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'Ray And Joan' Chronicles Complex Life Of Kroc's Philanthropic Wife


Ray Kroc, to use his proud words, put the hamburger on the assembly line. The 15-cents McDonald's hamburger wasn't his idea, but he turned it into a fortune, which his third wife, Joan Kroc, would survive to give away to places of which the founder of that fortune might not have approved, including this organization.

Ray and Joan had a relationship of fire and ice, which is now chronicled in Lisa Napoli's book "Ray And Joan: The Man Who Made The Mcdonald's Fortune And The Woman Who Gave It All Away." And Lisa Napoli, who's worked with The New York Times and Marketplace, joins us from the studios of NPR West.

Thanks so much for being with us.

LISA NAPOLI: Oh, boy. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: He put the hamburger on the assembly line. What was the great idea that Ray Kroc had that made what we now know as McDonald's possible?

NAPOLI: Well, actually, it was two brothers in the desert of California who had the idea of expediting the preparation of hamburgers and milkshakes and french fries. So Ray took this idea. He loved the idea of fast food, and he wanted to propagate the McDonald's all across America. And so the brothers who developed the formula didn't really care to go through the hassle of franchising it. So Ray decided that he would sell franchises all across the country. He convinced them to let him do that.

SIMON: Take us back, please, to that first moment in which Ray and Joan met and sparks flew but, inconveniently, they were married to other people.

NAPOLI: Yeah. That's a problem, isn't it? Ray was trouncing around the Midwest selling franchises. And he walked into the Criterion Restaurant in St. Paul, which was a very elegant place. And in the center of the restaurant was a beautiful, blond woman - 26 years younger - and she was playing the organ. She was hired to entertain the diners. And Ray walked in hoping to sell a franchise to the owner of the restaurant and instead was sidetracked by this beautiful woman. He was a pianist himself, so he was fascinated by her musical proficiency as well as her good looks.

SIMON: Yeah. Did Joan love Ray, really?

NAPOLI: You know, it's easy to think that perhaps she married him because of his money. But it's been hard to sort of root out exactly what she felt. What she said in interviews a number of times was very circumspect - what is love? But I do know that people who knew them both say that it was a long passion - that it wasn't just as simple as a beautiful, young woman running off with a rich man. Certainly, you know, the facts bear that out. It took them so long to get together, and there was a huge price to be paid with both their families.

SIMON: She really made a difference in the way we think of and treat addiction, didn't she?

NAPOLI: Oh, she did, and in such an interesting time. In the '70s, even before Betty Ford had famously stepped forward and talked about her struggles, Joan was convening people who were early thinkers in how to treat people differently. You know, AA had been around, of course, for decades. But there was a movement in the '70s to get people to look at the whole person with alcoholism. And Joan was really passionate about getting the word out.

SIMON: Yeah. With Ray's death, Joan Kroc became one of the principal philanthropists in America. And she really took that responsibility seriously, didn't she?

NAPOLI: She lived large, and she gave large. She felt this almost-burden with the money that she had. And saying she hit the lotto isn't really fair. But - she had this money at her disposal, and she felt obligated to use it in a constructive way. But that's not to say she was ascetic or like a monk. She lived very, very lavishly as well.

SIMON: Yeah, she'd drip with jewels. She went to nice places. She...

NAPOLI: (Laughter) She loved her private jet. But she, at the same time, was a news junkie - before we called it that. And when she saw someone wronged or an ill in society or when, as in the case of alcoholism, she became passionate about trying to help solve the problem - she was a big no-nukes activist in the '80s, a peace activist. And she just applied her wealth toward the greater good.

SIMON: Of course, we have to note The Salvation Army and NPR received sizable donations from Joan Kroc that change the nature, you know, really, of both organizations. And both organizations were grateful for her generosity and her spirit. But there are challenges to accepting huge donations, aren't there?

NAPOLI: Yeah. If you've ever heard stories about people who win the lotto, their lives are in inalterably changed by that. It's a hard thing to imagine. And for NPR and The Salvation Army, these huge gifts - and it's important to point out that The Salvation Army got close to 10 times more than NPR did - it was challenging.

How do you continue to reach out to donors when you've received this windfall? In the case of NPR, how do you explain, in this complex matrix that we've got of member stations in the network, how the money will get dispersed? In the case of The Salvation Army, Joan asked for recreation centers to be built all around the country. But The Salvation Army really wasn't equipped to do that. It had done it once in San Diego, where Joan lived, but it wasn't something that was in their wheelhouse, so to speak.

So yeah, it's a terrible burden. It's a wonderful one, but it was complicated for both organizations.

SIMON: How fair or accurate is the idea that Joan Kroc gave away Ray Kroc's money to a lot of places and causes of which he would not have approved?

NAPOLI: A lot of old-guard McDonald's people I've talked to are angry that Joan made gifts that, in their estimation, were more liberal-leaning than Ray, perhaps, would've liked, including her million-dollar gift to the Democrats - now - and her active work in the peace movement and building these peace institutes at both Notre Dame and the University of San Diego.

I don't think she did it to spite Ray or to get back at him at all, although I do know that during the course of their marriage, she said she suppressed her politics and her interests in some ways because she didn't want to seem untoward. And yet, that doesn't square up with the fact that she started this alcoholism education charity while Ray was clearly afflicted. So the dichotomy or the juxtaposition of all these odd facts with Joan is what makes her so interesting to me. She was a very complicated person.

SIMON: Lisa Napoli, her book, "Ray And Joan: The Man Who Made The Mcdonald's Fortune And The Woman Who Gave It All Away."

Thanks so much for being with us.

NAPOLI: Oh, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.