BookPage Top Pick in Nonfiction, November 2016
As we are constantly reminded, all those quarter-pounders from McDonald’s add up—to billions and billions served. Not as well known but just as importantly, millions and millions in McDonald’s profits were doled out to charities by Joan Kroc, widow of longtime Chairman Ray Kroc, during her lifetime and beyond. Ray & Joan is Lisa Napoli’s highly readable account of the Krocs’ romance and marriage, the growth of the McDonald’s fast-food empire and how all that money came to be given away.
It wasn’t exactly a storybook relationship under the arches. Ray and Joan were married to others when they first met and later left their spouses to be together, with Ray detouring into yet another marriage before he finally tied the knot with Joan. Once they were wed, Ray’s volatile personality and persistent drinking ensured conflicts, and the couple flirted with divorce. They stuck it out, though, and upon Ray’s death in 1984, Joan was suddenly in control of a fortune estimated at $1.7 billion and growing.
The Krocs were no strangers to philanthropy before Ray’s death, but Joan kicked things into high gear while still managing to live lavishly and patronize her favorite gambling casinos. Chief beneficiaries included Operation Cork (alcoholism education), the Salvation Army and National Public Radio (which Joan listened to only occasionally), with additional millions doled out as she wished. Pet causes such as nuclear disarmament got the full “St. Joan of the Arches” treatment as well.
Part corporate success story, part soap opera, this tale has a lot of territory to cover, and Napoli recounts it all in a breezy, amusing style. She’s at her best on the subject of Ray and Joan’s complicated relationship, but the backstories—Ray’s rise from milkshake machine salesman to titan of commerce and Joan’s journey from a difficult childhood to beloved philanthropist—are just as riveting.