Tuesday, September 30, 2008

MAUREEN DOWD: Cool Hand Paul


Paul Newman taught me how to peel a cucumber.

My eating habits were so bad for many years that I didn’t actually know the intricacies of making a salad. So when the man who has made $250 million for charity with Newman’s Own dressings and sauces asked me to help him make a salad in 1986, while I was writing a profile of him for The Times Magazine, I mangled my cucumber so thoroughly that he snatched it away and showed me how to do it.

At a moment when America feels angry and betrayed, when our leaders have forfeited our trust and jeopardized our future, we lost an American icon who stood for traits that have been in short supply in the Bush administration: shrewdness, humility, decency, generosity, class.

When I asked W. in 1999 if he identified with any literary heroes, he said no, but he was drawn to Paul Newman’s defiance in “Cool Hand Luke.”

The Texan cast himself as an anti-hero and rebel. But as president, he knew how to strut only in photo-ops, not when actual calamities loomed or hit.

Newman was a rare liberal who loved the label; he made it onto Nixon’s enemies list for supporting Eugene McCarthy’s anti-Vietnam run. In 1997, I called him when he began writing a bit for The Nation (where he was an investor). He ranted about right-wingers “popping out of rat holes” but also faulted the Clintons.

“Everything is about what’s winnable, not about the morality of the issues,” he told me. In politics, as in racing cars, he said: “You can do anything if you are prepared to deal with the consequences.”

I was nervous the first time I met the star, because he’d been a teenage crush — along with William F. Buckley Jr. (I loved Buckley’s sesquipedalian dexterity — a lost art in the anti-intellectual conservative set of W. and Sarah Palin.)

We met at a restaurant on the Upper East Side, where he proceeded to interview me.

Newman: “What do you know about nuclear disarmament?”

Dowd: “Ummm.”

Newman: “How can you justify The Times’s editorial position on the moratorium?”

Dowd: “Ummm.”

He was deeply uncomfortable at getting adulation for playacting, acknowledging that “there’s something very corrupting about being an actor. It places a terrible premium on appearance.”

With a Butch Cassidy grin, he told me that he pictured his epitaph being: “Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown.”

He did not want to talk about his movies; he wanted to talk throw-weights. He liked Bach and Budweiser and playing goofy practical jokes. (Once, when we were driving, he began high-speed bumping the car in front of us, driven by his friend.) He was bored by fashion and embarrassed by women who brazenly flirted with him or asked him to take off his sunglasses to show his blue eyes.

Once, when he was handing out punch at a Westport charity event, a dowager asked him to stir her drink with his finger.

“I’d be glad to,” Newman replied, “but I just took it out of a cyanide bottle.”

He recalled how utterly flummoxed he was the time a stunning call girl approached him on Fifth Avenue and offered to dispense with her fee.

“You want to send her off with something classy and stylish, the way Cary Grant would, or Clint Eastwood,” he said. “You think, how would Hombre handle this? And when this woman came up to me — the guy who played Hud — what comes through? Laurel and Hardy. Both of them.”

He said he was not like his sultry, flamboyant characters: “You don’t always have Tennessee Williams around to write glorious lines for you.”

He and his wife were reputed to have one of the happiest marriages in Hollywood, but the outspoken Joanne Woodward admitted that it took a lot of therapy to cope with the fact that, even though she got an Oscar first, he was able to stay a leading man for four decades. She told a magazine that she was always “uncomfortable and even angry” that “Paul was so much bigger than I was ... Because he was living my fantasy” to be a star.

She would not talk to me for The Times’s profile that her husband did to promote “The Color of Money” — even just on the topic of his role as the director of five movies that she had starred in. She said she did interviews only solo or jointly with him — not about him. That byzantine deal reflected the rivalry that threaded through their romance.

He said that he appreciated her, as he looked around his elegant Fifth Avenue apartment, observing dryly: “If anyone had ever told me 20 years ago I’d be sitting in a room with peach walls, I would have told them to take a nap in a urinal.”

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