Author A.E. Hotchner shares memories, misadventures with pal Paul Newman
Published 1:02 am, Wednesday, March 24, 2010
From his perspective, sitting in the chair in the sun room of his Westport home, author A. E. Hotchner could see a totem pole outside, a few feet from a window of his sprawling five-acre estate. Not too many people in this town can claim to have a totem pole on their property. Nor can anyone claim to have received one from Paul Newman. Yes, that Paul Newman.
But, then, Hotchner and Newman had a special friendship, a bond for more than half a century. Hotchner, a playwright and biographer -- most notably of Ernest Hemingway and Sophia Loren -- offers an endearing reflection of his 53-year friendship with the iconic actor who died at age 83 on Sept. 26, 2008, after battling cancer.
Kirkus Review describes Paul and Me: 53 years of Adventures and Misadventures with My Pal, Paul Newman as "an inspirational portrait of an extraordinary man" that offers "an intimate, uplifting account of a profound friendship and a boyish lark that grew into a spectacularly successful enterprise."
The world knows this successful enterprise to be Newman's Own food products, which has given all of its $300 million in profits to charities, including The Hole in the Wall Gang children's camps worldwide, dedicated to thousands of children with life-threatening illnesses.
About that totem pole. Newman, too sick at the time to present it himself, had the totem pole presented on stage to Hotchner two years ago during the 20th anniversary celebration of the founding of the first Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.
During a recent interview in his home, Hotchner explained that there are a number of totem poles throughout the landscape at the Hole in the Wall camp in Connecticut. At its apex are two campers -- a girl with her arm around a boy. Along the base of the pole is the word "Kisses" on one side and "Love From All" on the other. There is also a wallet and a dollar bill carved into the pole. Hotchner explained they represented his own "tight-fistedness" when it came to money and Newman's habit of never carrying any money with him.
Hotchner said he wrote the book because he was having a very difficult time coming to grips with Newman's death, which he felt had happened so quickly.
"One moment he's driving his racing car and the next he's gone," Hotchner said. "This book is my private book. It's just about what we did together. It's not a movie star's life. It coalesces everything [we did]. It was a life of friendship."
He wrote the first chapter of Paul and Me about when the two met on the set of a television play in 1955. It was the rehearsal for The Battler, a TV drama he had written based on a Hemingway short story. It was Hotchner's first TV play. Newman originally had been given a supporting role but then word came that James Dean, who was to play the lead role, had died in a car accident. Hotchner says the play "became a fortuitous launching pad for Paul's career as well as my own." It also began a very long friendship.
Originally, his editor at Doubleday, Nan Talese, suggested the book be called A Friendship.
The impetus for the book came during the time of Enron and other money-related scandals. The chronicles of greed -- "the negative aspects of human beings" -- sweeping the country spurred Hotchner to shine the spotlight on his friend who dedicated his life for the common good.
"I have a mess upstairs that I call my files. I found vestiges of over 50 years," he said.
In one envelope he found an itinerary for a trip to the Bahamas that he and Newman took to scout locations for a movie that actually was never made. He decided to write about that adventure or maybe it's one of their "misadventures." It was like opening the floodgates.
Three or four months had gone by since Newman's death and Hotchner said there was nothing to commemorate his life except his movies.
"But, movies don't show you the man, who he was, what he did, how he lived. Yes, there are the camps, but they aren't called the Paul Newman camps and that doesn't tell about him and his generosity. Nothing lasts longer than a book. That is the lasting epitaph of a man. If I wrote about what he did, what he said, that would be a memorial to Paul and people would come away knowing the man that he was."
Hotchner's style is so distinct and the dialogue so rich that readers may feel as if they are right there next to the two friends. But Hotchner said he never kept a journal or a diary to capture such detail and voice.
"If you are as close to the person as I was to Paul and as I was to [myself], you can hear their speech patterns. Some things stay in your head," he said.
The reader is right there with them on their fishing jaunts on the Long Island Sound; confounding the business world with their 10-minute plans that defied all business practices yet led to raising millions of dollars for charities until the day they decided to establish their own charity -- camps for children with life-threatening illnesses -- so they could raise money for their own cause.
