Sunday, June 7, 2009

By Shawn Levy
Harmony Books, $29.95, 496 pages

This is a true story. One day, a woman walked into an ice-cream parlor and bought a cone. Sitting at the counter was Paul Newman. Her heart skipped a beat as they made eye contact. Once outside, she noticed she had her change in one hand, but the other was empty. Confused, she went back into the store. Where was her ice-cream cone? Paul Newman smiled. “You put it in your purse.” I can attest to those eyes - “summer-sky blue,” writes author Shawn Levy. But it wasn’t just the color that got you. They radiated intelligence and geniality. Combined with that grin, enough to flummox anyone.

A year after Paul Newman’s death, his superstardom continues to have its liabilities and assets. In 2009, he is the subject of four new biographies, all competing for scandal, touting to Tell All. Shawn Levy’s is not an authorized biography (nor are the others). The Newmans did not participate; few granted interviews. Despite the handicap, Shawn Levy has done his research, seamlessly piecing together anecdotes and quotes. Despite the publisher’s promise, material dealing with Mr. Newman’s supposed extramarital affairs is thin gruel, insufficiently substantiated and full of innuendo.

Mr. Levy’s claims of Mr. Newman’s alcoholism, and of homoerotic tendencies in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” remain unconvincing. If at times Mr. Levy gushes (an indulgence in multiple similes when one will do; overuse of the term, “coltish quality”), his analysis of the actor’s craft and childhood is well done. He has provided an entertaining portrait in which the voice and wit of Paul Newman shine through.

Born Paul Leonard Newman on Jan. 26, 1925, in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, to an affluent family (his father ran a successful sporting goods store), he came to recognize early in his life that serendipity seemed to favor him; why, he did not know. His mother encouraged his talent for acting. After graduation from Kenyon College, he became a disciple of The Actor’s Studio.

Paul Newman was a precise and analytical actor, intellectualizing while others squirmed or fumed. Mr. Levy uses his skill as a film critic to show how, from the 1960s on, ever since “The Hustler,” Mr. Newman steadily built a screen persona into a series of hits: “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Sting,” “Absence of Malice” and “The Verdict.”

His all-American, boyish qualities, comparable to those of Robert Redford, set the gold standard for buddy movies. Over time, Mr. Levy asserts, Mr. Newman created roles of genuine humanity and wisdom. Little information is given regarding Mr. Newman’s first marriage to Jackie. His relationship with troubled son Scott is sympathetically described. (A self-confessed square, Mr. Newman campaigned against drugs, making his son’s accidental overdose all the more tragic.)

Mr. Levy deals fairly with Joanne Woodward, who sacrificed her own successful career to care for their children, while Mr. Newman devoted himself to movies and race-car driving. Yet their marriage lasted 50 years. The secret? As Mr. Newman put it: “We laugh a lot.” Bonding them further was their shared political activism and a fierce commitment to liberal values. Both were put off by the obsessions of Hollywood, spending time at home in Westport, Conn., with author friends A.E. Hotchner and Gore Vidal, among others.

At the height of Mr. Newman’s fame he felt a lack of inner serenity, asking himself: “What have I accomplished?” Charity became natural to him. “I don’t think there’s anything odd about philanthropy,” he said. “It’s the other stance that confounds me.” Mr. Newman had always been an enthusiastic chef. Mr. Levy tells the story of the spectacular success of “Newman’s Own.” When daughter Nell launched Newman’s Own Organics, her father stipulated that she “make a real difference.” In its 25 years, the Newman’s Own Foundation has given away more than $400 million.

In the mid-‘80s Mr. Newman conceived a camp for children suffering from cancer. Like the Wild West, it would be full of animals and play, with none of the reminders of illness, though providing the best of medical care. Families would not be charged a cent. The Hole in the Wall Camp opened its doors in 1988; other sister camps followed. Mr. Newman visited and interacted with the children.

Affirmation, hope and love were given to those who needed it most. “If I’m going to leave a legacy,” Mr. Newman said, “it’s going to be these camps.” Despite the endless consumption of popcorn, hamburgers and beer, Mr. Newman remained in ridiculously good shape. (A joke was ascribed to him: “Twenty-four hours in a day; twenty-four beers in a case. Coincidence? I think not.”) He was famous for pulling pranks, on sets and off. While filming “Butch Cassidy,” Mr. Newman disliked the way Mr. Redford was always late and taunted him with the adage, “Punctuality is the courtesy of kings.” Joanne sewed and framed it on a sampler that they presented to the actor.

Hiding in the audience of the David Letterman show, Mr. Newman stood up during his chum’s monologue and interrupted, as if confused, “Where the hell are the singing cats?” before stomping off, announcing he was in the wrong theater. Mr. Letterman gazed on, as if surprised. Such fitness and zest made the news of Mr. Newman’s lung cancer all the more shocking. Mr. Levy’s treatment of those final months is genuinely moving.

Mr. Newman’s calls to longtime friends, writes Mr. Levy, were made “as if he had been merely curious about how they were doing and was taking a moment to check in.” For one last time, before his death on Sept. 26, 2008, he and Joanne visited the original Hole in the Wall Camp. The camp director and the couple had a quiet lunch next to a pond. “All of a sudden,” remembered the director, “Paul looked up with this look of joy on his face. He said, ‘I can still hear the laughter of the children!’” A hero, as an actor and as a man.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast.”

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