The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man: A Memoir
n September of 1986, the year he embarked on this project, an article in The New York Times described Paul Newman as “a lean 5-foot-11.”
A gossip columnist in the New York Post countered that “Anyone who has met Paul face to face says he has never hit 5-foot-11 except in heels” and offered a challenge: “$1,000 to Newman’s favorite charity or political candidate for every inch he measures over 5-foot-8…barefoot.” Relishing the opportunity to stick it to Page Six, our dad matched it, upped the ante times a hundred and purchased some inversion boots so he could hang upside down for good measure. To our knowledge, the challenge was dropped.
In 1986 we can say with reasonable certainty he measured a solid 5-foot-10. Both papers were wrong.
He had integrity. He also had an abiding preference for privacy, and always felt awkward in interviews. The fact that our father ever considered the book you now hold in your hands seems completely weird to us, but he did keep at it for five years. An offering to the offspring is how he originally thought of it. That and maybe a way to “set the public record straight” after being dogged most of his life by the tabloids. Part confessional, part self-analysis, it’s full of the kinds of revelations that, had they been shared with us sooner, might have made for some deeply meaningful conversations about relationships, identity, luck, and art, and, most likely, some pretty uncomfortable family dinners.
He decided the only possible choice of collaborator would be Stewart Stern, a dear friend, faithful keeper of family secrets, and a breathtaking writer. Probably best known for his screenplay of Rebel Without a Cause, he had also penned multiple screenplays for projects that involved both Paul and his second wife, Joanne.
Stewart’s adoration of both of them, their collective children, and their children’s children made him the kind of adopted relative who intertwined blissfully with the family DNA. Starting in 1986 he threw himself into this new project, passing along the subject’s insistence that all the interviewees be as bluntly truthful as they could manage. Close friends and relatives were hired to transcribe. By 1991, however, he and our father seemed to have completely overwhelmed themselves out of it. They were up to their eyeballs in material.
Not much was said after that. After a year’s illness (and almost one year exactly from his final win at Lime Rock race track), our father passed away in 2008. He was eighty-three. For us, for what seemed an eternity, the world stopped. There was the inevitable confusion and chaos to be dealt with, and the fog of grief.
Nearly a decade crawled by. Once in a while, the topic of the transcripts would come up. Details were hazy. There had been rumors of a bonfire. Stewart, who at ninety-two was now coming to the end of his own life journey, was desperate to know what happened to them. He wanted them archived at least for posterity. Before the mystery could be solved, he was gone.
We assumed the transcripts were floating around somewhere. Or perhaps not. We wanted to see them…or did we, really? In 2019 we stumbled upon some ancillary interviews in locked file cabinets that had migrated to the damp basement of the family house in Connecticut. Sometime later our friend, producer Emily Wachtel, found the entirety of our father’s transcripts as she was archiving a family storage unit. A cursory peek turned into a year-long reading project, and what was revealed felt raw and personal. Fourteen thousand pages in, she suggested it might be interesting to try to finish what was started.
You can read about private jets and red carpets elsewhere. This is definitely not that. Instead, it’s sort of a self-dissection, a picking apart of feelings, motives, and motivations, augmented by a Greek chorus of other voices and opinions, relatives, Navy buddies, and fellow artists. One overriding theme is the chronic insecurity which will be familiar to so many artists. Objectivity is fickle. It’s difficult for some people to understand, given all that success, how that sense of doubt could be so relentless. Here was someone who suspected himself an impostor, an ordinary man with an extraordinary face and luck on his side, achieving far beyond what he’d set out to do. He always felt it was tenacity, not talent, that saw him through. There were some who dismissed him, but luckily there were also plenty who recognized something remarkable in him long before he did.
And finally, there is the public fairy tale of two Hollywood stars and their blissfully uncomplicated fifty-year marriage, which, besides being bogus, seems unfair to anyone, famous or not, who has ever committed to a romantic relationship. Acknowledge that there were two families, half siblings, and other collateral damage and suddenly the story becomes far more relatable. The mood in the house was unstable, stormy one minute, joyous the next. The truth ultimately gives more credit to the flesh-and-blood couple who weathered all of that drama and betrayal and came out on the other side, battle-scarred but still inexorably intertwined.
It’s a cliché for fathers of a certain vintage to be distant or unknowable. Ours was the inevitable sequel to his own frustrated father and all the preceding generations that flailed away at parenting with little or no guidance. This book looks backward from a moment in time. To his lasting credit, our father continued to evolve after these interviews were conducted, contributing some of the best of himself, emotionally, artistically, and altruistically all the way to the end. To suddenly have at our fingertips this encyclopedia of his thoughts and motivations, his conflicts…his context, has been, shall we say, deep. That he speaks about wanting us to know everything is beyond moving.
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|Epub||October 20, 2022|