"Paul Newman: The Extraordinary Life of An Ordinary Man" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
The title of this memoir couldn’t be more spot on.
Paul Newman didn’t take kindly to his movie-star status, didn’t like the fuss about his blue eyes, and didn’t really enjoying acting, feeling less-than in the roles he portrayed. Later in life, when he discovered a passion for race car driving, Newman found his niche, a hobby that fed his daredevil nature. In his 70s, Newman did soften with age, “He evolved immensely in the last quarter of his life; he became more present and reveled in giving back,” writes his daughter Clea Newman Soderlund, in the book’s Afterword. Newman died in 2008, at age 83.
“Paul Newman: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man” is being described as “raw,” a word that capsulizes a book I found captivating. The memoir is based on a series of interviews between Newman and his trusted friend, Stewart Stern, from 1986-1991. The interviews were Newman’s idea, his desire to tell the real story of himself, not the movie-star version.
“This book came out of a 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 not bearing at all on the truth….”
In the book’s Foreward, Newman’s daughter, Melissa Newman, states that transcripts of the interviews were in storage in locked vaults in the family’s Connecticut home for a decade. Nearing the end of his life, Stern wanted them “archived at least for posterity,” but he passed away before the project materialized. Later more transcripts were discovered, in total the Newman/Stern interviews numbered more than 14,000 pages.
“You can read about private jets and red carpets elsewhere,” Melissa Newman writes. “This is definitely not that. Instead, it’s a sort of self-dissection, a picking-apart of feelings, motives, and motivations, augmented by a Greek chorus of other opinions, relatives, Navy buddies, and fellow artists. One overriding theme is the chronic insecurity which is familiar to so many artists….”
The memoir is arranged chronologically beginning with Newman’s strange, sad upbringing. He was born in 1925, the younger of two boys in a Jewish family—sons of a stunningly beautiful Eastern European mother, who viewed Newman as a “decoration” for her well-to-do home. His father owned and managed a small-town sporting goods store in Shaker Heights, Ohio, with his brother, yet buried his troubles in a bottle, becoming a “secret drinker,” an addiction that later dogged Paul Newman too, known to knock back more than a few beers at a sitting, after giving up hard liquor.
Reading about Newman’s childhood, it’s little wonder he suffered from the family’s dysfunction.
“Our house contained the sounds of constant warfare. It could be a quiet war, like the chunking of knives in human flesh…it could also be explosive and noisy, which was usually my mother erupting. Or threatening to erupt. We’d sit there waiting for something to go wrong, for somebody to fall off the eggshells and run, waiting for a mistake and the explosion to follow.”
Paul Newman’s memoir includes stories about his stint in the Navy; his college years; the heartache and happiness in his hasty first marriage to Jackie Witte; the birth of their children, including Scott, who died of an overdose in 1978; the struggles and joy of his 50-year marriage to film star Joanne Woodward; interesting antidotes and details about his numerous movie roles and experiences; acknowledgement of his drinking problem; his penchant for race cars; and the fulfillment he found in his philanthropic ventures.
“The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man” would have been a mesmerizing read if it had only included Paul Newman’s words about himself, beautifully but often brutally expressed. However, the icing on the cake of this must-read are the excerpts from others who knew him, liberally sprinkled throughout, offering a comprehensive, heartfelt tribute to a beautiful, giving, talented, wounded, human being.