Paul Newman – a hero is born (a personal memoir)

1968 memoir: my wild-man uncle A.C., my weekend date, the whole Paul Newman triumph and disaster

One of my favorite people most of my life was my uncle A.C. (not his real name), living prosperously with my aunt and their three kids in Westport, Connecticut with dogs, horses, a swimming pool and a terrific old house. Because I was in college in the late 1960s a mere 45 minutes away, A.C. would nag me to bring my dates down for a weekend or two so he could entertain us. One weekend, in the spring of 1968, I said, “Sure.”

I need to say, A.C. was a terrific cook and the by far the largest inspiration in my life for my love of food and how to make it. He’s gone now, but his joy of life and loving food lives on in some of his relatives, like me. Man, could he cook!

A.C. and Paul Newman – cooking buddies

So, the odd thing is, and it’s just one of those crazy things, A.C. and his family lived across the street from Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. It was barely a street – just a narrow winding country road. And the Newmans lived directly across the road, driveway to driveway, 20 feet or so apart. They had become pretty good friends. Paul and Joanne came to A.C.’s house for dinner; A.C. and my aunt went to Paul and Joanne’s for dinner. They were buds. They weren’t politically on the same page – not even close, but they were buds nonetheless. They both loved life and ate it up, trading jokes, quips, recipes, stories. My Uncle A.C. didn’t give a rat’s rear end if his nearest neighbor was a movie star – he treated everyone the same, high and low. And Newman very much appreciated this.

Most younger people think of Paul Newman as a face on salad dressing, cereal boxes, pasta sauce, cookies… you name it. Paul Newman is food, not movies. But Newman, or course, was the star of many movies, distinguished himself as an actor, made tons of money from acting, avoided Hollywood life as much as he could, always lived in Westport, Connecticut, loved to race cars and motorcycles, loved to cook, eventually started his company, Newman’s Own, in 1982, and gave most of his money away to charity. $400 million and counting so far.

And this was all in its embryonic stages about the time I hooked up with him for a couple of hours, in the spring of 1968.

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“Play your cards right, you’ll be set for life. Don’t blow it.” – Uncle A.C. on learning my date was a St. Louis beer heiress

I think her name was Hannah, but it could have been anything: she was pretty, friendly, intelligent, and maybe a St. Louis beer heiress, but I didn’t care about that. She was thrilled to drive down to Westport and hang out with my uncle’s family for the weekend – I’d told her the guy was an amazing cook and would treat us like royalty.

We had a fine steak dinner Friday night, were treated like royalty, and the next morning my aunt declared she wanted to go shopping for the rest of the weekend’s meals. Hannah happily offered to go along with her.

When they’d left, A.C. took me aside and said, “Let’s go see Paul. He’ll like your car.”

Porsche

 

My car in 1968: a 1957 Porsche 356A Cabriolet. Tiny engine, not much zip, but a very pretty machine and a fun ride.

 

 

 

Paul’s 43 years old. That’s like totally mature, right?

So we hopped in my old Porsche and drove 20 feet across the road into Paul’s driveway, where he kept a couple of his own Porsches and a customized VW Beetle with a monster Porsche racing engine in the rear. But before we get too much into cars, let me give you a look at the place he and Joanne shared: the house was an old colonial farmhouse, very pretty but not very big. There was a barn at the end of the driveway, converted into a garage. Off to the left, beyond the house, was a pretty cool looking treehouse, maybe 20 feet up in a big tree. (“That’s their love nest,” A.C. told me later). Off to the right were a lawn and some gardens and outbuildings that were used as “crashpads” by some kids that the Newmans were trying to help – kids who’d run away from home, who had some drug issues, that sort of thing. Paul’s son Scott, from his first marriage, was 18 then, but I don’t remember seeing him on the property or if he was connected to the “crashpad” kids in any way (Scott had his own drug problems and died of an overdose in 1974). 

It’s also good to know where Newman was professionally at this time in 1968: among all his fine work, he’d finished the run of his “H” movies (The Hustler, Hud, Hombre, Harper), and just scored big with Cool Hand Luke in 1967. So the guy you see below, age 43, is basically the guy who cashiered my chances to marry a beer heiress.

Coolhandluke-500x300Paul as Cool Hand Luke, 1967. Publicity still, Warner Bros. A lifelong liberal Democrat, he was just then getting involved with Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 run for the presidency.

Sheer terror – we’re going to die together. But we didn’t. Newman was the master.

Paul came out of the house to look at my car. He knew instantly it was a “lower end” model, with some serious (terminal, actually) rust issues, but he politely gave it a nod of approval for looks, if nothing else. A.C. introduced us, we shook hands, and he showed us his latest project – the VW bug with the back seat ripped out and performance Porsche motor he’d installed himself.

“Want to go for a spin?” he asked me.

“Sure.”

Since the car now had only two seats, A.C. stayed behind. I hopped in, belted up, and off we went into the southwest Connecticut countryside on its bumpy, twisty, two-lane roads tightly fenced by hardwood trees (know that small roads in this part of Connecticut have no shoulders. There is pavement, and then there are trees – sometimes bursting up through the edges of the pavement. If you go off the road at high speed, you hit trees and die).

It was nice and easy at first, but not for long. He found a road that hardly anyone ever traveled at this hour of the morning (about 9, as I recall) that was nothing but a chaotically unfolding tree-lined ribbon of sharp, blind turns. And that’s when he hit the gas, and the Beetle took off with neck-snapping acceleration.

“Wow!” I cried.

That was just the start. On corners, I thought I felt the car about to roll – that “oh no, here we go” feeling when we were doing sixty, seventy miles an hour in a twenty zone! – and at one point I knew, this is it. Sheer terror – we’re going to die together.

