STEVE MCQUEEN REMEMBERED | FORMER LOVER, FELLOW RACER

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1960 Lime Rock Nationals– Denise McCluggage sits on the grid  while SCCA gets things straight.

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Back in 1955 or so, a young Denise McCluggage had a chance encounter with a then unknown Steve McQueen which led to a brief affair and a long-lasting friendship. They would be separated by their own career ambitions, and the many demands and erratic schedules that come with the territory. That said, McCluggage managed to stay in touch over the years. She herself would go on to become a legend in the world of auto racing– a renowned driver, writer, and photographer for over 50 yrs. McCluggage has won trophies around the world and raced for Porsche, Jaguar, Lotus, Mini Cooper, Alfa, Elva, OSCA, Volvo, among others. In 1961 she won the grand touring category at Sebring in a Ferrari 250 GT, and in 1964 McCluggage scored a class win in the Rallye de Monte Carlo for Ford. She shared her remembrances of McQueen and their relationship years after his passing, published in AutoWeek magazine back in 1981. She recalls a young, lean McQueen who was already obsessed with cars and racing, who swept her off her feet with his searing looks, charm and well… incongruity, as she puts it.

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1955, Steve McQueen as he looked back in the day, running around the Village w/ Denise McCluggage – Image by © Roy Schatt

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Shortly after our reunion he had sidled up next to me and whispered in my ear: “I’m falling in love all over again,” and given me the full brunt of the smile. My response had been an instantaneous hoot of laughter. –Denise McCluggage

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Steve McQueen: Car Buff Extraordinaire, for Auto Week magazine– 

I first saw Steve McQueen in front of Joe’s luncheonette on West 4th St. in Greenwich Village. He wasn’t *STEVE McQUEEN* then, just Steve McQueen, Village hang-about. He was leaning against his cream-colored MG-TC holding a new leather-covered racing helmet and telling someone how some friends of his in England had sent it to him. And, man, that was too much!

I was on my way into Joe’s for a toasted bran muffin. Joe’s is long-gone, but at one time tout le village passed through there. That was before the Village was quite so boutique-y or self-consciously freaky. It was just a place to live.

Being a TC owner myself (my second — this one red) and interested in racing, I stopped to listen and stayed to talk.

Steve it seems, was an actor. Well, I knew something about actors having been married to one rather recently, albeit briefly. And I had studied the craft myself at night classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse (the one continuity of my life has been taking classes– in anything). So Steve and I had a wide range of commonality.

And I was touched by his almost waif-like quality– his delight and genuine surprise that someone would go to all the trouble to send him a present, particularly one he really dug. There was this incongruity in Steve’s vulnerability, his cock-of-the-walk posturing, his jive talk. And if there’s anything I’m a sucker for, it’s incongruity.

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1955, Steve McQueen as he looked back in the day, running around the Village w/ Denise McCluggage – Image by © Roy Schatt

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So the conversations continued. Then and later. At Joe’s over toasted bran muffins and at my five-flight walk-up around the corner. Indeed, we became something of a Village “item,” which surprised me. But then MG-TCs — or any sportscars — were comparatively rare, and two of them parked nose-to-tail on Cornelian Street didn’t go unnoticed. One regular at Joe’s, (as pleased as a successful matchmaker) said, “I’ve been watching those two cars around here for months and I knew it was inevitable that you’d finally get together.”

But it wasn’t like that at all! Well, it was a little like that, but not such a big deal.

I’ve been trying to remember what exactly was the Big Deal in my life at that time. The year must have been 1955 or 1956– that means it was after I had become sports writer for the New York Herald Tribune and before I got my Jaguar and raced my first SCCA National at Montgomery, NY.

Steve was at a nowhere place in his career– all possibilities and promise. But every actor I knew, including my ex-husband, had possibilities and promise. And little else.

But possibilities turned into actualities for Steve shortly thereafter, and he was off for the Coast, eventually to become Josh Randall on TV. I left the Tribune, kept racing, published Competition Press. Stuff like that.

