I just read THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF AN ORDINARY MAN, A MEMOIR (published in 2022 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, U.S.A.) the new and fascinating life story of actor, director, champion race car driver, and philanthropist Paul Newman. This is his authorized biography, based on interviews and oral histories conducted and recorded from 1986 to 1991 by Paul’s long-time friend Stewart Henry Stern. After several years of the subsequent transcripts– which numbered somewhere over fourteen thousand pages– sitting in storage, a family friend and some of Paul’s close relatives (such as at least one of his five daughters) finally went through them. David Rosenthal then compiled and edited the chosen ones for this book. The narrative is interspersed with reflections by family members, friends, and work associates, such as Elia Kazan and Karl Malden, to name just two. This helped to enrich the reading and flesh out Paul the person from within his own thoughts and in those of others, making for a creative, robust approach to a complex human being. The several black and white photos throughout further enhance the reader’s sense and understanding of this wonderful, often self-deprecating, man through his lifetime.
Mr. Newman often self reflects quite deeply. He is someone I’ve long admired for his philanthropy, progressive political views, acting talent, and incredible pulchritude. To me, Paul Newman is still one of the most beautiful men I’ve ever seen in photographs and up on screen. He aged gracefully, both in appearance and, more importantly, emotionally and philosophically/spiritually. I did not know that The Economist recorded Mr. Newman as being the most financially generous person, relative to his income, in the twentieth century history of the United States. He also made the Guinness Book of World Records for being the oldest champion race car driver. These are two facts I learned from reading this book, the others being more juicy tid bits about certain movies he starred in, some of the people with whom he worked, and his experiences as a political activist and philanthropist. However, there is assorted other information that is not revealed, such as Paul’s cause of death being from lung cancer. He was a very private person, described by more than one individual he knew as being shy. The story bypasses much of the glamorous parties and red carpet events Paul attended, focusing more on his personal and professional life, such as his first marriage to Jackie Witt and second one of fifty years to actress Joanne Woodward. The latter comes across as a soulmate to Paul, the way he admiringly and lovingly talks about her, even though he never uses such a term to my recollection.
Other than the very end of the text, I found Paul’s childhood the most interesting and emotionally powerful to read about. The younger of two sons, Paul grew up in an upper middle income home in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a wealthy white suburb of Cleveland. His Jewish father Arthur Newman was alcoholic, working hard at a sporting goods store he cofounded with his brother Joe (a.k.a. J.S.), Paul’s uncle. Theresa, Paul’s non-Jewish, Christian Science member mother, was what I gleaned to be quite narcissistic, tending to fly into sudden rages, sometimes for no clear reason, and viewing and treating her younger son as a pretty “ornament” (Mr. Newman’s descriptor). He did not recall her ever expressing curiosity about him as a unique person with interests and feelings of his own. His parents often loudly fought, sometimes destroying property. With all this domestic chaos and tension, no wonder why Paul and his older brother Arthur, Jr. developed a habit of taking turns banging their heads repeatedly on their dining room wall. Paul described it thus: “We just knocked our fucking brains out. It was our own Wailing Wall. I couldn’t take my rage out on anybody my size, so I took it out against the wall [pg. 6 in the hardcover ed.].” It is sad how Paul’s incredible popularity over his physical appearance fed into the painful “ornament” status first imposed upon him by his problematic mother. I felt for him as he tried to escape this, which, it seems, he finally did (at least somewhat) later in life.
Like his father, Paul went on to heavily abuse alcohol for most of his adulthood, stealing beer where he could while serving in the Navy during WW II, drinking his way through college and, later, when acting in movies. The alcohol assisted Paul in maintaining a largely emotionally detached perspective, particularly due to his deep self doubt and tending to feel like an impostor in many situations. Towards the end of the narrative, he shares how he has “always been in pain, always needed help [pg. 280].” He sought out psychotherapy on “more than one occasion.” It is not clear how helpful he personally found it to be, except with a certain psychiatrist he saw early on after becoming a successful movie actor. He viewed these sessions with the psychoanalyst as not very productive, which Paul largely attributed to not feeling able to introspect well at the time. I’m certain that Mr. Newman needed a more developed type of trauma and recovery treatment, which, sadly, did not yet exist in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Regardless of Paul Newman’s subjective experiences with psychotherapy, he lived long enough (eighty-three years) to become a more self-reflective, engaged father and husband, devoted friend, and giving individual. As a psychotherapist myself, I’m inclined to think that he eventually found one or more therapists who substantially helped him. More importantly, this man clearly held a deep curiosity about life and a drive to not only succeed but grow in his capacity for empathy and compassion, which he significantly, impressively did. Two of his five daughters basically state these last points in the book, one (Melissa Newman) in the foreward and another (Clea Newman Soderland) in the afterward. It is understandable and very moving, to the point of tears for me while reading the end, how and why his surviving children (having lost his oldest child and only son to suicide) continue to admire and miss Paul each and every day.