“Holy sh** –!!”

“Don’t be afraid,” he told me. “I’ve done this before.”

He kept it up until the road ran out of pavement – three or four miles -and we turned around to do it all over again, heading home. Never saw another car the whole way, and it was a good thing. When he got us back on his own road, he slowed down and I entered recovery mode. I kept up the usual litany of my semi-swears, those things you say when you’re in awe of an experience that should’ve killed you, but didn’t.

I haven’t had a car ride like that before, or since. No one I’ve ever known could drive like Paul Newman. Newman was the master. And apparently he was the same with his motorcycles – half-crazed, but masterful. A couple of years after this, he started racing professionally.

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Back at his house, we hung out for another hour or so, Paul and A.C. and I, went in the house, had some beers (at 10 in the morning!), went downstairs in the basement to his pool room where’d hung up various honors and awards on the wall. The table was all set up for eight ball, and he wanted to play. (I’ll admit I’d wasted a lot of time in college shooting pool, and wasn’t half bad at it…) Well, just as we were about to chalk up our cues, I could see my uncle A.C. getting a little antsy.

“The ladies might be home by now,” he said.

“Just one game, A.C.?” I said. Please don’t take me away from a chance to lose to this guy. Or beat him. Not now!

“We should go.”

That was it – no pool today. We were upstairs and outside and I was back in my ratty old Porsche with a handshake and a wave of thanks to Paul. It was the last time I ever saw him.

Paul-Newman-Butch-Cassidy-and-the-Sundance-Kid-Set-Hat

About 4 months later, Paul was Butch Cassidy, with the film shoot starting in September 1968 in New Mexico. This was about a month after the infamous 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, where he was still working hard for Gene McCarthy, and lost. I think it shows in his face. He shifted his energies to help Hubert Humphrey beat Nixon, and lost again.

 

 

 

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“… and I went shopping?!

And then my romantic, chivalrous world came crashing down, like a pillar of salt.

Back in A.C.”s driveway, we hopped out of the old Porsche as the ladies were just finishing unloading grocery bags – like dozens of them – from my aunt’s car.  Hannah looked great. I liked her. Forget the beer heiress part. I liked her as a person, didn’t care about what came with it. Why did she disappear for the last two hours? Because she volunteered to help my aunt shop for dinner (and apparently the next month’s dinners as well).

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi.”

“Where you guys been?”

“Oh, across the street.” Keep it vague.

My aunt piped up, “Oh, they were probably hanging out with Paul.”

Oh dear.

“Paul?”

My aunt piped up. “Paul Newman, and maybe Joanne –“

“Paul… Newman? Like… the actor?”

I mumbled, “Yeah, but it was just a … short visit. I wanted to show him my car.”

“Paul… Newman!!??”

“Well, yeah, he took me for a ride –“

“Paul Newman lives across the street?!”

“Yuh, I’d forgotten –“

She was gone, lugging two grocery bags into the house without another word. I followed her in. She was practically hurling cans of diced tomatoes and creamed corn into the pantry. And swearing. “You hung out with Paul Newman for two hours and I went shopping??!!”

Enough. You get the idea – she was a fan. I was a heel. I was a crumb – nothing. The date weekend was supposed to go through Sunday, but within an hour that Saturday morning we were headed back in my car, out of Westport, wordless, back east to college. A couple of times she let me know the depth of her disbelief that I had done what I’d done. I was truly contrite, remorseful, I’d forgotten by then that Newman, age 43, was immature enough to try to scare this very innocent and unworldly college kid half to death in his super-Beetle, I only knew that it was wrong, very wrong, that we had our “boys will be boys” morning of macho glory together while the womenfolk went shopping. Huge *sigh*. To this day, the memory evokes shreds of shame. So sorry, Hannah. It wouldn’t happen like that again.
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“I liked great chunks of it…”

Years later, in the ’80s, I was writing screenplays and not selling them. I wrote three with Newman in mind as the lead, and sent them along to him via his management firm, Rogers and Cowan in New York. This was still the typewriter era, sending hard copies with return envelopes. Here’s one rejection letter that still hangs on my wall:

DSC_0041

 

I had two other “great chunks” letters from him, and all I could think of was food. Newman was a gourmand, a serious foodie. Great chunks, like the stuff in his pasta sauce. Like the best burger you can make.

 

I didn’t mind the rejections. Really. I was glad to give it a try. What I didn’t know then, in the mid ’80s, was that he was shifting energies into Newman’s Own, getting farther and farther from movies and the Hollywood scene. He was starting to make money – with movies, and food – just so he could give it away. He said publicly several times, I have plenty of money. I don’t need money. Other people, other things need money.

 

What I saw in 1968 was a Newman who was fiery, slightly angry, sick of stardom and the BS around his famous blue eyes, wanting to start to help people – through Gene McCarthy, through his crashpads for wayward kids, through an ever growing list of causes centered around kids, environmental stuff, anti-nuke stuff, anti-war stuff, all those things that define and drive progressives. Yes, in 1968 when he was just 43, there was still some growing up to do (I didn’t think it then when I was just 21, but I do now) with the raging testosterone-driven VW ride, with his fury against Richard Nixon and warmongers, with his disgust of Hollywood liars and cheaters.  To me, though the thrill ride scared me half to death, he was inaugurating himself as a hero. Right on the cusp of giving it all back.

 

Amazing guy, amazing life.

 

There it is.

 

(Note: I’ve tried to keep this story as true to memory as possible, but a word of dialogue here and there may not be perfectly accurate… you know how it is).

Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, humorist, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.