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A brilliant photo of racing legends Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Denise McCluggage, Pedro Rodriguez, Innes Ireland, and  Ronnie Bucknum. via

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The next time I saw Steve McQueen must have been at Sebring in 1962. He was driving an MGA for BMC (British motor corporation). I was driving an OSCA (Officine Specializzate Costruzioni Automobili) with Allen Eager, a jazz musician with whom I had won the GT category with the year before. Allen had known Steve in the Village even before I had, and long before I knew Allen.

“Hey, man,” Steve said to Allen in a conspirator’s whisper. “I bet we’re the only two guys in this race who ever…” And he made toke-taking gestures with his thumb and forefinger. Allen’s answer was to start a hand for his pocket. “It just so happens…”

“Hey, man, what are you doing!?” Steve glanced around in a minor panic, his hands pushing disclaimers. I thought that was unfair to Allen. Allen had thought that Steve had gone Hollywood hypocrite. To me it meant Steve had Made It and wanted to Keep It. (This was 1962, remember.)

He had made it. People in restaurant booths pointed at him and called him “Josh” and grinned those give-me-a-prize-for-recognizing-you grins. Steve rather stiffly reminded them: “My name is Steve McQueen. The role I play is Josh.” That broke up Allen, who had had some share of fame for his tenor sax. Gradually Steve loosened up and laughed too, and and we talked Old Times talk. As we talked the quick McQueen smile became less mannered, less shtick-y and more like the Village days.

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Denise McCluggage (with a camera strapped around her neck) at Le Mans in 1958, published her first article for Autoweek in the magazine’s first issue back in 1958. via

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Another incident had loosened him up a bit too. Shortly after our reunion he had sidled up next to me and whispered in my ear: “I’m falling in love all over again,” and given me the full brunt of the smile. My response had been an instantaneous hoot of laughter. Steve looked hurt at first– that old vulnerability– and then th too laughed. It was a good line, and he had delivered it well, and I had loved it, but we both knew it was a stranger to any truth– either at the moment or long before.

And Steve’s truth was what I liked best about him. He had it in his acting. His full use of himself in the character of the moment. I liked his work.

I saw Steve several years later in California. I had a script idea about racing and he liked it a lot, but I wanted a friend of mine to direct it and Steve said (this was before The Great Escape) that he wasn’t big enough yet to risk an unknown director.

He was in a good place then. Enough success for a sense of satisfaction and a strong belief that plenty more was to come. Swell, it was. He led me in his British Racing Green Jaguar D-Type up the winding roads into the hills to see his house and meet his family. Chad was just about two yrs old I think. And Steve proudly showed me  job he had just finished– putting cork on the walls of a den.

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Denise McCluggage with Stirling Moss at Sebring, 1961. McLuggage was driving a Ferrari 250 GT SWB with Allen Eager, who was better known for his tenor sax. via

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Some years later when in London I picked up a newspaper and there was Steve McQueen along with an interview. He was on his way to France to start filming Le Mans. I called the reporter who had done the interview to find out what hotel Steve was in, and I phoned. I had no ide how thick the barrier would be to reaching him. I wouldn’t have tried very hard, but it was only one man deep. I told him I was an old friend of Steve’s and told him who I was. After a while a voice came back: “Denise McLuggage. Now that’s a name from the past.” 

We talked a long time– about his racing successes, his motorcycles, what he had done in Bullitt, what he wanted to do in Le Mans, and how he might revive my long-put-aside racing film ideas.

That was the last time I talked to Steve directly. He used to see Phil and Alma Hill in Los Angeles, and we sent “hellos” back and forth through them and said how we must get together again sometimes when I’m in L.A.

I knew what was happening, as much as you can know what is happening through the simultaneous successes and neglect of the press.

I thought that Steve was going to beat his illness. I really did. Hope gives a lot of color to how I think about such things.

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Steve McQueen, Monaco, 1969

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Steve’s name came up in a group conversation shortly after he had gone to Mexico and a young reporter among us said: “Boy, that’s the way to make a lot of money right now. If you can get to Steve McQueen you can make a fortune. An exclusive interview.”

