Neile Adams on Life with Steve McQueen
When not on location, or cozying up at one of their residences (such as Oakmont Drive in Los Angeles and Southridge Drive in Palm Springs), Steve McQueen and his wife Neile Adams cut a glamorous path across the globe. They vacationed with Princess Grace at Son Vida in Mallorca and spent romantic nights at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, all the while dressed to the nines in Henri Bendel, Brioni and Lanvin. Flitting in and out of the limelight (it helped that tabloids were a tamer breed in those days), they were enviable Hollywood royals during the 50s and 60s, and style setters to the hilt. McQueen, of course, had a weakness for speeding—his many cars included 1956 Jaguar XK SS, his 1969 Porsche 911, and a 1972 Mercedes 300-series—but he could also slow-burn an eternal flame. Sara Cline gets the personal details on the couple’s amorous adventures from Adams, who called her beloved “Esteban.”
You and Steve were rising stars on Broadway when you met. When did you know it was love?
We went on a weekend drive, after a show I was in at the time. We were on a motorcycle, and there was a carload of friends behind us. It was freezing ass cold. We stopped for a bite to eat, and one of the guys said, ‘Steve, why don’t you let Neile ride with us? I can ride with you. It’s too cold.’ And I said, ‘No, I think I’m just gonna stay on the bike.’ Steve told me later, ‘That’s the moment I fell in love with you. Because I knew you were gonna stick with me, no matter what.’
Your marriage, at the time, was a source of international intrigue. What was it like to be Mrs. Steve McQueen?
Other than the love, you have to understand that the world we lived in was rarefied. It was heady: we lived in castles, we partied with royalty––and we were just two kids from the wrong side of the tracks. I remember a party at [the English actor] Peter Lawford’s house for Jack Kennedy’s DNC win [JFK was nominated as the Democratic National Committee’s presidential candidate in 1960]. I’m standing next to Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe. I remember walking into the living room, and Joe Kennedy was sitting there. I said, “Hi.” He said, ‘Hello.’ I asked if he thought “Jack” would win. He looked at me like I was out of my mind and said, ‘Of course he’s going to win.’
How did Steve propose?
He said he was coming out to California to make an honest woman out of me. I had no idea what that meant.
You had a rather modern, utilitarian wedding for the times.
I never dreamed of a big wedding. I wasn’t ready to get married. Steve got the ring, planned everything. He wanted to get married in San Juan Capistrano [in California], because of the swallows. He rented a Thunderbird. It was just the two of us. We got pulled over on the freeway by these two cops who ended up as our witnesses, in this little Lutheran church.
Did you have a proper honeymoon?
We blew up firecrackers on the beach in Ensenada [Mexico].
Today, you and Steve are revered as style icons. How did that evolve?
Steve knew what was right for him, and I knew what was right for me. We complemented each other; it was just instinct.
Who, or what, was the biggest influence on your style?
Steve. He dated a lot of models before we met, and when minis came into style, he was the one who pointed out to me that they look better with flats and tights than heels.
Did his good taste ever get him in trouble?
His good taste kept him occupied. He tore apart the XK SS [Jaguar sports car similar to the D-Type] and rebuilt it. Our entire three-car garage was loaded with all this junk, but when that car was finished, it was beautiful. We bought it for $5,000––I know, because I wrote the check. It’s now in the Petersen Automotive Museum, valued at $3,000,000.
What role did Steve’s obsession with cars & motorcycles play in your life?
In all the years that we were together, I was on his motorbike three times a week, at least. I’d wear my little silk bandana, little silk blouse, little silk pants (from JAX), and we’d go zooming on the highway at 100 miles per hour, zipping between cars. We were never in an accident. Steve’s accidents always occurred on the racetracks, but never in the street––which is amazing when you think about it.
What was your most memorable road trip?
After the six day trials in Germany, there were five of us, split between a van and a sports car, driving through the Pyrenees at night. We figured we’d come across a bed and breakfast, but it was impossible. We were wandering around this little town looking for something, and some woman hanging off a balcony called out, ‘Vous êtes Josh Randall?’ And I poked Steve in the ribs and said, ‘Say oui!’ So they invited us in. Lo and behold, it was a brothel. They closed it down and gave us the most comfortable room, and the next morning all these prostitutes fed us breakfast. Steve signed a bunch of autographs and we were off. It was fucking great.