Two men who have influenced my life died in close succession over the the past few weeks. Both died on Fridays during the month of September. One died on the 12th, the other just last night. One was my age, and took his own life. The other had reached an old age, and was taken by cancer.
One I only came to know during the past year, not personally but through his words and books. His writings were assigned to me and my M.F.A. colleagues as part of our studies. We painfully made our way through the heavy texts, debated the subject matter to a pulp, and complained loudly about being introduced to the works of the intellectually magnificent, but draining, David Foster Wallace at the same time we were pulling all-nighters, anxiously completing our theses.
Paul Newman I had known for my entire life, through his talent, his food products, but more importantly, his presence in the community and generosity to help those in need. The Newmans lived about a ten or fifteen minute drive from our house, along the backroads, in the next town over, Westport.
Paul Newman sightings were a regular occurrence in Fairfield County, where I grew up. If you're only familiar with the area over the last ten to twenty years, this image I'll paint may not seem familiar. I'm talking about the Fairfield County of about 30-40 years ago, when that section of Connecticut seemed like a simpler place, with less traffic, less people, less congestion, and more of a sense of New England charm versus New York City suburb.
Back then was a time when young girls could take their bicycles out and ride for a day, down to the shoreline of Long Island Sound, up past the estates to the north of the Merritt Parkway, even over the border into New York state. I can remember my best friend suggesting one morning we get up early and grab our 10-speed Schwinns and bike it on over to Redding Ridge so we could fill ourselves with steaming chocolate chip pancakes hot off the griddle, accompanied by a scoop of frozen chocolate ice cream, smothered with rich chocolate sauce, and, if my memory serves me, topped with a dollop of whipped cream. We'd finish the whole thing and wonder why our stomachs didn't feel right while pedaling home. Still no one worried that we would be kidnapped or run over by rush hour traffic. We had a freedom I sadly doubt my children will ever know.
But back to Paul Newman. My earliest memory was going with my dad up to Kuhn's hot dog stand for a frank on a bun, and hearing that the actor had just been there, hanging out, enjoying a brew. If memory serves me, he'd hang there sometimes after racing at Lyme Rock, though I was a little girl then and not sure even what or where Lyme Rock was. Kuhn's has been long gone, meeting its end many, many years before Paul.
Years later I'd see him just about everywhere. He often ate at the same Japanese restaurants I did -- the small one in my town, the bigger one on the main drag in Westport. When I worked on Main Street in Westport, I would sometimes see him hanging out in town during the morning as I drove to the office. That's how I remember Paul Newman. He's was always there, a part of the town, a member of the community, who -- for all his fame and glory -- just kind of blended in.
One summer I took a course at Sacred Heart University. It was a last minute decision, and the registrar's clerk had leaned over and whispered, "wait until you see who's in your class." Since I was a college age girl always seeking cute guys, I secretly hoped it was Christopher Atkins, he of "Blue Lagoon" fame, who lived in nearby Rye, New York, and was rumored to be taking courses. Instead, I noticed a woman in the room who looked familiar. Paul's wife, Joanne, and their daughter were also taking the class. The course was International Politics, and what I remember is that Joanne and I were probably the most vocal participants in the room-- everyone else was just doing their time to earn three credits.
But my fondest memory of Paul Newman is the generosity of him and his partner, A.E. Hotchner. Early in my career, I found myself on the Board of Directors of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Fairfield County and a committee member for the Ivan Lendl Tennis Classic. Ivan generously donated his time to hit tennis balls with enthusiastic fans, in exchange for a contribution to our nonprofit. I approached Newman's Own for a donation -- the company was only several years old at the time -- and they gave us a significant contribution that made a tremendous difference for our program. Paul never attended, but Hotchner did with his son, who got to hit against the tennis star. By the way, another young player who gave Ivan a run during those fundraiser years was a boy named James Blake.
Since I was the contact, and because my office was down the street from the Newman's Own's office, I stopped by a few times to take care of details for the event. I'll always remember the patio table that served as the conference room, and I always walked out with a bottle or two of sauce that his kind staff gave me. I'm not sure if the patio table remained once the company grew in size, but I always remember that simplicity as I moved forward in my own career.
There are not very many people I can think of who, despite their fame and glory, remained so real and true to themselves. As Time magazine puts it, Paul "was not just the iconic movie star of his age — he was one of the last public figures to lead an exemplary life." How sad that there is no one who comes to mind to take his place.
As I've gone through life and pursued my career and, now, this crazy writing dream of mine, my biggest fear has always been the success. What happens if it changed me? Would my life be different?
Paul Newman convinced me you could achieve great things in your life and still be the person you are. You can make big changes in your corner of the universe -- but you could always stay true to your real values, and blend in with everybody else.
Although I don't drive through Westport often anymore, the times I do I always glance down his road. I don't know why. But I know in the future when I do, I'll think about what Paul Newman taught us about living life to its full potential and never taking what we're given in return for granted. I'll ponder what he taught us about being good people. And I'll help the legend live on by example.