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What Paul Newman wanted us to know about him — or perhaps didn’t

Nearly 14 years after the actor’s death comes his memoir ‘The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man,’ which offers a glimpse of his private life and what those in it thought of him

Paul Newman in 1976. From his posthumously published memoir “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man.” (Courtesy of Newman family)
6 min

What do you do with a memoir that the memoirist may not have wanted you to see? Between 1986 and 1991, Paul Newman sat down with screenwriter pal Stewart Stern to discuss his life and career. At Newman’s behest, Stern also tape-recorded hundreds of hours of interviews with the actor’s friends and family. The whole enterprise was supposed to become some kind of book but somewhere in there, Newman changed his mind, burned the tapes and moved on.

Did he think that would be the end of it? Or did he foresee that, three decades later, surviving family members would dig up Stern’s transcripts and set the process back in motion — creating, through their joint efforts, a kind of multiplatform tell-all?

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In July, some 14 years after Newman’s death at 83, came HBO’s absorbing six-hour documentary, “The Last Movie Stars,” in which a cast of elite actors reenacted the old interviews via off-screen table read. (By divine right, George Clooney voiced Newman, but the de facto star was Brooks Ashmanskas, siphoning Gore Vidal straight from heaven’s open bar.) The current month has brought forth an audiobook featuring Jeff Daniels and, nearly as an afterthought, the reconstructed memoir itself.

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Relatively slender in girth, “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man” is perhaps the least mediated and most conflicted part of the whole renaissance because it bears within it all the riven emotions its subject might be expected to feel at its release.

As narrator, he performs his expected due diligence. He speaks of growing up in Ohio, of serving, mostly out of harm’s way, in the U.S. Navy, of realizing, after a stint in his dad’s sporting-goods store, that his destiny was the Yale Drama School. He relives the early breaks and misfires. He lets other witnesses, ranging from Tom Cruise to his aunt Babette, fill in the details. But he knows that at some point he must speak of sex.

For if he’d been merely handsome, we would not be reading his memoir today. His glacier-blue eyes and Michelangelo bone structure derived their power in large part from being harnessed, like Brando’s Romanesque beauty, to something animal. Even in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” where the plot requires Newman’s Brick to resist, again and again, the overtures of Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie, his every gaze and gesture confirm that something equally erotic is going on just out of view.

In life, Newman remained diffident on the subject; it was his way. In his memoir, he credits his longtime wife and collaborator Joanne Woodward with making him “a sexual creature,” in part by creating a conjugal hut where they could be “intimate, noisy, and ribald” several nights a week. Yet, as Newman surely intended when he gave Stewart Stern free rein of his address book, dissenting voices emerge. A Kenyon College classmate remembers him as “wild, lascivious, dangerous.” Elia Kazan, who very nearly cast him as the lead in “On the Waterfront,” approvingly noted that Newman had “plenty of power, plenty of insides, plenty of sex.”

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Consider, too, that when Newman and Woodward first hooked up in the wings of the 1953 Broadway production of “Picnic,” he already had a wife and, inconveniently, two children, soon to be three. Those three would then be merged with the three that Newman and Woodward brought into the world. (Scott, the one boy in the mix, would die of an overdose at 28.) In this way love and marriage led to family, a subject on which Newman was also riven.

Maybe the book’s most startling confidence comes six pages in, when he speaks of joining his older brother in pounding their heads against the dining-room wall of their upwardly mobile 1930s Shaker Heights home. “Our own Wailing Wall,” recalls the half-Jewish Newman, a response no doubt to a cold, thwarted, alcoholic father and an emotionally voracious mother who, when she wasn’t battling, was drawing her pretty younger son into her death grip.

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By those standards, the blended Newman-Woodward household was a step or two up, though not always more. Newman’s alcohol consumption teetered between functional and not. (He was the owner of Kenyon’s beer-chugalug record, and beer would be a lifelong companion.) Woodward, whom Newman credits with an ego equal to his own, bridled at being relegated to earth mother, and the general mood, writes daughter Melissa in her frank foreword, was “stormy one minute, joyous the next.”

It is the thesis of this memoir, and one might say the entire Newman rehabilitation campaign, that it got better. A broken man, at the prodding of family and his own better nature, became a better husband and father — and even a better actor, according to conventional wisdom and self-serving directors.

George Roy Hill, for instance, contends that, with “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Newman “finally learned to relax.” Sidney Lumet contends that, with “The Verdict,” Newman (despite being one of the earliest members of the Actors Studio) finally grasped the value of “self-revelation.” Neither director must have spent much time with “The Hustler” or “Hud” or “Cool Hand Luke” or Newman’s never-to-be-surpassed Brick. That cool cat was sitting on top of his own hot tin roof and was no less revealing for pretending it didn’t hurt. In the words of Kazan: “There’s something in him that’s masked but underneath it, there’s a soul that wants to do many things.”

And can’t do them. Can’t do anything about the sheer messiness of being an object of desire or, to quote the man himself, “the imponderable of being a human being.” It was perhaps this same principle that drove Newman to commit all those hundreds of hours of tape-recorded testimony to the flames. Perhaps he just concluded that an actor’s life is — or at least should remain — no more knowable than his art.

Louis Bayard is the author of “Jackie & Me” and “The Pale Blue Eye.”

The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man

By Paul Newman

Knopf. 320 pp. $32

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