When they decided to open an office for their Newman's Own product line, starting with Newman's famous salad dressing -- which had begun as a lark in Newman's barn -- Newman's lawyer Leo Nevas let them use space in a vacant office in Colonial Green on the Post Road in Westport. There, they set up shop. (Thinking it may just be a temporary lark as they stepped into the food industry, Newman moved some of his pool furniture into the office; beach umbrella and table, etc.)
Hotchner wrote: "Paul has always been perverse about complacency. It was his theory that he had to keep things off-balance or it's finito. That's why he took up racing cars when everyone said, `Not when you're 47 years old. You out of your mind?' It took him 10 years to learn the ropes, but doggedness got him there, an old guy winning four national titles. That perversity also accounted for many of his risky movie roles, going where he hadn't been before, running the risk of falling on his face. Running the same risk with the salad dressing. A movie guy and his writer buddy going hard against the odds. Like Butch and Sundance jumping off a cliff into a business-and-marketing canyon -- the fall will get us if the sharks in the supermarkets don't. It was a lunatic thing like a bumblebee or a helicopter. There's no reason for it to fly, but then again, there were the Wright brothers."
"It occurred to me that he was Tom Sawyer and I was painting an endless fence."
While there was a very public persona to Paul Newman -- his many movie roles, philanthropy, sports-car racing, automobile dealership, Newman's Own products, children's camps, his wife Joanne Woodward's and his contributions to the restoration of the Westport Playhouse and his co-ownership with Michel Nishan of the Dressing Room restaurant -- he was quite private about his personal life, in particular the death of his only son, Scott, who died at age 28 in 1978 from a reported "accidental overdose of alcohol and tranquilizers," according to the book. His son was an actor, stuntman and nightclub singer who lived in the shadow of his famous actor father. Scott and his father had a difficult relationship, Hotchner said.
In his book, Hotchner detailed a conversation with Newman when the two were in the Bahamas scouting for that movie they never made. During that trip, they met a sail-maker who had four sons, none of whom were interested in sail-making, which had been a family business for generations.
The sail-maker told Newman and Hotchner that "a young man has to go his own way or his future turns on him." Hotchner believes the sail-maker's comments about his sons had a profound effect on Newman, who later opened up to his friend about the difficult relationship with his son, Scott -- one of three children from Newman's first marriage. He divorced and married Woodward in 1957 and the couple had three daughters.
Hotchner recalled Newman saying of Scott: "I knew he drank too much and drugged himself, but I didn't know how to open a door into him. ... I was the same with my father -- that distance. I wanted ... wanted to feel we were together. That he liked me, that I was his son. The closest we ever got was when he shook my hand. I don't think I ever hugged Scott or patted him on his arm or back or rump -- the things fathers do. I never talked to him about his being an actor -- can you imagine? He didn't have the talent. I should have been more realistic with him."
When asked why he included Scott in the book, when it was a subject that Newman had kept very private, Hotchner said he had never expected Newman to talk about his son on their trip. "It came out of left field. At the time we were having a freewheeling good time, going from one spot to another."
"I know he suffered a lot, but it was internal. It had never come up. At that point it was so far removed ... it was a very important beat about him. It really was kind of a different note than the rest of the book."
"Everybody has a few of these really down deep painful experiences that we deal with by ourselves and never share. I know I have them. There are some really deep regrets. ... He referred to that trip many times. Paul had a problem with communication."
Hotchner believes the primitive surroundings of that trip contributed to Newman's expressing his feelings of the guilt he had about his relationship and death of his son.
"I thought I should include this very emotional moment," said Hotchner, who said he has not shown the book to Woodward, whose relationship with her husband, Hotchner said, was very "interdependent. She's a wonderful person."
While Hotchner says he wrote the memoir because "I found out I wasn't dealing with his death very well," he, in turn, offers readers the gift of reading about a life not blindsided by fame, but instead realizing how a famous name can contribute in so many humanitarian ways.
Just as Newman fooled people by putting a Porsche engine in his Volkswagon and sped away ahead of the pack at tollbooths, he managed, with his unassuming ways, to build a philanthropic business beneath a beach umbrella in downtown Westport.
When asked to sum up Newman in one word, Hotchner described his friend as "irreverent."