RObert Redford was the beautiful, James Dean the tragic, Steve McQueen the rugged, and Marlon Brando the wild. But Paul Newman was the perfect one; beautiful but also masculine, with such a nice surface with obvious depths underneath. He played the tough guy (Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) as much as he was emotionally vulnerable (The Verdict, Road to Perdition), and no one had more instant, can’t-look charisma from the screen (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, The Color of Money).
In addition, his 50-year marriage to Joanne Woodward was famously happy and his philanthropy was so extraordinary that when he died, The Economist wrote that he was “the most generous person, relative to his income, in the 20th-century history of the United States.” States”. Like I said, ideal.
So when news broke that an unpublished memoir, once considered lost, had been discovered by Newman’s family and was said to be “revealing and surprising,” fans braced for the worst. Would we be subjected to stories about Paul Newman, the small animal abuser? Paul Newman the Devil Worshiper? Should every hero fall?
But Paul Newman: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, published last week, only polishes his reputation. Not because he continues with his glorious deeds – in fact, he barely mentions them – but because this once private man reveals so much of his fascinating, never disappointing self. He constantly questioned himself, was filled with guilt about the past, was deeply in love with his wife and tried to learn from his mistakes. Human, in other words, but better.
One of my favorite passages, typical of his self-awareness, is when he describes how badly he treated his children from his first marriage, Scott, Susan and Stephanie, when he left their mother, Jackie Witte, for Woodward: “What I did had just no class. I did not take them aside and comfort them with explanations, certainly not in a way that they would understand. Not because I wouldn’t, but because I didn’t really get it.”
Clea Newman Soderlund is the youngest of Newman and Woodward’s three daughters and, like her older sisters Nell and Lissy, she has her father’s bright blue eyes – a gift of an inheritance. “One of the biggest surprises for me when we found the transcripts was how hard he was on himself. That’s hard for any kid to read and I didn’t see him like that,” Soderlund tells me from her home in Connecticut.
She clearly remembers the long conversations her father had in the mid-1980s with his good friend Stewart Stern, the screenwriter of Rebel Without a Cause, which they planned to make a memoir. Newman also asked Stern to interview those who knew him best, including both his wives and many of the people he worked with, such as Elia Kazan, Sidney Lumet, Tom Cruise, and George Roy Hill, so that the book could provide a complete, truthful picture of him. would give. .
“That process was really like therapy for him, and I’ve benefited from it in the years since, because while no one is perfect, he was really great to be around. Just being present, standing up for everything. He knew this work was important and he used the lessons he learned from it,” says Soderlund. The transcripts of the interviews were misplaced, however, and when Newman died in 2008, followed by Stern in 2015, the project seemed lost forever—until the pages were carefully found in a closet at Newman and Woodward’s home. Newman had stipulated in his will that his children had permission to publish a biography of him, so releasing the lost memoir was, in their view, in accordance with his wishes. “He wanted to bring everything out,” Soderlund says.
To his children, Newman was “like Superman”. But in his book, he contrasts the divine image people had with whom he was inside, “unexplored, uneasy and unknown.” He describes his problems with alcohol and the pain he experienced from anti-Semitism because his father was Jewish. When his acting career took off, it was suggested that he make his name sound less Jewish, as many other actors have done, from Kirk Douglas (Issur Danielovitch) to Tony Curtis (Bernie Schwartz). But Newman declined: “It seemed more of a challenge to keep my real name, to be on it as a badge,” he writes. “That was typical of Dad, to go for the harder option and then work on it,” Soderlund says.
After serving in the United States Navy during World War II, Newman made his way to New York’s famed Actors Studio, where he was taught alongside James Dean, Ben Gazzara and Julie Harris. “I was IN their world, but definitely not a part of it,” he writes. Dean teased him when Newman’s first film, The Silver Chalice, flopped and Dean’s debut, East of Eden, was a triumph. After Dean died, Newman landed the role of Dean in Somebody Up There Likes Me, which became his big break. “I know there are people who attribute my career breakthroughs to Jimmy’s death. Yes, there were elements of luck,” he writes, though adding that “half of him” believes he would have made it anyway. But only half.
