Paul Newman, the Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, A Memoir, a Review

When I was in high school, I saw The Hustler, an excellent film about a pool hustler, about three times. I bought my pool cue and became an avid pool player. It was a magnificent film that introduced me to Paul Newman. 

Later on, I spent my sophomore year in college living in the fraternity house where Joanne Woodward’s aunt, Aunt Nancy, was the housemother. One evening she brought her sister, Joanne Woodward’s mother, to dinner and we all had time to meet her. 

For obvious reasons, I followed Paul Newman’s career carefully and enjoyed other films of his, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting.

Before reading this book, I had already read Paul’s dear friend, A. E. Hotchner’s biography of Paul. The two books were very different. 

Hochner’s went slightly deep, but David Rosenthal’s, the editor, went much deeper. All the interviews and oral histories were completed by Newman’s late friend Stewart Stern, an excellent writer. They were recorded in Paul Newman’s early sixties, in the late eighties/early nineties. The interviews were found in a storage vault before the editing. The book was just published a few days ago.

It was enlightening to see how difficult this wealthy, sought-after, award-winning, good-looking actor had such severe difficulties during his life. As many of us know, he lost his drug-troubled son, Scott, early in Scott’s life, something Paul could never get past. He had a constant struggle to spend enough time with his many kids, given all the demands of the movies. He had problems with alcohol from the time he was in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War. His mother was highly critical and extremely difficult. Paul was not much of a student and even had occasional trouble memorizing his lines. He keeps reminding us in the interviews/memoirs that the actual Paul Newman is not the dashing man we saw in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but a troubled human being.

He developed a burning desire to help handicapped and diseased youth in his camps, which he dubbed The Hole in the Wall Gang. He told the following story as he needed to borrow against his future earnings to support the venture: “And even that jeopardy disappeared when one day a young kid from Saudi Arabia comes to Connecticut and you play Ping-Pong with him. The kid tells you he happens to have a usually fatal blood disease and that he’s currently living in Washington, D.C. And that he also happens to have connections with the Saudi royal family whose crown prince just happens to be their ambassador to the US and lives in Washington, too. And as a Muslim and a Saudi, the kid happens to have the right to petition the king himself through the crown prince. Then all of a sudden you’re flying back to Connecticut from DC with a check for five million dollars for the camp and a letter that says the money is a gift from the king and the people of Saudi Arabia. 

He says later about the incident: “A mechanism that opens a door into myself and lets me see what actually might be lurking there. Then you simply change? The answer may just be: “It was time.” Suddenly, here I am, an atheist, a nonmetaphysicalist, who finds himself stuck right in the middle of God.”

It must be clear that the book is a fascinating read that I had trouble putting down.

2 thoughts on “Paul Newman, the Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, A Memoir, a Review

  1. Wow. What a story! I had a close friend (now deceased) who used to hang out with Joanne Woodward while both were aspiring actors in NY. Many, many years later, she saw both Joanne and Newman walk into a DC restaurant but didn’t think Woodward would remember her, so said nothing. And suddenly there she was at her elbow saying, “Aren’t you ….?”

    Liked by 1 person

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