Paul Newman’s Memoir: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man (book review)

“This book came out of the struggle to try and explain it all to my kids. I want to leave some kind of record that sets things straight, pokes holes in the mythology that’s sprung up around me, destroys some of the legends, and keeps the piranhas off. Something that documents the time I was on this planet with some kind of accuracy. Because what exists on the record now has no bearing at all on the truth. That’s all I really want to do.” – Paul Newman

Paul Newman died from cancer in 2008. This book only arrived in 2022. Is he writing from the grave? Sort of. The project that he started back in 1986 finally sees the day of day, and shines some light on the man, by others, but mainly himself. I have written about Newman several times, I find him one of the most genuine and interesting people of the past century.

Newman was a straight-shooter, self-effacing, blunt and unpretentious. He owned his faults, was loyal to his friends and his values, and did not walk away from fights that were unavoidable. It isn’t clear whether his plan was for this book to marinate until after his death, but it worked out that way. His daughter in the forward indicated he did not have a plan. In all likelihood the project was put in a file cabinet an forgotten about until long after his death. A public figure, but a private man, Newman hated reading about himself, but was keenly aware of the misinformation and misperception of himself in the media. He writes that he could not go anywhere on the planet to escape being the blue-eyed actor. In Italy there was a multi-story building with his face painted on the side.

Newman doesn’t hold back in discussing his life, especially his failings and shortcomings. That comes through in regard to his first marriage and the death of his son Scott. Newman and first wife Jackie were together long enough to have three children, but knew for years that their marriage wasn’t going to make it. He carried on an affair for four years with Joanne Woodward before he obtained a Mexican divorce, so he and Woodward could marry. Newman would often say that neither he or Woodward were perfect and had a few rough patching in their marriage, but the two were made for each other.

Newman, Woodward and their six children.

Newman also knew that tragedy was in store for his oldest child, Scott, who struggled to find his way in the world and developed a serious drug problem. Newman felt tremendous responsibility for Scott’s hardship, he struggled as an acting parent to his six children with long absences. He was aware of the example set by his own cold, emotionally-damaged parents, and his perceived barriers to connecting with his own children, especially Scott. To be the son of Paul Newman, the most photographed male actor, rich and successful, who felt in the long and dark shadow of his father.

“This book came out of the struggle to try and explain it all to my kids. I was thought of as distant and reserved; well, that happened not because other people’s arms were too long but because mine were too short. And as their arms became longer and longer, my own became shorter and shorter: it was a sense of suffocation that happened to me.”

Newman and son Scott.

The famous and beloved actor harbored his own feelings of inadequacy, like he would be found out and exposed as a fraud, and could never meet the public’s expectations for him. Most people did not know he carried a drinking problem for many years. Developed in the Navy, perfected in college and used for protection during his marriages and career.

Of curious note, Robert Redford is mentioned a few times in the book, but there is no evidence that he was interviewed for the project. For many years, I believed they were close friends, but that may not have been the truth. Little is also said of Steve McQueen, with who Newman carried a competitive relationship for nearly two decades over projects, roles and salary. I would liked to have heard more about both Redford and McQueen.

Director George Roy Hill on Newman’s relationship with Redford:

“I think there was an opportunity for Redford and Paul to form a close relationship, but it never came about. They did friendly things together, but there’s a quality of reserve in both men that has them basically uncomfortable with each other, except in a work situation where they obviously get along very well.”

Newman and Woodward through the years.

One of the best books on Newman was by his close friend and neighbor A.E. Hotchner, who knew him for many years. Hotchner might have known Newman better than anyone. The stories of Newman starting and growing the Hole in the Wall camps for children, and the Newman’s Own brand, are definitely worth the read. Newman was unpretentious, yet driven. The Newman’s Own company office started out with a ping pong table for a desk and old lawn chairs. They faced many formidable challenges, especially how to keep the salad dressing from going bad, which they did using a natural method, on their road to giving away thousands, then millions of dollars annually.

Co-founders of Newman’s Own products.

Newman on explaining his philanthropy:

“The reason I’m suspicious of my charity is that I’m not sure what came first, the urge and then the theory or the theory and then the urge. The theory is, of course, having the luck of the draw, living in a democracy, being of the majority color, having an opportunity for education, enjoying the Bill of Rights, the Four Freedoms, and everything else. And that it must be regarded as a privilege that carries the unspoken obligation to hold out your hand to people who have less than you.”

