The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man
Book FestivalOpinion

The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man

Clea Newman, the actor’s daughter, reflects on her father struggle to understand himself despite his great success.

The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man (by Paul Newman)
The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man (by Paul Newman)

Although Paul Newman’s personal memoir, “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man,” arrives in bookstores Oct. 18, it’s based on material he first began gathering 36 years ago. In 1986, the legendary Hollywood star asked his close friend, Stewart Stern, to interview not only himself but his wife and many of those who had been a part of his rise from a little-known member of the Actor’s Studio in New York to the pinnacle of show business success.

At the age of 57, when he first began the process of self-examination, he wanted his friends to tell the truth about how they saw him. Like the cover photograph of him, with his hand half covering his face, it was as if he was still searching for the complete picture, as he says in the book, of the man he had become.

“It’s a shell that is photographed onscreen by the fans and garnering all the glory,” Newman says. “While whoever is really inside me, the core, stays unexplored, uncomfortable and unknown.”

Altogether over a five-year period, the interviews with his friends and his wife were transcribed into 11,000 pages of reminiscences. For many years they were thought lost, but in 2019…11 years after Newman died, they were discovered in a family storage locker. They have been extensively edited for the book.

His daughter, Clea, who is scheduled to appear at the Book Festival of the MJCCA on Nov. 15, told me in a recent interview that she believes her father initiated the project to confront some of the demons he faced as he entered the final decades of his life.

“It’s like this was his version of therapy. And after he went through this process is when he started to grow as a person. I mean, he really did make some dramatic changes later in his life. And, you know, during that time, you could feel it in the room when we were together as a family. It was pretty amazing.”

With brutal candor and a remarkable intelligence, he describes his early struggles to achieve success, his romance and marriage to Joanne Woodward and the painful loss of his son, Scott, who died at the age of 28 of a drug overdose. Without flinching he describes his own serious drinking problem that put such a strain on his married and family life. He freely admits in the book, that “I’ve always been in pain, always needed help.”

He struggled, even while young, in a prominent Jewish family in Cleveland in the late 1920s and 1930s when antisemitism was so evident in American life. Nonetheless, his daughter, Clea, remembers how he remained connected to his Jewish heritage.

“I think it was hard for him growing up. It was difficult for him in those days. But I think in some ways, as he says in one of the interviews, that he always associated himself more with his Jewish heritage because it was harder. It’s like he never wanted things to be easy. It’s like he wanted things to be hard so that he could wrestle with them.”

Ironically, it was his sense of giving back to society that might have been influenced by his Jewish roots that has become such an important part of his legacy.

In 1982, he started Newman’s Own, a company to distribute a salad dressing that he had created. All the profits of the company are donated to a foundation he established. Over the years, as the brand has become a familiar name in the nation’s supermarkets, it has generated $570 million dollars in grants to hundreds of charities, several which Newman was instrumental in helping to start. The Serious Fund Children’s Network program, for example, operates camps and programs in 50 countries on five continents. Almost 400,000 children with serious health problems have attended the program free of charge.

His daughter, Clea, believes that for all his worldly success he wanted to do better. She believes he wanted to be a more kind and more devoted father and to be a better husband. She thinks that until he died at the age of 82, he wanted to make changes in his life.

“Even though he might have been in his own mind an ordinary person,” his daughter says,” I think he lived his life, good and bad, in an extraordinary way. I mean, the work that it took for him to do all the soul searching that he talks about in the book is pretty amazing. I’d say, in a nutshell, I miss him. I pretty much miss everything about him.”

The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man (by Paul Newman)
Tuesday. November 15, 2022 at 7:30 PM at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta
(In Person)

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