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7 Surprising Takeaways From Paul Newman’s Stunningly Frank Memoir

A new book reveals the star’s insecurities, loneliness and discomfort with fame

still image of Paul Newman from the 1962 film Sweet Bird of Youth; cover of his memoir Paul Newman: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man
Bettmann/Getty Images; Knopf

For many fans, Paul Newman epitomizes the handsome, confident, masculine ideal — blue-eyed perfection to be admired on the big screen. Not quite, according to the late actor, whose new memoir, The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, co-written with David Rosenthal, includes Newman’s poignant expressions of deep loneliness and insecurity that, he explained, came from never feeling fully known or understood beneath his attractive appearance and the characters he embodied.

He referred to that inner self, his core, as “the orphan,” who got left in the dust by his much-heralded decorative shell.

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The book began 20 years before the actor’s death in 2008. Newman asked his close friend Stewart Stern, a screenwriter, to create an oral history of his life. Stern interspersed Newman’s memories with those of his friends and family members — including wives Jackie Witte and Joanne Woodward and directors Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront) and Sidney Lumet (The Verdict).

The result is an unusually thoughtful and moving portrait, with no attempt at artifice or, certainly, the usual Hollywood name-dropping or self-aggrandizement. The goal, Newman wrote, is to “leave some kind of record that sets things straight” and “pokes some holes in the mythology that’s sprung up around me.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone reading this book and not liking the naturally flawed man far more than the myth.

Here are some takeaways:

1. Newman never felt loved for who he really was.

His parents, Art and Tress, were both rather cold-hearted. His superficial, appearance-focused mother viewed her son as “a decoration for her house,” according to Newman, who sometimes presented his more painful memories in the third person. “If he had been an ugly child, his mother would never have given him the time of day.” As for the adoring public: “The damage for me has come when I’ve realized what people were clamoring for was not me. It was characters invented by writers.”

2. His childhood home was marked by violence.

He and his brother Art would bang their heads against the living room wall — “literally,” he wrote, explaining that it was a way to let out his rage. “This was not some tippy-toe banging; this was a serious whacking that took down the plaster behind the wall covering.” His parents were in a constant state of war, their house in Shaker Heights, Ohio, sometimes ringing with “the sounds of things breaking,” including the time “my mother took a picture down from the wall and broke it over the top of my father’s head.”

American actor Joanne Woodward holds her Oscar statuette while sitting next to husband, American actor Paul Newman, during the Governor's Ball, an Academy Awards party held at The Beverly Hilton Hotel, Beverly Hills, California. Woodward won the Best Actress Oscar for director Nunnally Johnson's, 'The Three Faces of Eve.'  (Photo by Darlene Hammond/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Darlene Hammond/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

3. Joanne Woodward brought out his sexuality for the first time.

He found it amusing that he came in number one in a 1950s poll of women asked to choose which well-known personality they had sexual fantasies about, “which I guess is pretty funny. … Even after serving in World War II,” he noted, “I’d been laid only twice.” But “Joanne gave birth to a sexual creature. She taught him, she encouraged him, she delighted in the experimental,” Newman wrote (referring to himself in the third person again).

4. He faced prejudice for having Jewish roots.

His mother, raised Catholic, was a Christian Scientist, and his dad’s background was Jewish. He was non-practicing; the family, according to Newman, “didn’t own so much as a menorah.” But he was barred from a high school fraternity because of that background, and “the only bloody fight I got into” involved an antisemitic taunt, Newman wrote. In Hawaii, on his way to the Pacific theater during World War II, a fellow sailor provoked him with an ethnic slur, and “a big brawl ensued.”

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5. Man, did he drink.

“It’s a really interesting challenge,” Newman noted, “how far you can take the drinking without really self-destructing.” According to Tom Cruise, Newman’s costar in The Color of Money (1986), interviewed in the book, “he’ll torture himself by drinking a case of beer, then sit in the sauna for hours.” He’d often wake up and not know where he was.

6. He worried he wasn’t a good dad.

“I don’t have a gift for fathering,” Newman admitted. “And then there’s the celebrity aspect; being a movie star means you start out with three strikes against you. The conditions are so strange, the adulation, the recognition in restaurants — these are completely unnatural.” He chastised himself for repeating his father’s attitude: “If my children are failing, I become sarcastic with them the same way my father became sarcastic with me.” He wondered if there was anything he could have done to help his son, Scott, before he died of an overdose. “Many are the times I have gotten down on my knees and asked for Scott’s forgiveness. I ask forgiveness for that part of me which provided the impetus for his own destruction.”

7. He had mixed feelings about his chosen career.

“I never enjoyed acting; never enjoyed going out there and doing it,” he wrote. “It’s probably a reason I drank as much as I did.” But he also noted, “Acting gave me a sanctuary where I was able to create emotions without being penalized for having them; I could always giggle and say, ‘Oh, that’s not me, that’s just the character.’ It was so important to me to find a release, even in a fictional way.”