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Tuesday, November 29, 2022

A Posthumous Memoir Reveals Paul Newman in His Own Words

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Decades into his singularly successful career as an actor, Paul Newman offered a frank admission. “I am faced with the appalling fact that I don’t know anything,” he said.

Newman was in his 60s when he made this confession, by which time he had starred in a lifetime’s worth of seminal films, including “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Hustler,” “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Verdict.” He was an instantly recognizable if reluctant celebrity, idolized for his calm manner, his piercing blue eyes and his seemingly storybook marriage to the equally accomplished Joanne Woodward. He had raised a family and held a spot on President Nixon’s enemies list for his advocacy of liberal causes. He went on to drive racecars and immerse himself in philanthropy.

Yet Newman, who died in 2008, was dogged by self-doubt, perpetually questioning his choices and plagued by past mistakes. “I’m always anxious about admitting to failure,” he said. “To not being good enough, to not being right.” Despite his hesitations, he added, “I am certain that nobody can always be responsible for what other people are. You can only be responsible for who you are.”

Newman’s lifelong insecurity is one of the more striking themes to emerge from a posthumous memoir by the actor, titled “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man.” The book, which Knopf will release on Tuesday, is surprising for the remarkable candor of its subject, one of the most accomplished and reticent actors from an era when the perpetual documentation of daily life was not a precondition for fame.

Newman does not hold back on sensitive topics: He digs deep into his memories and reflects at length on his difficult childhood, the earlier marriage he abandoned before he wed Woodward, his excessive drinking and the loss of his son, Scott, who died from an accidental overdose of drugs and alcohol.

The vulnerability that Newman reveals in the book is astonishing even to people who knew him intimately. “I thought he was Superman, until my early 20s and even after that,” said Clea Newman Soderlund, the youngest of the actor’s five daughters. Though she was familiar with many of the stories her father shares, she said, “I definitely didn’t know how complex and how traumatizing they were for him.”

The memoir is not the result of Paul Newman sitting down at a keyboard and typing out his personal history. The book is assembled from five years’ worth of interviews that the actor gave, between 1986 and 1991, to Stewart Stern, the screenwriter (“Rebel Without a Cause”) and a close friend.

Stern himself died in 2015, at a time when the interviews were presumed lost; those transcripts were only recently recovered, along with transcripts of conversations that Stern conducted with Newman’s family members (including Woodward) and collaborators like Elia Kazan, George Roy Hill and Martin Ritt.

Their voices are also included in the book, fulfilling Newman’s desire that they buttress his accounts of events — or, when necessary, contradict his misapprehensions — and provide a fuller picture of who he was.

“He was fascinated by this idea of how people viewed him versus how he felt about himself,” said his daughter Melissa Newman. “I always had this vision of my dad standing beside a giant billboard of himself. And he’s waving at the bottom of the billboard, going, ‘I’m over here.’”

In late September, she was speaking from the rustic abode in Westport, Conn., that she called the “hippie home,” which her parents bought some 60 years ago (and she later bought from them), stuffed from top to bottom with mementos from their lives and careers: photos of her father with Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, and of her mother washing dogs in the kitchen sink.

On the other side of the Aspetuck River was another family dwelling, a wood-paneled barn home whose décor was dominated by a large portrait of Newman as Buffalo Bill. The path between the two properties went over a footbridge and past a treehouse that many years ago, Soderlund said, was where Woodward “used to go and hide from all of us when she couldn’t take it anymore.”

It was in a laundry room on this estate that a family friend, the filmmaker and producer Emily Wachtel, found a locked cabinet containing a tranche of Stern’s interviews with Newman’s colleagues and confidants. Later, Wachtel discovered that a storage unit held the transcripts of Newman’s own interviews with Stern.

“There were these boxes that said ‘P.N. history,’ and I opened them and it was like 5,000 pages,” Wachtel said. “The family hadn’t seen them.”

Sifting through the raw transcripts was a difficult task for Newman’s daughters. “I was just paralyzed by his deep sadness,” Soderlund said. “That heaviness was really hard for me. I had to read them in bits and pieces.”

With the assistance of a literary agent, the Newman family sold a biographical project based on the transcripts to Knopf, and with the publisher’s help, David Rosenthal — a veteran book and magazine editor — was hired to compile the material into a memoir.

Rosenthal, who has previously edited works by Hunter S. Thompson and Carrie Fisher, said he was used to “people who deliver their books in shopping bags,” and wasn’t rattled by the prospect of starting from reams of unorganized interview pages delivered in a banker’s box.

Though there was some discussion of releasing the book as an oral history, Rosenthal said that presenting it as a memoir from Newman was more profound and powerful. “You’ve got enough of his voice to make it first person without substantially changing anything,” he said.

