Like so many other women, I was in love with Paul Newman.
Fortunately, 14 years after his death, we are getting two major doses of him. First is Ethan Hawke’s fascinating docu-series, The Last Movie Stars. And now arrives the so-called memoir called The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man. I say ‘so-called’ because the tapes of the interviews were supposedly destroyed, at Newman’s request. But his children came to feel there was a respectable way to put a book together using transcripts and many reflections from those who knew him.
He took my hand, looked me in the eyes, and said, “You were funny, you were tender.”
One of those reflecting is my father, Harold, quoted several times. That, as always, sparks memories of my own.
Newman and my dad were long-time political pals, if not pols. They raised money for Eugene McCarthy in 1968, co-founded The Center for Defense Information in Washington, served as special United Nations delegates in the name of disarmament, and brought The Nation magazine back to life when it was in a serious crisis.
Regarding that last one, I still recall picking up the house phone to hear Newman’s voice. My father, by then, had said he was done with political philanthropy. But the man on the line said, “Come on Harold, do you have one more fight left in you?” He did, and I like to say that they saved The Nation.
Newman was the emcee of a Beverly Hills benefit honoring my dad. Later, he complimented me on my own introductory speech. He took my hand, looked me in the eyes, and said, “You were funny, you were tender….” He had me at “you.”
In 1970, I was at a screening of the Newman/Woodward movie WUSA, a political thriller taking on right wingers. They hoped it would be perceived as “ahead of its time” and appeal to young activists. But when Newman asked me (part of that younger generation) for an honest appraisal, I said, “It’s too late.” He seemed to get what I meant, that it was simply telling us things we already knew.
There was the dinner party where he and Warren Beatty sat at the same table, and I overheard Beatty telling Newman he was considering directing himself in a film. Newman warned him against it, saying it had been his worst professional experience. “But if you have to do it,” he said, “get a partner.” And Beatty did (Buck Henry) for his directorial debut Heaven Can Wait. I later wrote about actors directing themselves and Beatty recalled that conversation.
A Movie Star’s Baffling Insecurity
The theme of the new book is that for all his fame and talent and, let’s face it, looks, Paul Newman was an insecure man. I remember one dinner in New York with Newman, myself, and my father, before he was going on national TV to debate Charlton Heston on nuclear weapons. He was a nervous wreck, sweating like crazy. He made no secret of his life-long fear of speaking spontaneously as himself. Sure enough, Heston “won” the debate.
He made no secret of his lifelong fear of speaking spontaneously as himself.
We all know that he loved to drive cars fast. He once drove my father—90 miles an hour, in his VW with a Porsche engine—to Santa Barbara in about 45 minutes. They stopped on the way for breakfast. Newman was wearing large sunglasses, which he took off the very moment the oblivious waitress was about to pour piping hot coffee. She took one look at those baby blues and the coffee went right down my father’s pants, giving him some minor and memorable burns.
And I’ll never forget one day when we were eating lunch at a tennis club. Just as I was about to pour on the club’s salad dressing, Newman put out his arm and said, “Don’t touch that.” Then he asked for a little oil, vinegar, and a few other goodies and made me his own. Best asparagus appetizer ever. That was before his “Own” dressings went public, funding the Hole In The Wall Gang camps for kids with illnesses. He always believed, above anything else, that kids should have fun.
This was no ordinary man.
Michele Willens’ collection of essays is entitled From Mouseketeers to Menopause.