Paul Newman, A Life, by Shawn Levy (Harmony Books, N.Y., 2009)
As biographies go this is a classic example. Biography is a strange genre, pretty much formulaic. Because peoples’ lives begin with birth, go through predictable chronological stages, and end in death, that is how most biographies are written. Rarely do you see anyone experiment with this format, when they do it is usually to begin with a death and then through a series of flashbacks reveal the chronology that led up to it. There is very little in the way of innovation or creativity when it comes to biographical literature. Of course because some biographers are more clever than others, or have a somewhat better command of prose, up to a point reading some biographical works can be a bit more enjoyable than others. But even with respect to prose, like the genre itself, there is not much to distinguish one biography from another. What makes one biography more interesting than another basically has to do with how interesting the person’s life and career has been. In that respect, it is fair to say that Paul Newman’s life and career were interesting indeed, not only because of his success s an actor, but because he was so much more than just an actor, and his life was long and productive in many other ways. He was at times a sailor, an actor, a race car driver, a public citizen, entrepreneur, philanthropist, husband and father.
Paul Newman, was born of Jewish stock into a family of entrepreneurs that had built up a successful business in sporting goods. They lived in an upscale neighborhood in Cleveland and were comfortably well-off. It was understood that Paul would eventually join his father and uncle in the business. As a boy he very much wanted to be an athlete and tried to play every sport available. Unfortunately, his growth rate slowed in adolescence and he weighed but 98 pounds, which kept him from his love of football. He was said to be a reticent boy, but eager to entertain others and play at being others, so much so that his mother enrolled him at age eleven in Curtain Pullers, an organized program for children to act and participate in the Cleveland Play House. At eighteen he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He wanted to become a pilot but was color blind and was transferred to Officer Candidate School. For some reason he was felt unsuitable to be an officer, so he served honorably, if without particular distinction, as an enlisted man for almost three years as a radio operator and a tail gunner, seeing very little action. Discharged at twenty-one, he applied to Kenyan College. He was not a good student, being more of a bon vivant and beer drinker. But he did become more and more interested in the theatre and acting. Even so, he married at 24 and became a father at 25, which necessitated him to enter the family business for a time. He soon left to attend graduate school at Yale where he studied what became known as “method acting.” After a few hard years in New York he became recognized as an up-and-coming actor and was offered a movie contract. The rest is history: he acted in or directed more than 50 films, was nominated for eight academy awards and was awarded two, became interested in automobile racing where he won competitive races well into his 70,s, started a line of food products, “Newman’s Own,” that was so successful the proceeds, all donated to charity, ran into the hundreds of millions. He kept acting into his 70’s, started a number of extremely successful “Hole-in-The Wall” camps for children with health problems, became a political activist and a philanthropist, awarding large sums of his own fortune for a wide variety of worthwhile causes. When he died of lung cancer at 83 he said simply, “It was a privilege to be here.”
Naturally, Newman was a person as well as a legend. Like most people he was not without some blemishes. He was not a good student, being more interested in drinking beer and partying. He married young and fathered three children, and then left them and his wife for another woman (Joanne Woodward), whom he stayed with and adored for the rest of his life. He was a practical joker and apparently an almost 24 hour a day beer drinker. His “method” acting often drove directors and colleagues to distraction. Altogether he fathered six children, one son and five daughters, their care was left primarily to his wife as he was often absent. Even so, he did support them all and tried to be a decent father. When his only son, Scott, died of an apparent overdose, he was devastated.
Levy reports only one incident of unfaithfulness, forgiven by Woodward (an exceptionally fine actor herself), who was wise enough to know the incredible temptations he faced every day. I found this of interest because Newman’s exceptional good looks made him a constant target of women of all kinds, so much so that when his daughter handled his correspondence for a time, she observed that “American women don’t get laid enough” (I am not suggesting that he was a philanderer, only that the opportunities for him were endless). Being so unusually handsome certainly helped his acting career, but in his personal day-to-day life it was a nuisance. Through it all he was a serious actor and constantly tried to keep improving even though he could have just coasted after being established as a star. Similarly, he worked extremely hard at becoming a first-class race car driver, and overcame the “handicap” of being a “movie star,” to gain acceptance from the Nascar drivers. And unlike so many famous people he remained pretty much a “regular guy,” generous, thoughtful, and loyal to his friends. He appeared in many movies that were not very distinguished, but the ones that succeeded were “blockbusters.” In general his was a life well-lived.
Another curious thing about biographies, and even autobiographies, is that you can never know how true they are to the facts of someone’s life. As handsome as he was, Newman could certainly have had woman after woman, but Levy mentions only the one such incident so there is room to wonder. As is the case with many biographies, Levy was not able to interview Newman himself, although he tried. But if he had, would it necessarily have made the book more true to the facts? Biographies can sometimes probably be more accurate than autobiographies. You just never know, but we seem to endlessly enjoy vicarious experiences.