Aljean Harmetz’ obituary of Newman in The New York Times yesterday called him “a Magnetic Titan of Hollywood“:
“If Marlon Brando and James Dean defined the defiant American male as a sullen rebel, Paul Newman recreated him as a likable renegade, a strikingly handsome figure of animal high spirits and blue-eyed candor whose magnetism was almost impossible to resist, whether the character was Hud, Cool Hand Luke or Butch Cassidy.”
Aside from his special brand of magnetism, I’ve always been impressed with his maverick personal brand and dedication to giving back.
My encounter with Paul Newman came in the late 1980’s, I think. It was a very special night built around dinner at a hot New York restaurant and tickets to see Ella Fitzgerald in concert at Lincoln Center. I believe this turned out to be one of her last performances. It was a heavenly evening on many levels.
I had an excellent seat on the aisle about 15 rows from the stage. The show was about to start and most everyone was seated and quietly attentive to the stage.
There was a sudden flurry of activity, with a group of about 10 rushing in and quickly taking their seats just to my right across the aisle.
He sat down in that aisle seat. His proximity was palpable. Although it was impossible to take a prolonged look at him without being rude, I eyed him long enough to notice his casually elegant attire. Dark turtle neck sweater with dark gray trousers. When he sat down, I saw his classic Italian loafers and fire engine red socks. I remember thinking he was much more petite than I expected.
I didn’t get to see those eyes, about which he once said, “I picture my epitaph: ‘Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown’.”
So, for nearly 2 hours, he was sitting no further than 5 feet from me. Since I’ve always been a star-struck fan of his, fully concentrating on Ella’s dazzling performance was not possible, at least for the first number or two.
Immediately after Ella sang her last note, Newman and entourage swiftly moved out of the theater, obviously well-practiced at avoiding fans like me.
This morning I saw a clip of a 2002 interview with Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward. Surprisingly, she said she wasn’t at all attracted to him when they first met. When asked what made their relationship endure for over 50 years, she said:
“Good looking and sexy all goes out the window but finally, what’s left, if you can make somebody laugh. That’s what he does for me, all the time.”
I admired so many things about the way Newman lived his life and I’m sad that he’s gone. It felt good to recall that special evening.