Book Review: Paul Newman – The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, by Paul Newman.

This 283-page book (somewhat more with an Afterward and complete Index) includes numerous photos and personal comments by family and friends and is a first-rate personal account of one of the major movie stars of our time. The project was started in 1986 with Stewart Stern, his closest friend two years before Newman's death at eighty-three, and comes across as introspective, much more thoughtful and broader than the on-screen persona and the "usual" Hollywood leading man story. Newman portrays himself as inherently shy and private, being blessed naturally with good looks and a willingness to work hard. He completed drama curricula at Kenyon College and Yale, so his work is based on a solid instructional base. His prodigious use of alcoholic beverages (mainly Budweiser beer) is noted and somewhat amazingly, at least according to him, did not significantly impair his work.

The book includes a very large number of direct-quote comments from those with whom he shared his work and life. These both are informative yet so numerous as to be offsetting at times to the thread. A major impact on Newman's life is the influence, depicted as corrosive and negative, of his mother, a staunch Catholic who survived his Jewish father by many years. At one point, he did not speak with her for fifteen years, and had no meaningful relationship with her as an adult.

Newman himself took on no religious affiliation or beliefs other than basic morality. He comments several times about the lack of a real mentor in his life. As it turned out, his compass-rock was his fifty-year marriage to Joanne Woodward. Philanthropy became an important part of Newman's life and his large monetary contribution from starring roles in movies has been expanded and extended by the profits from his Newman's Own salad dressing products, which were a result of his interest in cooking.

In addition to the obvious focus on his career in the areas of acting in and/or directing plays and movies, the book covers Newman's serious involvement in highly competitive automotive racing, which was triggered by his role in the 1969 movie, "Winning." He became an accomplished driver in the Sports Car Club of America Series, owned a racing team, and won his final race at Lime Rock in late 2007. He was presented the President's Cup, the highest honor SCCA awards its drivers.

Numerous photographs are an attractive and important addition to the text, which as mentioned is amplified (or at times cluttered) with numerous snippets of direct quotes from friends, family, and work associates. Toward the end of the book, Newman comments in philosophical detail, and with great positive effect, about old age and the nature of relationships - he describes them with the words, "ornaments" or "orphans" and makes clear the difference between the real person he was and the characters he played, even with his extreme mental focus on "becoming" a character for a given role.

All in all, this is an interesting book, much more than window dressing of a movie star. Newman's natural attractiveness was only the start: he was a very hard worker with a broad range of interests, deep and connective ties to humanity, and with some serious flaws as he readily acknowledges. There are similarities to every life, and it evokes these feelings as he tells his story honestly.

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Enjoy life; it's the only one we will get.

J.K. (Jim) George


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4 Responses

  1. JK James George
    From Anon-1: I think it is very good. Good enough that I don’t have to read it! But, I have no overwhelming interest in Paul Newman’s life. I do admire his body of work, and his long marriage, and as your review notes, his overall honesty about himself. Too long? I don’t think so, too much information, again no. I’m glad you reviewed it. I’m amazed at your reading volume, and your ability to analyze your thoughts about your readings.
  2. JK James George
    From Anon-2: Newman was a fascinating character in life, a consummate actor (who could forget Cool Hand Luke!), and a very generous philanthropist! Thanks for the review. I observed first-hand his excellent manner of dealing with fans which I will share with you someday.
  3. JK James George
    From Anon-3: Jim – I enjoyed reading your review of the Paul Newman book … my hometown was Mt. Vernon OH, just four miles from Kenyon College which is based in the village of Gambier OH. Mr. Newman probably spent some time in Mt. Vernon with its huge population of 15,000 or so! I used to ride my bike to Kenyon and went to some of their basketball games. Take care & keep up the good work.
  4. JK James George
    From (not anonymous) Mike in France.: Very interesting comments about a very interesting guy! Tnx, 73 Mike F3OA

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