine and he was struggling to succeed in theater and television. Both had neglected childhoods, and they seemed deeply in love.

However, while he was away filming ″Never Love a Stranger″ in 1957, he met an actress named Lita Milan. Mrs. Toffel writes: ″Steve told me after the picture that he had had a fling with her. She would be the first in a long line of ‘flings’ that would plague us - me - throughout our married life.″

McQueen was a target for his leading ladies, including the late Natalie Wood when they made ″Love With a Proper Stranger″ in 1964.

″Had Natalie Wood known me better, she might have thought twice before going after my husband in such a blatant way,″ writes Mrs. Toffel, who in her early 50s maintains a dancer’s figure.

She got her revenge at the Paris premiere of the film. She stopped Miss Wood from riding in the same car as McQueen, and arranged for the McQueens to arrive at the theater five minutes before the actress so they could get all the media attention.

Mrs. Toffel discovered McQueen’s drug problem early in the marriage. When they bought their first Palm Springs home, he drove into the desert to buy peyote from Indians. Later, cocaine became his constant companion.

The most shocking part of ″My Husband, My Friend″ is the author’s account of McQueen’s beatings, especially after she admitted a fling with a European Oscar winner. Her husband held a gun on her and exacted the story of the transgression between slaps.

″He felt the final ‘yes’ would give him the excuse necessary to haul off and punch me, which is what I was expecting,″ she writes. ″Surprisingly and thankfully, he slowly straightened himself up and gave me a look of such hatred that I cringed.″

She remained with McQueen for the sake of the children and in the hope that he would change. After a final beating, she left him and filed for divorce in Oct. 1971. She was devastated afterward and did little but take dance classes and care for the children. She gradually resumed her career on a limited basis and married businessman Alvin Toffel.

He went on to marry Ali MacGraw and Barbara Minty.

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