I said nothing, but my mouth opened slightly as I tried to think of a word that described my feelings. “Appalled” probably came closest. And I thought too that I probably wasn’t much of a journalist.

Appropriately, it was a car radio that delivered the news to me Steve McQueen was dead. He was 50 years old, the announcer said. Fifty. That had no meaning. It was far too young. It was far too old.

I saw then that 1950s day in New York, and a young man with short-cropped hair wearing chino pants and a stark white T-shirt lounging against a cream-colored MG-TC with a machine-turned dashboard. He squints into the stark white sun and smiles a quick, not-yet-famous smile suddenly there, just as suddenly gone. He turns a new white helmet over and over in his hands.

I think too of those E.E. Cummings lines:

“And what I want to know is– How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mr. Death?”

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RELTED TSY POSTS:

STEVE MCQUEEN, RICHARD AVEDON & RUTH ANSEL | HARPER’S BAZAAR, 1965

STEVE McQUEEN DOIN’ IT IN THE DIRT | TRIUMPH DESERT BIKE BY BUD EKINS

STEVE McQUEEN’s 1971 HUSKY 400 CROSS UP FOR AUCTION | BUY IT NOW!

STEVE McQUEEN’s 1971 HUSKY 400 CROSS UP FOR AUCTION | BUY IT NOW!

STEVE McQUEEN REVIEWS THE HOTTEST NEW GT’s | 1966 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

STEVE McQUEEN ’66 POPULAR SCIENCE | WHAT I LIKE IN A BIKE –AND WHY

STEVE McQUEEN | LE MANS & BEYOND GRATUITOUS 1970s RACING GOODNESS

STEVE McQUEEN | HOLLYWOOD’S ANTI-HERO & TRUE SON OF LIBERTY

REQUIRED VIEWING “BULLITT” | THE GRANDDADDY OF CAR CHASE SCENES

THE TSY FRIDAY FADE | STEVE MCQUEEN’S DUNE BUGGY DAYS

HUSQVARNA | THE SCREAMIN’ SWEDE THAT STARTED A RACING REVOLUTION

1970 12 HOURS OF SEBRING RACE | STEVE McQUEEN’S BRUSH WITH VICTORY

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8 thoughts on “STEVE MCQUEEN REMEMBERED | FORMER LOVER, FELLOW RACER

  1. Gave up on Autoweek a few years ago, but now enjoy Ms. McLuggage blog. What a treat to read that piece again, a lovely, bittersweet reminiscence of an old friend lost too young… man, it’s been 30 years already?

    A great writer, racer and lady. Thanks, Denise.

    And thanks JP, for posting it.

  2. JP
    You “Do” come up with the best visuals.
    And content to match.
    That’s why I subscribe!
    You’re a writer in a class all by your self
    far ahead of the pack.
    Great Peace, McQueen Rules!

    Tim

  3. We run the risk of over-saturation of the McQueen legend by marketing it to death. Johns*** Mot*** t-shirts, Lucky Brand McQueen-ery, Troy Lee Gulf Lemans #22 helmets with an image of Steve actually on the helmet (goofy). Barbour ‘McQueen line” jackets, Triumph’s ‘McQueen Edition’ Bonneville (green paint and a signature sticker adds about $4000)..Like everything truly cool, we trample it to death, which just shows how plastic today’s ‘stars’ really are. Does Ben Affleck or Brad Pitt even know what a 10mm socket looks like?

  4. Hellbent, I’m already done with McQueen for awhile. Could we have a year of Denise McCluggage worship please, then decide to either nominate someone else or go back to McQueen??

  5. I’ve heard McCluggage described as the 1st Lady of Racing But was puzzled by the title. Puzzled no longer.

  6. The fact remains that even without the McQueen connection, McCluggage stands tall as an icon of American racing and cultural history. Before Danica Patrick, Lynn St. James and Shirley Muldowney, there came Denise McCluggage—who looms like Earhart in the pantheon of mechanical adventurers. Moreover, she is as notable for her prose and wit as her exploits behind the wheel.

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