Joanne Woodward on her husband’s drinking:

“I used to think the only peace Paul ever found was that peace he used to find in being dead drunk. Now he finds it in racing cars. Peace and grace, the comfort of knowing he has done something well.”

Newman’s friend Billy Connelly on their college days:

“Paul was wild, lascivious, dangerous. He was probably the most well-known guy on campus. He drank more. He screwed more. He was tough and cold–it turned on the girls. They liked him because he was the devil.Paul would run around stark naked, sloshed out of his mind. Everybody drank, but he drank more than anybody else.”

Newman on his own drinking:

“The very day I arrived there, dropped off by my parents on a Sunday afternoon in June at about three, I got distracted by a beer keg. By six o’clock, I was crocked. That was how long it took me to get in with the wrong crowd at Kenyon. So much for discipline. By the time I left Kenyon, I had no real education but owned the school’s beer-chugalug record.”

Newman on his own image:

“So if I read stories today where people who knew me growing up say they saw me as some swaggering romantic, as a loner too confident to bother with their company, it comes as a real surprise. I was just too painfully shy to pursue friendships with the people I wanted to be friends with. I was afraid they d recognize me as a fraud.”

His struggles as a parent:

“Kids find out about their parents only by asking questions. Unless, of course, their mothers and fathers are tellers and talkers, which I never was and never have been. My own kids were fascinated once I did start talking to them; but if you’re a nontalker and your kids never ask, what then?

“I didn’t want generations of Newmans doing secret things in dif ferent rooms again. If my son, Scott, smoked pot, I’d smoke with him, too. I’ve wondered in recent years whether the serious problems I eventually had with booze, that Scott suffered so terribly with addiction, might have somehow been partly inherited- bad blood with the Newman men. And I also often wonder whether my father’s drinking had anything to do with the difficulties the two of us had in communicating.”

Newman, like his father, stumbled into marriage, unprepared and settling into an unhappy state:

“She (his mother, Tress) soon became pregnant by my father, and despite a great deal of pressure from his family, the baby (my brother, Art Jr.) was indeed born and Arthur Sr. and Tress married sometime later. My father did so under duress, and I suspect had he not been such an honorable man, he would have left her in a minute.

“Looking back on it now, from a more sophisticated vantage point, I ask myself how I could have been so irresponsible as to take the first girl (Jackie) with whom I had a speaking relationship, marry her, and impregnate her right away. Then, it felt appropriate. There was a sense of fatality about it, that it was somehow all predestined, pre-ordained. You finished what you began.”

Newman enrolled in graduate studies at Yale, but he didn’t finish:

“I see that period in my life as the beginning of a great failure: failure to provide relief for Jackie at the home she lived in, failure as a husband, a lover, as an actor, as a father. I don’t deny anything.”

Looking back on his own growth:

“Most people who have experienced themselves fully have in common that they remember some person–a teacher, a religious figure, a parent, uncle, grandfather-someone about whom they can say, “That was my mentor. That was my rock. That’s who pointed me in the direction I followed, who inspired me, who gave me the example to learn from and emulate. I never had that.”

On meeting Joanne Woodward, and how it changed his life, especially his acting:

“It was the introduction of Joanne and her sexuality into my life. The years of dreaming and longing were suddenly a possible reality. Joanne gave birth to a sexual creature. She taught him, she encouraged him, she delighted in the experimental. I was in pursuit of lust. I’m simply a creature of her invention.

“There was a glue that held us together then, and through the rest of our life together. And that glue was this: anything seemed possible. The good, the bad, and the wonderful. With all other people, some things were possible, but not everything. For us, the promise of everything was there from the beginning.”

On grappling with success and his own self image:

“Here was someone who suspected himself an impostor, an ordinary man with an extraordinary face and luck on his side, achieving far beyond what he’d set out to do.

“If I had to define “Newman” in the dictionary, I’d say: ‘One who tries too hard.’ An incredible part of me believes you’re a free agent inside of your genetics. And that complaining that ‘Mommy never kissed me’ is a bunch of shit. But somehow I got a pretty shitty opinion of myself that had to come from somewhere.”

Joanne Woodward, perhaps on her husband:

“It takes such a long time to grow up and by the time you really get there the people usually you’re growing up for are gone.”

The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man is an absorbing, and often melancholy read. Newman’s bluntness and confessional is difficult and some will find it off-putting because it conflicts with his movie star image. Newman lived an extraordinary life, no argument there; but an ordinary man does not spend a good portion of his life and resources helping others, mostly anonymously, campaigning for social change, crusading to protect the environment, and wonder “are my motives pure?”

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