Newman married Witte in 1949, but in 1953 he met Woodward. The attraction was instant and he credits Woodward with giving on-screen sex appeal. “Joanne gave birth to a sexual being. I’m just a creature of her invention,” he writes, describing how they left “a trail of lust” everywhere. He eventually left Witte and married Woodward in 1958. In one of the most memorable parts of the book, Newman describes coming home to find Woodward in a freshly painted room with a double bed. “I call it the Fuck Hut,” she said proudly,” Newman writes with palpable delight.
Did their kids know about the Fuck Hut? “Um, no,” Soderlund says with a pause and then a smile. “But when I read it, I thought, ‘Go Mom!’” Their passion for each other was never hidden, she says. “To get into their bedroom, they had one regular wooden door and then a really thick door, and both were locked from the inside,” she says with a laugh. “It was a very sexy relationship. It wasn’t a fairy tale, but he was really in love with Mom.”
Not long before Newman died, while receiving chemotherapy for lung cancer, Soderlund went out to dinner with her parents. Then she offered to walk them to their car in the rain. “But my father waved his hand, like, ‘I’ve got it.’ I watched them walk to the car, him with his arm around Mama’s back and the umbrella over her head, and then the car opened for her And yet he was so sick It was such a juxtaposition between the horrors of getting old , but also the wonders of being old and having such a relationship,” she says. He was 83 when he died.
Woodward, 92, still lives in their Connecticut home, but has had Alzheimer’s for several years. “Losing daddy just knocked her out. The world then stood still for her. I remember going to an event in New York with her shortly after my father passed away, and people stood around and cared about her, but she got scared. I was there, my husband was there, but it wasn’t the same because he wasn’t there,” says Soderlund.
Anyway, Newman had a good life, but also a life with a deep scar. In 1978, his son Scott, who had struggled with drugs for years, died of an overdose at the age of 28. “I want to take responsibility for that. What would it have taken to prevent that? I don’t think I could have gone to movies and become a movie star. I couldn’t drink. I couldn’t have been a risk taker. I think that’s enough to say now,” he writes.
Newman is far from the only movie star to have lost a son to an overdose or suicide. From his time alone, there were also Clint Eastwood, Gregory Peck, Louis Jourdan, and Kirk Douglas. “Dad was right that growing up with parents who are artists and are really famous isn’t the easiest thing in the world. There are some great benefits, and some very not great ones too. LA was also quite a reckless place in the ’60s and ’70s. There were all these drugs that were readily available, and the parents were from a generation that didn’t understand them at all,” Soderlund says.
Did Newman ever talk about Scott? “Not a big deal. I think it was too raw for him until the day he died.”
Newman used his grief to found the Scott Newman Center, which is dedicated to preventing drug abuse. To list all his philanthropic endeavors — not least his famous spaghetti sauces and salad dressings — would take an entire newspaper. Soderlund is still the ambassador of SeriousFun, Newman’s network of summer camps for seriously ill children. Because of the effectiveness of his efforts, plus the amount of money he donated, he changed the way many people saw celebrity philanthropy, though he downplays it in his memoirs: “Frankly, the easiest thing I can do is give money away,” he is writing. One of Newman’s only regrets when he realized his cancer was terminal was that he still wanted to do so much to make the world a better place. “He just wasn’t ready to go,” Soderlund says, crying now.
Newman got into philanthropy for the same reason he started this memoir project. He seemed perfect to everyone else, but Newman felt he knew the truth. “I think what’s really great about him is that he kept growing and working to become a better person as life went on,” says Soderlund. “He always said, ‘We Newmans are late bloomers’, and he kept trying to be the best. Isn’t that what we’re all striving for?”