I’m so proud of my grandfather

Growing up in Hollywood and being long of limb and blond of hair, there was always the possibility that Molly Flattery would go into acting. But when your grandfather happens to be screen legend Steve McQueen, then it is pretty much a fait accompli. Now 19 and about to start college, Molly never met her grandfather (who died seven years before she was born), but his influence is all-pervading. ‘My grandma says he would have loved me because we have a similar personality and sense of humour,’ says Molly, who shares the athletic physique of her grandfather, not to mention his dazzling blue eyes and blond hair. ‘Even though I really wish I’d met him, I’ve got to know him through films and books.

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How many people are lucky enough to say that about their grandfather?’

Molly’s grandma is actress and Broadway star Neile Adams – the first of McQueen’s three wives.

Now 70, Neile is buzzing about her Beverly Hills home and beaming at Molly. The two of them have always been close, particularly so since Molly’s mother (Neile’s daughter) Terry died eight years ago (Terry was the eldest of McQueen’s two children with Neile; her brother Chad is an actor). Molly’s parents divorced when she was two and she lived with her mother, with Neile close by. When Terry died, Molly lived briefly with a close friend, before her father, construction manager Jerry Flattery, came back to LA to look after her. ‘Molly loves acting,’ says Neile, ‘and it’s obviously in her blood.’ This summer, Molly took an intensive acting course and realised that she wanted to follow in her grandparents’ footsteps. But Neile is understandably protective, given the brilliant, though troubled McQueen legacy. ‘She asks me if she can get an agent now and I say: “No! You’ve only been at it for five weeks!” I’ve seen her on stage and she has real presence, but I keep telling her that’s not enough; she has to really know what she’s doing. People keep calling up and asking if she wants to be in things, but I say no, she’s not ready yet. Steve and Molly would have got on so well. Terry was the apple of his eye, so he would have loved to have seen Molly up there.’ But Molly isn’t about to trade on her heritage.

‘When I went to acting class this summer I didn’t tell anyone who my grandfather was because it didn’t seem necessary. I haven’t got to the point yet where people are going to start comparing me to him, but I do feel this slight pressure of, “Well, she’d better be really good then.”

‘A lot of my friends at school say, “Who’s Steve McQueen?”, but usually when their parents find out, they go crazy. It’s rare that a star appeals equally to men and women, but my grandfather did.’ Men wanted to be him, women simply wanted to be with him, and McQueen readily obliged, going through conquests at a dizzying pace (even though he was usually married at the time) and partaking of everything fast, from women to cars to drugs, until his death from lung cancer at the age of 50 in 1980.

Neile wrote a book about life with her errant husband entitled My Husband, My Friend. They were married for 16 years, until 1972, and Neile still lights up when she talks about him, yet concedes that some of those years were rough. ‘I loved Steve and always will,’ she says, ‘but it got a bit hairy what with the womanising, drugs and the violent temperament. When we met, it was instantaneous – bang! He had amazing charisma. But eventually I had enough. The first year after our divorce was a little bitter but you can’t stay that way when you have kids, and we remained friends.’ The couple met in New York as young actors, both dreaming of making it in Hollywood. ‘One of my favourite stories that Grandma tells,’ says Molly, ‘is about one of his first acting classes.

Apparently, he walked into the room and the teacher went, “Go and warm up.” He didn’t know what she meant so he went and sat on the radiator!’ Neile put her career on hold to raise their children, realising early on in the marriage that McQueen was being unfaithful. ‘He was making a movie, Never Love a Stranger, with an actress called Lita Milan who kept throwing herself at him, until finally they did it. I didn’t ask too many questions, but I knew. I felt that as long as I didn’t catch him in the act, I was fine.

‘Unfortunately he’d always tell me about it because he felt guilty. I never felt diminished because I knew it had nothing to do with his love for me, but as he told me, you can only say no so many times. It did hurt, though, and I cried a lot.’ Neile exacted a revenge of sorts when she confessed to an affair with German actor Maximilian Schell. McQueen was so enraged that he fetched a gun and held it to her head until she revealed the whole story. ‘I was terrified,’ says Neile, ‘and although I don’t know if the gun was loaded, I wasn’t taking any chances. I had to tell him about the affair, just to sock it to him, and it felt so wonderful to see the pain fly across his face.

I even said, “And he has an Academy Award and you don’t!”, which hurt him even more.

‘Some time later, Steve was meeting Genevieve Bujold at the Hotel Bel-Air and who does she walk in with but Max Schell. Steve said to her, “Would you excuse us for a minute?” and then the two men started a fight in the parking lot.

I only knew about it when I got a call from Jack Nicholson afterwards, asking, “Is Steve all right?

I just saw him at the Bel-Air with his hand all bleeding.” But that’s what he was like.’ The couple divorced in 1972, although remained sporadic lovers afterwards. McQueen married actress Ali McGraw and then model Barbara Minty.

Neile married her second husband, Alvin Toffel, in 1980. ‘I didn’t really like Barbara,’ says Neile, ‘and Terry wasn’t crazy about her either, as Barbara was only about three years older than her. But I was friends with Ali and she was always very nice with my children.’ Despite the divorce, McQueen remained close to his children, and while Chad went to live with his father, Terry lived with Neile. Terry went on to become an actress and producer, and married Molly’s father when she was 28.

Molly only realised who her grandfather was when she was seven. ‘I was in a supermarket checkout stand with our housekeeper when she said to the person at the till, “This is Steve McQueen’s granddaughter.” I had no idea why they were making a fuss. After that it was a gradual process of realising that my grandfather had made quite a few movies over the years. There had always been pictures of him around the house, though, and Mum kept his old bikes and Porsche, and had a picture of him above her bed.’ Terry McQueen, though, had a difficult life. ‘She fell down the stairs and hurt her back when I was really young,’ says Molly, ‘and after that, she had a bit of a problem with painkillers and she didn’t go out as much and spent a lot of time sleeping in bed. It was just the two of us at home – we did have a housekeeper who helped – and we would hang out and watch movies together and everything. But I was self-motivated to get good grades because she never really told me to work hard or looked over me in that way, but she was a really cool mum. She was quite sick when I was young and I was kind of the caretaker.’ Molly is reluctant to go into detail but says that ‘after a long series of events’ her mother Terry had to undergo a liver transplant. ‘One thing led to another and she had respiratory failure and died when I was ten. I was forced to grow up pretty quickly after that, but it made me stronger. I went and lived with one of my best friends for a while because we were really close and it was felt that it would be the best way to keep things normal.

Then my dad moved back to LA and I lived with him after that. My grandparents were a huge support, but my stepgrandfather [Alvin Toffel] died last year. He was lovely, the smartest man I’ve ever known, and it really hit Grandma hard.

But we’re even closer now.’ It was said that Terry McQueen never really got over her father’s death, ‘but that’s not true,’ insists Neile. ‘She always thought about him and talked about him, but she lived her life. Her death was one of the hardest things I’ve been through.

But kids of movie stars have a lot of baggage and it’s hard for them sometimes to get over it.’ It remains to be seen how this particular grandchild of a movie star copes with all the baggage too, but the signs are good. ‘I want to finish my studies and then I’d prefer to do TV and movies rather than theatre,’ says Molly.

‘Now that I’m getting more interested in the idea of acting, I watch my grandfather’s stuff.

I love The Great Escape and Papillon in particular.

I saw the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair with Pierce Brosnan and I went and told Grandma. She said, “You mean you haven’t seen the original?”‘ Molly laughs. ‘She wasn’t impressed with me at all. But I’m so proud of my grandfather. How many people, after all, get to say that their grandfather was a true icon?’