He was adored and respected because of his choices in life — film, family, philanthropy, racing — and how he could inspire others with that famous jolting blue glance
Photograph by David Livshin, Copyright 2008
He was adored and respected because of his choices in life — film, family, philanthropy, racing — and how he could inspire others with that famous jolting blue glance.
When Gordon Joseloff was elected Westport’s First Selectman, he had barely looked around his new office when he picked up the ringing telephone and heard a familiar, gruff voice on the line. It was Paul Newman, suggesting they have coffee sometime. Joseloff said that would be fine. Whatever honorific Joseloff had just earned, he knew that Newman was the unofficial mayor here, the real figurehead, the first one mentioned in any newspaper story about the town, the unassuming boss of all bosses. Newman said: “How about in ten minutes?”
Upon arrival, Newman suggested that a farmers’ market be given space in the Westport Playhouse parking lot. Joseloff assented immediately. Then Newman had a second idea: How about turning the Playhouse parking lot into a go-kart racetrack?
The twin suggestions were perfectly Paul Newman — an important proposal for the civic good combined with a rowdy reminder that we should all keep raising hell. Joseloff demurred, knowing that local citizens wouldn’t tolerate a noisy racetrack in its midst. Today, though, he’s thinking, what the heck, maybe that would be a fitting memorial for the great guy who left us on September 26 — once a year we could turn that parking lot into a race track.
In life, as in his acting career, Paul Newman had extraordinary range. He was utterly believable as a lovable scoundrel or playing it cold and ruthless. Only a few times did the sheer force of his on-screen magnetism overwhelm the role. He was horrified to see, for instance, that his portrayal of a modern rancher in Hud, as an unrepentant brute, backfired: Women, he grieved, just found him all the more sexy.
In the heartfelt memorials that poured out all over the world when news of his death from cancer was released, there was the universal agreement that we had lost a true humanitarian. His phenomenal charity work had earned him a respect that far outstripped his being an Oscar winner. He was not just the actor we all wanted to know, he was the human being we all wished we could be.
In Westport, it was easy to think that you did know him, even if you never once saw what writer Grover Lewis called the “jolting blue glance” of his eyes. He was the town’s godfather, even as a tremendously elusive character. “He was like the elf who pops up here and there,” says Maxine Bleiweiss, director of the Westport Library, “and you never knew what he would do next.” She is maybe the luckiest librarian in the world — some organizations might dream of bringing a big-shot director like Martin Scorsese out for a fundraising gala, but Maxine had Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward on hand to make the call that delivered Scorsese. For all that, when Maxine called the Newman house, she was likely to get a man on the phone blustering like a Russian count, pretending Newman wasn’t there. “Paul,” she’d say, “I know it’s you.”
It is too early to count the hundreds of people who got the unexpected call from Paul, offering to help in some way. Joseloff says he was the kind of guy who would read a story in the morning newspaper and then just make a call to offer help. The police department got his help. The Norwalk Hospital got an ambulance. Since his privacy was respected with such a Kremlin-like level of security, none of us really knew. Some contributions he could not conceal, such as his gift of land to the town or his spirited involvement with the Aspetuck Land Trust. Dara Reid, director of Wildlife in Crisis, reports that the Newman’s Own Foundation gave generously to the organization over the years and that last year he not only gave a personal grant, he also attended a fundraiser and released a ceremonial red-tailed hawk.
But who knew that he gave money to Yale’s Eye Center for the study of macular degeneration? Or that he reached out to Bridgeport to help fund a new school? At arts organizations like the Westport Arts Center, the Newmans offered support and helped the fledgling Westport Youth Film Festival get traction. The Norwalk dance troupe Ballet Etudes was better able this year to offer scholarships because Newman sent in a check.
He did more than write checks. Mollie Donovan remembers the support the Newmans gave to the Westport Historical Society in the early 1980s when a new building was being sought. “Paul served as bartender at our fundraising galas,” Mollie recalls with a laugh, “and he and Joanne served as honorary chairmen, but to them, ‘honorary’ meant that you came in and addressed invitations, you helped put out the geranium planters for the event, and afterward you stuck around and helped clean up.” At fundraisers since, one of the displays has been actual service uniforms worn by local citizens. “We’ve had three or four uniforms out, but Paul’s Navy outfit from his service in World War II, that’s the one everyone wants to stand next to.”
Great actors are not always greatly happy people. They might possess such keen powers of intuition, perceptiveness and self-awareness that they can learn how to turn in a powerful performance that leaves us, the impressionable and weak-kneed public, in awe. But such skilled performers cannot always turn their amazing insightfulness into a satisfying life.
But Paul Newman did have both sense and sensibility. He recognized early on that living the Hollywood life would not translate to a happy life, nor a good place to raise children. So he and wife Joanne Woodward decamped for Westport. Contrary to news stories, Paul and Joanne did not film the Westport-based Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys! here. “That was all back lot, Hollywood,” Joanne once told me of the 1958 comedy. But shortly after the filming they visited a friend in Wilton, looked around and realized the area they just mocked was one they could call home, and so they did for the next half century.
Just as celebrity status can leave one feeling hollow, so too can some Hollywood movies. Newman signed on to make films that carried weight. He became a star for his second movie, mugging it up as prizefighter Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), but then leapt right into The Rack, a heavy psychological drama of a soldier who had given out under torture. He continued at a prolific rate for the next decade, making two or three films a year, with many of them totally serious works. Indeed, while he could be a charmer nonpareil in movies like The Sting (1973) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), in something like The Hustler (1961), he threw himself into a deep, dark, semi-alcoholic world of human despair. In 1982, at age fifty-seven, he gave one his deepest performances in The Verdict as a failed boozehound lawyer Frank Galvin trying to redeem himself. In his final movie role as an Irish gangster in Road to Perdition (2002), his gift was still in full song, just as it was in the voiceover role he gave in the animated film Cars two years ago. In his reading of Doc Hudson, the old jalopy chewing out the brash young racer, you could hear the true depths of Paul Newman’s raging soul: “When was the last time you cared about something except yourself, hot rod? You name me one time, and I will take it all back.”
He committed the second half of his life to true human relationships and pursuits where he would find them. Automobile racing, to which he was totally devoted after making the 1969 racing film Winning, was more than just thrill-seeking. Sitting on the pit wall at some racetrack, he could find an honest camaraderie with fellow car fiends. Westport racing enthusiast Prescott Kelly remembers how affable and friendly he was — “if you were talking cars. Don’t bother yourself talking showbiz.”
His love of true friendship — and, after his parenting of six children, probably his greatest lifetime role — was to be found in his charity work. David Kalman, who helped package the first of the Newman’s Own products, is just one of a dozen confederates who learned how to see the larger world through Newman’s eyes. “When you were talking to him,” Kalman says, “he would look you right in the eye and want to know what you were thinking. Some people, you know, look here and there as they talk. Well, he was right there with you at that moment.”
“Here is a guy,” said David Letterman in a recent tribute, “who knew that, as a human on this planet, what you needed to do was take care of your fellow humans. And he never faltered from that commitment.”
The Hole in the Wall Camps, through which 135,000 children with cancer or other serious illness have had a chance to enjoy childhood, will live on without its founder, as long as contributors remember to give. “He left us with a very clear vision on how to move forward,” says James Canton, who heads up the Camps operations. “It’s been so extraordinary that he would share this dream with us. He invited us into the dream, and now he’s left it completely up to us.