Sex, Lies, and Hamburgers: McDonald’s and the Krocs

Ray built the gilded American shrine to fast food. Joan made a philanthropic titan of his $3 billion fortune. It all began in scandal.

Ray and Joan Kroc are honored by their San Diego Padres (and the Famous Chicken) at a home game in 1982.

Photographer: Bettmann/Getty Images

The editors at Humboldt High School in St. Paul, Minn., had Joan Mansfield’s number. “Though other blondes may fade and tire, Joan will set men’s hearts afire,” read her entry in the Class of 1945 yearbook.

Indeed, Joan, a member of the drama club, would go on to generate a good deal of drama, embarking on a scandalous affair with one of America’s richest men and marrying him. Then, long before Warren Buffett and Bill Gates made such pledges common, she would give away the bulk of his $3 billion fast-food fortune.

The lives of Joan Kroc and her husband, Ray, the chief executive of McDonald’s Corp., are the subject of both a new book, Ray & Joan, published in November, and a film, The Founder, starring Michael Keaton and Linda Cardellini and set for wide release in theaters Jan. 20. 

Linda Cardellini stars in The Founder

Linda Cardellini as Joan Kroc in The Founder.

Source: Daniel Mcfadden/The Founder

The Founder is a morality play about a struggling milkshake machine salesman who usurps the fledgling hamburger chain from its creators, Dick and Mac McDonald. As the movie has it, Joan is a sort of Eve to Ray’s Adam, tempting him with her sultry nightclub performances and persuading him to switch to powdered milkshake mix, a last straw for the McDonald brothers, who sell out to Ray for $2.7 million. Ray & Joan is a deeper dive into the relationship between the Krocs and their impact on American culture.

Their story begins at the Criterion, a supper club in St. Paul where Joan played keyboards and Ray, a musician himself, swooned to her take on Tony Bennett’s Because of You. Both were married. In a sign of Ray’s generosity, or cunning, Joan’s husband ended up with the McDonald’s franchise rights for Rapid City, S.D.

 stars in The Founder

Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc in The Founder.

Source: Daniel Mcfadden/The Founder

Eventually the first Mrs. Kroc was out the door and Ray was in the market for a love nest in California for the next one. Then Joan backtracked under pressure from her family, and Ray, scorned, married a Hollywood socialite. That fire faded, and Ray won Joan back after a long, boozy night at a McDonald’s franchisee convention.

“You’re married to somebody else, and she calls and says, ‘I’m ready’ ?” talk show host Phil Donahue asked Ray on TV in the 1970s.

“Well, not quite that way,” Ray explained. “Sometimes it takes ladies a long time to get ready.”

Ray’s charitable efforts, directed by his brother, focused on diseases affecting his family or on the communities where McDonald’s owned restaurants. Joan began putting her stamp on their philanthropy. She created Operation Cork, a mix of TV movies, public service announcements, and medical research funding to raise awareness of alcoholism, a disease Ray almost certainly suffered from. She held meetings with addiction experts at their California ranch, where Ray puttered around with his omnipresent glass of Early Times whiskey.

After Ray’s death in 1984, Joan accelerated her giving, often supporting causes that would have given her conservative Republican husband heartburn: nuclear disarmament, AIDS care, Walter Mondale. After a mentally ill man killed 22 people at a McDonald’s near her San Diego-area home, Joan visited his widow and gave her money (and a lift in her Rolls-Royce), considering her a victim as well. She even tried to give the Krocs’ San Diego Padres to the city, a plan that fell apart after Major League Baseball balked at public ownership.

Joan Kroc presents a donation of $1 million to fund AIDS research to actress Elizabeth Taylor, founder of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AMFAR), at a dinner at New York's Rainbow Room, on Dec. 15, 1987.

Joan Kroc presents a donation of $1 million to fund AIDS research to actress Elizabeth Taylor, founder of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, at a dinner at New York's Rainbow Room on Dec. 15, 1987.

Photographer: G. Paul Burnett/AP Photo

Diagnosed with brain cancer in 2003, Joan decided to give it all away. Her donations, announced after her death in 2003, included $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army, the largest gift to a single charity in U.S. history up to that time, and $225 million to National Public Radio, which continues to thank Joan daily. 

Lisa Napoli, a former public radio correspondent and the author of Ray & Joan, has doggedly tracked down details of the Krocs’ lives, and these you-are-there moments enliven the tale. The impulse behind Joan’s remarkable philanthropy and the long-term impact of her giving are less vivid. 

“Her compassion seemed limitless, applied at seemingly random moments to a wide range of recipients,” Napoli writes. “No matter how much she gave, or how grandly, Joan still had this nagging sense she wasn’t doing enough.” 

Like The Founder, the book leaves it up to the reader to decide whether the Krocs’ often surprising choices were the right ones in the end.

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