I find Steve's former wife, Neile McQueen Toffel, to be absolutely
fascinating. She was and is strong, independent, beautiful and smart. For Steve, she was his
love, his backbone, his advisor and staunch supporter for
most of his adult life. And she continues, today, to protect his image and
still contributes to documentaries about his life. Her anecdotes and vivid
recollections of his life are always interesting and amusing and it's obvious
how deeply she cared for him. Reading her fantastic memoir
My Husband, My Friend is like sitting down for a
chat with her. She writes as though she is talking to a friend and it's
easy to imagine what life was like being Mrs. Steve McQueen - the good and the
bad. Here's a little bit about the woman behind the man that captured our
Neile McQueen Toffel was born Ruby Neilam Salvador Adams in
the Philippines on July 10, 1936. She was nicknamed Neile. Her mother was a
well-known dancer in the Far East known as Miami and was of German and Spanish
descent. Her father, whom she did not know, was of English, Chinese and
Filipino blood. So, Neile was considered a 'mestiza', a name for anyone with
mixed blood on the islands.
She was mainly raised by a family friend, who had worked for
and been with the family for decades. Her mother traveled extensively to
earn a living and had little time to raise a young child. She never
married after Neile was born but had many gentleman callers, one of which was
General Douglas MacArthur. Neile's life was relatively calm until December
8, 1941, a Catholic holiday in the Philippines when all school were closed in
observation. The Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor and all hell broke loose in
Manila. (The difference between the dates traditional Pearl Harbor Day of
December 7, 1941 and the December 8, 1941 listed here is the international
dateline) They were in the midst of war. Japanese occupation began and
Neile and her mother were taken prisoner and were put in a concentration camp on
the grounds of Santo Tomas University where they would spend three terrifying years. She and her family survived the camps and when the United States
liberated the Philippines from Japanese occupation, she was wounded in the leg
with shrapnel but recovered completely. Her family slowly began rebuilding their
lives. Soon her mother was earning a decent living as dealer in her uncle's club
and their financial situation
improved. Shortly thereafter, Neile was shipped off to a boarding school, Rosemary Hall, in Greenwich,
Connecticut. Her mother had met a new man, Victor, and was unable or
unwilling to spare any time for her daughter. (Coincidentally, Steve's mother
would also meet a man named Victor and have no time for her son) So, alone, Neile ended up in a new
country with new customs and began her own journey.
After graduating from Rosemary Hall, she took a typing class
to pacify her mother and then spent eight weeks in summer stock where she did
some acting and set painting. She decided to pursue an acting career.
Against her mother's wishes but with her financial support, Neile enrolled in
two acting schools and began to find what she'd been searching for in her life,
a place to belong. She had spent much of her childhood watching and
copying the dancing she had seen by her mother and in and around the
Philippines. She now found singing and dancing to be exhilarating. She was captivated by
this new world and decided that Broadway is where she wanted to be but first she
need technical training. She enrolled in the Katherine Dunham School of Dance
and she was surprisingly awarded a scholarship to the school. In order to
subsidize her living, she became a model for a crime and detective magazines.
It was a decent way to make money but embarrassed her mother and she quit
speaking to her. Incidentally, Steve McQueen also posed for these magazines
though they never met during this time.
She lived for her
dance classes and soon began to excel. She was invited to join some dance
groups and began finding jobs in choruses and finally as the star dancer in
Kismet which became a runaway hit. She got an agent, began taking singing
classes and tried to tone down her exotic looks. She began receiving great
reviews and lead roles in major productions. She was hitting the big time!
She began bumping into a young, blond actor in restaurants
and such and they shared a few words. It wasn't until she was on a date
with actor/producer Mark Rydell that he would introduce her to Steve McQueen. Unbeknownst to
Neile, Steve told Mark that evening that he wanted to date Neile and pretty much
made it clear Mark could do nothing about it. He began showing up wherever
Neile was and they finally went out on a date. His nickname for her was
Nellie. She was in love, they
shared everything together and he began showing her a world she hadn't known
existed. During this time, her star burned more brightly than Steve's as he was
still struggling to find jobs while she was being offered starring roles.
They married on November 2, 1956, four short months after
their first meeting. At first, she was the primary wage
earner in the family, at one time, earning a whopping $50,000 a year (a lot for
that era) compared to his $4,000. He was embarrassed by the huge
difference in their wages but this allowed him to be more selective about his roles
and soon he began getting better and better shots. Finally, he was offered
the starring role in the Wanted: Dead or Alive TV series and began the long road
of perfecting the art of being Steve McQueen. Soon after, Neile became
pregnant with their daughter, Terry, and had to quit working. Steve was thrilled to finally become
the breadwinner, have his wife at home and a new baby to boot! So Neile would
put her own dreams of a career aside and would now be a driving force in the career of her
husband. She read scripts and gave him advice on what roles to do and not
to do. She assisted him and others on the movie sets and was a much-needed buffer
between the Producers/Directors and Steve when tensions got hot. Steve trusted her as much as he could anyone and made many decisions
based on her advice. However, he could not and would not be a faithful husband
and had many affairs during their stormy 15 year marriage. They would also
have a son, Chad but even the love they had for each other and the
children could not save their marriage. After one brief fling of her own, Neile filed for divorce.
They would remain confidants, friends and lovers for the rest of Steve's life
but they would never again, live under the same roof. Steve would soon
marry the incredibly lovely actress Ali MacGraw in a short-lived and tempestuous
marriage. Ali and Neile became close friends then and are still friends to
Neile met Alvin Toffel at a luncheon for her friend, Princess Grace of
Monaco. They hit it off and began dating soon after. He was as
interesting a man as he was handsome and confident enough to live with and
support Neile's memories of the iconic Steve McQueen. He was an air force fighter pilot
and an engineer with the Gemini and Apollo Space programs. He and Neile married
on January 19, 1980 and would remain husband and wife for the rest of his life.
Sadly, Steve and Neile's daughter, Terry, died on March 19, 1998 following a
liver transplant. Al Toffel died on March 6, 2005. Neile has four
grandchildren - Terry's daughter, Molly Flattery and Chad's children Steven R.,
Madison and Chase.
McQueen loved two men in her life and lost them both. She was fortunate to
find, not one but two deep and lasting relationships with strong men that loved
her. Here is what she had to say about the death of her first husband,
"My life and times with Steve had spanned twenty-four years.
More than half my life at the time of his death. They were over now. Gone.
That he loved me and that I had been the most important
person in his life, I have no doubt. That I loved him and that he had been
the most influential person in mine cannot be denied.
Good-bye, my friend. You are missed. It sure was one hell of a ride."