I’m not a big fan of memoirs. I almost always wonder why the authors think they have a life interesting or important enough to document. Give me an objective biography anytime.
Occasionally, however, a memoir will capture my attention. As a Baby Boomer reader, an opportunity to learn more about the incredibly handsome, charismatic, and frankly, sexy actor Paul Newman was intriguing. I read the book. I was glad I did.
The idea for this memoir originated way back in 1986. Newman convinced a friend — screenwriter Stewart Stern — to work with him to create an oral history of his life. He convinced all manner of people from throughout his life to contribute stories and memories of the actor. His only provision was that they tell the truth, the good, the bad, and the ugly. He committed to do the same.
He and his friends worked on the project for five years, but the book wasn’t published until years after his death, at the insistence of his children. The result is a candid story of a very interesting life that included not only acting, but film directing, car racing, philanthropy, and politics. His marriage to actress Joanne Woodward is a love story of a lifetime. But it, like much of the actor’s life, wasn’t smooth sailing.
Newman was born to a wealthy Ohio family where he lived in a small, well-to-do community. His father owned a very successful hardware store, and spent much of his time working. His mother was more concerned about appearances than in taking any kind of immersive role in his life.
He served in the military, and his accounts of his time served display his candor about his drinking and carousing. I found his honesty to be refreshing, and a realistic picture of growing up in white upper-class America in the period between the two world wars.
I found myself researching his stories and watching his streaming his movies. While he apparently never considered himself to be a great actor — at least not as good as his wife — I certainly disagree. I think he was an outstanding actor, and the movies that I watched were tremendous. But what do I know.
If you enjoy memoirs that are honest and funny and self-deprecating, you will enjoy The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man.