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'Ray & Joan' is a biography in three parts: Ray, Joan, and McDonald’s

When McDonald's CEO Ray Kroc finally went to whatever his rewards, his widow Joan took to philanthropy with avidity.

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    Ray & Joan:
    The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away
    By Lisa Napoli
    Dutton
    368 pp.
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Have you ever entered a McDonald’s fast-food establishment and found it difficult to breathe? Not a panic attack, not claustrophobia, not an overwhelming affront to your sensibilities – no, just plain asphyxiation. Here’s the skinny: the ghost of Ray Kroc had been visiting, making sure the joint was shipshape. And Ray – in the tradition of the high-octane salesmen of the mid-20th century – would suck all the oxygen out of any room he occupied.

Journalist Lisa Napoli’s Ray & Joan is remarkable, first of all, in its placid waters. If two people could ignite a conflagration, it was Ray and Joan Kroc, they who had the final word in the first iteration – and much abiding – of McDonald’s. McDonald’s is one of those single-name institutions up there with Nero, Napoleon, and Charo. This is a playful, even waggish work of biography, carrying its research lightly, yet never missing a beat or frivolous or judgmental. It feels like a careful grave rubbing, catching the nicks, fadings, and fine lines – gold and bronze chalk against a dark background.

"Ray & Joan" is a biography in three parts: Ray, Joan, and McDonald’s. They move about in their intimate orbits, but they also spend significant time alone. A full-length biography of any of the three might be too much to swallow, overstuffed with junk you don’t want (like those flaccid pickles on the burgers); as a trio, they have the energy to complete their leg of the relay.

The genesis of McDonald’s, and its first stumbling steps, is a fortuitous intersection of business acumen and the progress of American history. Napoli gives the business story room to move, while keeping it neatly framed. The brothers McDonald (yes, it’s true) left Manchester, N.H., to seek their fortune out West. After a few flops, they hit on food service, opening “an octagonal open-air food stand and cut a deal with Sunkist to buy fallen fruit.” The “Airdrome,” named after the nearby public flying field in parched Monrovia, Calif., had a ready market for their fresh orange juice and hot dogs in the thrill riders, as well as the traffic from Route 66. The move to San Bernardino and the opening of the McDonalds’ “Barbeque,” proved even more lucrative.

Yes, the era of road expansion and a car in every garage, when it wasn’t out road tripping on 22¢-a-gallon gasoline, when speedy service was the name of the game. They read the winds of change correctly. They would put Fordism into action in their burger, fries, and shake place; McDonald’s was Levittown on a bun. The use of paper products added zip to the grab-and-go cultural (and the blossoming of roadside litter), plus paper was sanitary (if disposed of properly); the flu epidemic was not long forgotten. This was the unfolding of the zeitgeist, and McDonald’s was making its mark during the 1930s and 1940s into a serious dent by the 1950s.

Napoli writes of the McDonald’s (then under the nom de commencement “Speedee’s”) 1948 liftoff: “Four months in, a miraculous turnaround occurred, for no particular reason. Cabbies came, then construction workers, then kids, and, soon, lines of hungry customers.” No reason? The hamburgers were 15¢, the shakes a treat, the fries to die for.

Then a successful paper-cup salesman from Chicago made the McDonald’s scene. Napoli draws Ray Kroc honestly without making you loathe him outright – a minor miracle. Kroc had a voice like a gas explosion. He was rude and imperious. He treated people as things that only influenced the bottom line. He was a boor, a peacock, and a mean drunk (Pass the Early Times! You call that a shot?!). He also knew what people wanted to eat, especially when he surrounded himself with smart advisors, and even more especially when he came under the protective wing of “the Twelve Apostles,” a dozen institutional investors who supplied Kroc with the $2.7 million he needed to buy out Dick and Maurice McDonald, and their last name.

Before the McDonald boys left, a template had been drawn. There was the red-and-white-tiled workplace, and destiny’s numinous signifier: the neon-trimmed golden arches, “the building itself now a functional sign.” Kroc knew about food and appearance. He could make an Idaho fry (don’t forget the lard), a decent milkshake during WWII sugar rationing (ever hear of corn syrup?), a clean, well-lit place, and knew to hire all-male workers (no distractions). The franchises fell into orderly fashion. Then Kroc bought the land out from under them. One might have owned a McDonald’s franchise, but it sat squarely, rent-wise, in the McDonald corporate fiefdom. That was where the chief would make his millions and billions, that and taking McDonald’s stock public – “unfathomable abundance, a spigot that could not be shut off.” Still can’t.

Joan was a very different kettle of fish. Ray’s public relations team told him that a little philanthropy went a long way. Joan truly wanted to give back. She had always been a hardworking woman, her youth not destitute but this side of hardscrabble. She and her first husband threw themselves into their McDonald’s franchise. As she made her way into Ray’s arms and up the corporate ladder, she became known as the “vice president for equilibrium,” to keep the warring top bananas from peeling one another.

When Ray finally went to whatever his rewards, Joan took to philanthropy with avidity, writes Napoli. Joan liked her baubles – the 42-carat pear-shaped yellow diamond necklace, the 22-carat diamond ring, the “dark blue gray diamond; pink diamonds, colorless ones, yellow, too” – and “she gambled like, well, like a woman once ranked forty-ninth richest in the world.”

Foundations gave her the vapors; she would rather write a check. Anonymously. She gave to noble causes and to her fancies. First she gave to the fight against alcoholism, to children with cancer, to towns experiencing natural disasters, to zoos and theaters and relay runs, “Grandmothers for Peace,” peace initiatives, AIDS research, hospices, child-abuse prevention, national public radio, opera and special Olympics, animal shelters, soup kitchens, the Crazy Horse Foundation. She also liked the Salvation Army, a lot.

When she died she had a couple billion more to offload. Peace studies and the Ronald McDonald House got plenty, and NPR has every reason to call her an angel. But the Salvation Army (“She admired their resolve, their lifestyle choices [that is, they weren’t alcoholic barbarians like Ray], and their dedication, even if formal religion wasn’t her cup of tea”) found itself on the receiving end of $1,500,000,000.00.

“Joan was a wildly unpredictable study in extremes.” Yes, fortunately. She gave over $10,000,000.00 to AIDS research. Resolve and dedication, all good; unpredictable, even better.

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