Boom, Like That: Ray and Joan Kroc and the McDonald’s Fortune
A Story With New Hampshire Connections
Ray Kroc, the businessman behind the McDonald’s hamburger empire, was very rich. When he died in 1984, his third wife Joan gained control of the money. Ray & Joan: the Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave it All Away, by Lisa Napoli, engagingly and sympathetically tells the story of the couple and their wealth.
Napoli starts at the end of Joan’s life and then goes back to the beginning--of each of their lives, and to the founding of the original McDonald’s. Ray and Joan both grew up in the Midwest, he in Chicago, she in St. Paul. They each loved music and were accomplished keyboardists, which was how they first met: Ray saw Joan playing the organ at a supper club in St. Paul while visiting on business, and although he was 26 years her senior, there was instant chemistry. Both were married to other people at the time, and it would be many years before they finally left their spouses and wed, including one aborted attempt (Joan got cold feet).
As someone who has paid little attention to the story of McDonald’s founding beyond being a fan of Mark Knopfler's 2004 song "Boom, Like That," I found it interesting that Ray did not get rich until McDonald’s went public in 1965, when he was 63 years old; until then, he grew the number of franchises, yes, but it was the franchisees who were making the money.
I also was not aware of McDonald’s local connections: the McDonald brothers, founders of the first restaurant that revolutionized the hamburger stand business, were from Manchester, New Hampshire.
Some of the Kroc’s legendary philanthropy came to the Upper Valley as well. In the 1970’s, Joan took up the fight against alcoholism and started Project Cork (Kroc spelled backwards). The Krocs donated $2 million to fund faculty, research, an institute, and a database on substance abuse at Dartmouth Medical School. (The project is no longer at Dartmouth nor active; the materials were transferred to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.)
Joan is the one who steals the show in this book. While Ray’s philanthropy had as much to do with sheltering his wealth as supporting worthy causes, Joan really wanted to help. She even dissolved her foundation in favor of just writing checks herself, thus cutting out the bureaucracy, and often gave gifts anonymously. She generously supported AIDS relief and research, nuclear disarmament, and NPR (liberal causes the staunchly conservative Ray would likely have opposed), and was particularly giving to her adoptive home town of San Diego and the Salvation Army.
The McDonald’s story is coming to the big screen in a couple of weeks, when The Founder, starring Michael Keaton, opens December 16. Ray and Joan is the prefect preview.