And the Newman who comes through in his interviews is hardly the unflappable star that audiences thought they knew. “There is a line of sadness that permeates so much of his early adulthood,” Rosenthal said. “This is a guy who is not comfortable in his own skin, and who was very obsessive about things that went wrong.”

Beginning with a scene of himself seated on a couch in his library where, Newman says, “I just smoked a joint and remembered with absolute clarity the whole map of my boyhood hometown,” he recounts his upbringing in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Newman’s father helped run the family’s sporting-goods company, drank heavily and seemed uninterested in his children. His mother, by contrast, practically fetishized him, and Newman compares himself to one of her dogs “who became cancerous and so obese they could hardly move, and my mother would keep feeding them chocolates until she killed them with kindness.”

Newman, who was Jewish on his father’s side, experienced antisemitism at school and in the Navy during World War II. He recounts getting into a fight with a fellow sailor who called him a slur, using his wrestling skills to throw his opponent to the ground and injure his arm. “When he got off the floor, he could only move one hand,” Newman says. “The fight was called off and no one bothered me again.”

Yet his war experience endowed Newman with little maturity or personal direction — he compares it to “being in a touring company of ‘Taming of the Shrew’ going through Schenectady, Poughkeepsie and upstate New York.” As an undergraduate at Kenyon College, he threw himself equally into drinking, chasing women and the acting work his mother encouraged him to pursue.

He quickly married Jackie Witte, a fellow drama student with whom he had three children. But something in him was not fully activated until he met Woodward in the 1953 Broadway production of William Inge’s “Picnic.” As Newman says: “Joanne gave birth to a sexual creature. She taught him, she encouraged him, she delighted in the experimental. I was in pursuit of lust.”

Newman’s affair with Woodward was barely concealed, and though he eventually divorced Witte and married Woodward, he regretted hurting the children he had with Witte and failing to explain his actions to them. “I saw myself as somewhere in the middle,” Newman says. “A little of bad, a lot of good — and I provided. But what I did just didn’t have any class.”

His astronomical ascent as an actor continued: Newman was nominated for 10 competitive Academy Awards and won for “The Color of Money” in 1987. (He also received an honorary Oscar in 1986 and the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1994.)

But his life was hardly free of disappointment and tragedy. He wrestled with his drinking, a habit he knew was self-destructive but says “unlocked a lot of things I couldn’t have done without it.” And he was shattered when his son, Scott, who had led a peripatetic life in his father’s shadow and was receiving psychiatric treatment, died in 1978 at the age of 28.

“I realize that there is even something grotesque in saying ‘Forgive me,’” Newman says. “The energy up there that represents that kid will just give me the finger and say, ‘Well, what am I supposed to do with that?’”

Melissa Newman said that they considered withholding her father’s reflections on Scott from the book, but decided “it was time for it.”

“That is a little fraught,” she said. “But if it can serve any purpose, it’s a cautionary tale — to have people understand there is no magic potion which makes parents able to deal with a situation like that, even with all the resources in the world.”

The daughters were not entirely sure what brought an end to Newman’s interviews with Stern — “Five years of talking about yourself is a lot of time, and Dad didn’t exactly love talking about himself,” Soderlund said — nor what became of those original recordings, though they believed their father destroyed tapes and were not certain why.

But Melissa Newman said her father’s will granted them permission to publish a biography of him, and the sisters felt the book provided a crucial opportunity to set the record straight about him and Woodward, who is 92 years old and has kept a private life since she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

“We just felt as though his legacy wasn’t being taken of,” Melissa Newman said. “More people know James Dean or Elizabeth Taylor. Nobody knows who my dad is.”

They also allowed some of the interview transcripts to be read in a recent documentary mini-series, “The Last Movie Stars,” about their parents, which was directed by Ethan Hawke and originated by Wachtel, a producer of the project.

Soderlund said that the documentary and book were meant to be complementary; the mini-series “focused on their film work and told the love story of them through their films,” she said, while the memoir “is really focused on Dad’s inner being.”

While she expects that the book will be revelatory to many readers, Soderlund said it had already given her a new perspective on her father.

“I give him a ton of credit,” she explained. “He said, ‘I want everybody to be painfully honest.’ To read through all these interviews that your friends and family are doing, and then do all that introspection yourself, that’s pretty heavy stuff.”

Even so, Newman himself seemed to believe there were limits on how much he could truly reveal to other people.

As he says in the book, whether audiences believed he was Hud or Butch Cassidy or any other film character he played, that was all just “a shell that’s photographed onscreen, chased by the fans and garnering all the glory. While whoever is really inside me, the core, stays unexplored, uncomfortable and unknown.”



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