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Cannonball Read #18: Paul Newman: A Life

01/18/2010

Oh Paul Newman, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Paul Newman: A Life had a pretty easy audience here. I’m a big fan of The Sting, and I’ve got a jar of his salsa in my fridge right now! He always seemed like a great guy, and after reading his biography, that impression is now pretty firm.

Biographer Shawn Levy had a great biographical subject in Newman, and he carries it off very well. It wasn’t till the end that I found out that Levy never got to meet Paul Newman. Instead, he “assembled a massive interview with Newman out of the things he had told other interviewers,”  and this method of research seems to really have worked well. The biography is very thorough and has a lot of immediacy and accessability.

Starting with Newman’s birth and upbringing in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Levy follows Newman through his early days in theater and television, and moves on through his stardom while also following his personal life. Newman’s first marriage and divorce, life with Joanne Woodward – including an affair Newman had in the early 70’s. Though my glowing view of Newman was tarnished by his adultery, if his wife can forgive him and move on, I guess so should I.

I don’t think I also really knew anything about the suicide of his son, Scott, in 1978 — I was ten at the time.  Levy tells us of this awful time in Newman’s life with tact and kindness, and he shows us how this loss affected Newman throughout the rest of his life.

Of course the other part of Newman’s life is his food company, Newman’s Own, and Newman’s charitable outreach which was made so much more possible through that company. The concept and realization of the Hole in the Wall Camps  are enough to make the snarkiest of us soften.

…he had it mind to build a camp for children with cancer that “felt like the Wild West of childhood fantasy, with fishing and swimming and animals and rowdy play and novisible reimders of the daily grinds of hospitals and doctors’ offices to which those unfortunate kids were subject the rest of the year. Campers would be afforded the very best health care, he conceived, and their families wouldn’t be charged a cent for the privilege of having a child attend.

Then Newman uses his connections to make that a reality in Connecticut, later with camps in New York state and Florida.

Other camps followed in Ireland, France, Israel, California, and North Carolina, and at a rotating series of sites in Africa. In the first two decades of their existence, the various associated Hole in the Wall Camps, eleven in all, served nearly 120,000 children from thirty-one U.S. states and twenty eight countries, including the Soviet Union, from which eight children stricken ill by the Chernobyl nuclear accident [attended].

The backdrop for all of this is Newman’s career in Hollywood. We learn about the background of his most famous movies (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; The Sting; Cool Hand Luke) and his less successful endeavours such as Harry & Son, co-starring Robbie Benson, “which fizzled, deservedly.”

This isn’t a biography with any huge secrets or revelations though, mainly because Newman was such a humble, self effacing guy. He seems like the kind of guy that you’d love to hang around with – a drinker, for sure, but a playful, kind, funny, generous person.  A great husband, a loving father and grandfather, a skilled actor – and oh, those eyes!

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