Tim Bean

In the early 70s, actor Steve McQueen dominated Hollywood as the highest-paid actor in history. For the 1974 disaster flick The Towering Inferno alone, McQueen received a million dollars upfront and 10% of the film’s gross—about $14 million dollars in total.

All that money masked a deeply uncomfortable celebrity who spent the first fifteen years of his life the victim of abuse, and finding escape in a life of delinquency. This is hardly the Steve McQueen people remember, but it’s the one that existed.


The resemblance between Steve McQueen and his biological father is uncanny, but the two never knew each other. William McQueen flew as a stunt pilot for a barnstorming act migrating across the Midwest. These immensely popular aerial acrobatics involved pushed prop planes and their pilots to the limit, required equal helpings of technical skills and raw guts. William McQueen would have zoomed into Indiana’s Marion County like a movie star.

Six months after meeting (then marrying) Julia Crawford, and start the height of the Great Depression, William McQueen abandoned his pregnant wife. Once Terence Steven McQueen arrived in 1930, Julia sent him to live with her family on a farm in Slater, Missouri, feeling incapable of raising a small child all alone. Harsh to 21st century ears, this practice was not uncommon in the 1930s. McQueen recalled a very pleasant childhood on the farm with his grandparents and great-uncle, Claude Thomson.


His mother Julia eventually remarried and, when Steve McQueen was eight, had her parents freight him to his new home in Indianapolis, Indiana, only a few miles from Beech Grove. It wasn’t a happy homecoming. More a stranger than a mother, Julia had been virtually absent young Steve’s entire life. In leaving Slater, he left the freedom of the farm and his beloved great-uncle Claude, who would remain the most influential figure in Steve McQueen’s life.

Life in Indianapolis was hard for the boy. McQueen’s new stepfather beat him for the slightest infraction and his mother did nothing to stop it. Steve McQueen’s suffered during school as well. Although unknown and undiagnosed at the time, McQueen’s dyslexia made schoolwork arduous and an ear infection had rendered him partially deaf, worsening his academic performance. To escape the frequent and ever-worsening beatings, McQueen joined a street gang and began living on the street and supporting himself with petty crime until he was eventually caught by police. Seeing the situation as untenable, his mother once again sent him to Slater. He would not reside in Indiana again.


The cycle repeated itself, with McQueen living happily at his uncle’s farm and forced to leave at his mother’s beckoning. Today, his Slater relatives likely would have had a strong legal case to retain custody of McQueen. No doubt his great-uncle Claude certainly would have tried; he had come to care for Steve as his own son. But in the 30s and 40s, interfering in familial matters, even at the child’s benefit, was taboo.

His mother remarried and sent for McQueen again. This time he moved to his mother’s new home in Los Angeles. Once again, his second stepfather abused the boy. Once again, McQueen joined a street gang. Once again, he was arrested. The stepfather’s beatings became frequent and frenzied and the teenage McQueen once again returned to Slater. This time he did not stay. At 14, McQueen ran away from home. After another arrest, his mother declared McQueen “INCORRIGIBLE” and signed him over to the California Junior Boys’ Republic. As cold and selfish as his mother’s actions were, her abandoning him to the Boys’ Republic provided the structure and normalcy that McQueen lacked.


At the Boys’ Republic, the most effective tool in any teenager’s life, peer pressure, pruned his disruptive behavior. McQueen himself noted this transformation: “I paid my dues with the other fellows quite a few times. I got my lumps, no doubt about it. The other guys in the bungalow had ways of paying you back for interfering with their well-being.” Although he only resided at the Boys Republic for two years, the time had calmed the troubled boy. He emerged confident and content, but a touch of his rebellious nature remained.

He would visit the California Junior Boys Republic several times over the years, rarely publicizing the events, and donating both his money and time to the boys-in-residence. The visits were always informal, with McQueen more apt to shoot pool than deliver a lecture. Most of his giving stayed under the radar: McQueen earned a kind of notoriety for his contractural demands of shaving razors and blue jeans, sometimes by the truckload. It was later discovered these items were all sent to the Boys Republic.