Paul Newman: A Life by Shawn Levy

I enjoy reading biographies, and through the years, I’d been somewhat aware of many aspects of the life of Paul Newman – his movie career, his automobile racing, and his philanthropy – but never read a biography of him.  I chose this particular one because it was recent enough (2009) to cover Newman’s entire life through his death in 2008.

As a boy and young man, Newman, the son of a successful store owner, did not distinguish himself in athletics (he was too small for football, despite his longing to be on the team), in academics, or in his WWII military career.  His father expected him to join the family business, but he hated his business and economics studies and his work at the store.  Finally, he turned to acting, which he’d tried in college – later calling himself  “probably one of the worst college actors in history.”  The book describes his growing success in his chosen career without bogging down in too many details.

Newman was one of the few movie stars to celebrate a fiftieth wedding anniversary.  After an unsuccessful marriage during his youth, he married Joanne Woodward, the love of his life.  While I knew something about this marriage, I enjoyed learning more about it, and I had known nothing about his family background or his six children and found these personal details interesting.

I knew that Newman was involved in automobile racing, since my son is an amateur racer and, although he never had the privilege of meeting Paul Newman, saw him at race tracks on several occasions.  However, I had no idea of Newman’s great success in this sport.  At an age when most race car drivers are considering retirement, he began as an amateur and eventually became a professional racer – in his spare time – and owner of a racing team. At Daytona, “he had driven in bursts all through the day and the night at speeds well over 150 miles per hour, in darkness, without proper sleep, against pros, and he had won.  At age seventy.”   I found it fascinating that, after being considered unathletic as a young man, he eventually distinguished himself in his chosen sport.

To me, as to many other people, his greatest success was his philanthropy.  Throughout his adult life, he preferred to make his own salad dressings.  In a restaurant, he would take his salad into the bathroom to wash off the dressing, returning to his table to make his own salad dressing.  Eventually, he and a friend started making salad dressing to give away as gifts, and this grew into their starting a company to make the dressing for sale.  They decided to give their profits to charity – expecting very little profit – but Newman proved to be a good businessman, despite his early dislike of the business world.  Grocers and manufacturers told him that salad dressing without preservatives and dehydrated ingredients was impossible – at least, it would cost far more than the public would pay.  However, the recipe Newman used worked – the ingredients formed a natural preservative.  Profits soared, and Newman was able to start his Hole in the Wall camps for children with cancer.  Shortly before his death, he visited the original Hole in the Wall camp for the last time, saying joyfully, “I can still hear the laughter of the children!”

(Helen Snow, Information Services)


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