Out of the Woods: Westport’s Own, Paul Newman, stamped with class
Published 6:43 am, Friday, October 23, 2015
I was thrilled when Paul Newman was officially honored last week by the U.S. Postal Service with a commemorative "Forever" stamp in recognition of the actor's extraordinary cultural and philanthropic contributions. The Postal Service formally unveiled the stamp at the new Newman's Own headquarters at 1 Morningside Drive North. Newman reportedly raised more than $450 million for charity through his legacy foundation.
According to his official biography, he acted in more than 65 movies over more than 50 years, "drawing on a physical grace, unassuming intelligence and good humor that made it all seem effortless. Yet he was also an ambitious, intellectual actor and a passionate student of his craft, and he achieved what most of his peers find impossible: remaining a major star into a craggy, charismatic old age even as he redefined himself as more than Hollywood star. He raced cars, opened summer camps for ailing children and became a nonprofit entrepreneur with a line of foods that put his picture on supermarket shelves around the world."
Newman, who died of cancer at age 83 on Sept. 26, 2008, was known as a quiet, self-effacing individual who rarely mixed with large crowds in town, and probably would not have approved of the event in the first place. Had he still been alive, he no doubt would have snubbed the gathering of more than 150 people who crowded into the headquarters to see the official unveiling and to get a companion, limited-edition pictorial postmark designed by Westport artist Miggs Burroughs. It should be noted that art director Derry Noyes designed the stamp.
There are still all kinds of stories floating around Westport about Newman's mystique. He wore sunglasses to hide his famous sparkling blue eyes. He was painfully shy. People did not approach him when they passed him on the street or saw him in a local store.
They didn't sit next to him in a movie theater (which he attended very rarely because he had his own screening room in his house in Westport). In a phrase, they respected his profound desire for privacy.
This columnist talked with him several times over the years and I once interviewed him for a front-page story in The Westport News about a book that featured poems and stories written by many of the kids with life-threatening diseases at his Hole-in-the-Wall Gang Camp. His PR people wanted the interview, which was unusual, but they asked me to confine my questions to the book and the camp. They told me he would not respond to any other questions.
I didn't follow instructions. After I had completed a frustrating five-minute telephone interview, during which I felt as if I was pulling every word out of him precisely because he was reluctant to talk, I questioned him further. Here is the gist of that story, which I reported many years ago: I told him how much I enjoyed his movie, "The Sting," with Robert Redford, and then I asked him which of his movies he liked best. He said he didn't want to choose one.
So, I then asked him why he moved to Westport. "A fella's got to live someplace," he replied wryly. That was playwright Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" stage manager talking.
There was a profound side to Paul Newman and there was a flip side. That's what I liked most about him as an actor and as a man. His sense of humor, his wit, his deft ability to tell you something serious with a wink and a smile — all of that was Paul Newman's way of sharing his inner self that he so carefully preserved and protected. Yet, he revealed himself in the roles he played in the movies and on stage and in other subtle, but noticeable ways. What I liked best about him was that he did not appear to take himself seriously.
Newman, of course, was a household name. Not just in Westport, and in America, but around the world. My wife and I visited our daughter when she was teaching English to high school students in Japan in 1989. My wife was asked to speak to a class full of students when she accompanied our daughter one day to one of the high schools. She introduced herself and told the class that she lived in Westport, Conn., where there was a famous person who was also a resident there — Paul Newman. At the mention of his name, the silence in the classroom was broken and the students practically jumped out of their seats with excitement.
I imagine it is still that way throughout the world today. Paul Newman should be remembered around the world for many generations.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" column appears every other Friday in the Westport News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.