In Search of a State of Grace

VehiclesEntertainmentMoviesHealthSportsBadmintonPaul Newman

"He's late."

"Yeah, way late."

It's been more than a minute since Paul Newman's car last whizzed past the pit area of Lime Rock Park. His crew knows something's wrong, for he's been running laps in less than 55 seconds. But two minutes pass, then three, and there's still no sight of him. The men scan the sky above distant sections of the winding track, looking for a telltale sign.

"I don't see any smoke," one says.

Then, finally, "There! He's comin' in!"

The red-white-and-blue GT-1 circuit sports car eases into the pit and someone pulls Newman out the window--the only way in and out of such a car. "He spun out over there," reports the owner of the car, Larry Leifert, pointing toward a tricky S-turn around the bend.

"Ah, I just got on the gas too hard, that's all," says Newman, taking off his helmet, grabbing a bottle of water and walking away to sit by himself on the white concrete barrier that stretches along the pit. He sits there silently, head slumped, catching his breath.

Newman has suggested, from time to time, that he's about done with racing, almost ready to give his wife, Joanne Woodward, some peace of mind. But he won't quit. Weeks before his 75th birthday on Jan. 26, he crashed his Porsche into a tire barrier during a practice run at Daytona, injuring his ribs. Weeks after the birthday, he was back at the Florida track for its 24-hour endurance race. When he dropped out after eight hours, it was because his car broke, not him.

He keeps at it though he has nothing more to prove--to anyone but himself. Hardly the first movie star to give racing a try after being exposed to it on a film--in his case, the 1969 "Winning"--he quickly established himself as the real thing. Taking his first driving lessons at 47, at Bob Bondurant's school in Northern California, he became the oldest winner of a major nationally sanctioned race in the United States. He was 61 years, 7 months when he won a Trans-Am event in August 1986, right here at Lime Rock.

Newman explains his zeal for racing with one word: grace. While he was a good enough athlete to play some football at Kenyon College in Ohio, he never felt graceful at it, he says. Nor at basketball or tennis or dancing, even. Only when he climbed into a car did he find it. Now he won't stop.

At 75, Newman brings up that word, grace, in arenas beyond the track. If you watch him for a few months--everywhere from a movie event to his summer camp for sick children--you'll hear it come up in reference to his work, say, or his stage of life.

Although he's never stopped being a 13-year-old in some ways--he's legendary for his pranks--he's hardly immune from feeling his age. He's been known to look around for his glasses and realize, finally, that they're atop his head. He sometimes stops mid-sentence, groping. "I lose words a lot," he says. He asked his 81-year-old neighbor in Westport how things were going, and the man said, "Some weeks I don't seem to be able to get out of my black suit." Newman wonders how he'll face his own darkest days.

He wonders how to wind up a career. And how does he handle, with grace, those people who make him out to be some kind of saint, who want to eulogize him as Hollywood's answer to Mother Teresa?

More immediately, how does he get back in that race car with out looking like a fool?

He came to Lime Rock this breezy spring afternoon to test a car operated by his Newman Sharp Racing team, a Nissan whose turbocharger was just rebuilt. But the fuel pressure regulator blew when he turned it on, filling the engine with gas. That's why he's borrowed the car normally driven by Jack Busch at raceways from Pocono to Watkins Glen.

Newman's quickest lap, before the spin-out, is 54.16 seconds. He's ready to try again. "You got any more padding?" he asks the crew, and they put some extra atop the metal seat. He stiffens his body, like a board, so they can lift him up and slide him in the window. Then he's off.

He runs a half dozen more laps, trying to get a feel for the suspension, then pulls back in, done for the day. "I'm wearing out your car," he tells Leifert.

"You have fun?" the car owner asks.

"Yes, sir. If my movie was doing so well, I'd be happier."

*

Newman's latest film, "Where the Money Is," had hit theaters two weeks earlier. It was a modestly budgeted diversion, nothing heavy, but let him play a trademark character, the charming rogue--a bank robber who fakes a stroke to get out of prison. Reviews were fairly good, and even if no one suggested his character would make audiences forget Hud or Cool Hand Luke, or Fast Eddie or Butch Cassidy, his performance was universally praised.

Yet the opening numbers are atrocious. Attracting mostly older audiences, the USA Films release took in only $2.5 million its first week. It's clear that it's doomed to be a blip on the radar screen, then disappear.

"We should have gotten people into the theater," Newman says.

Fifteen minutes after getting out of the car, he's trying to figure it out. He retreats first to his trailer to take off his racing suit--blue, orange and cream--and emerges in khaki pants, gray long-sleeve shirt and tennis shoes. His wispy white hair blowing in the wind, he sits before a cup of coffee at a picnic table by the track's snack bar.

On a race day, he'd have to stay in his trailer to avoid being mobbed. But this time is for racing teams only. The sole autograph seeker is a woman who has a friend "who kinda worked for you, for the charities." The name rings no bells. "I don't know what to tell you," he says--he's not one to pretend he knows her friend.

He won't pretend with himself, either. So he briefly recounts possible explanations for the film's failure: The release date? Distribution strategy? "And maybe," he says, "we simply didn't have enough explosions and enough body mutilations and enough frontal nudity and enough sodomy and enough self-abuse.

"I don't know," he adds, quieting after his rant. "Maybe I can't carry a film anymore."

He had tried, heaven knows. Before the film came out, he did one of those PR blitzes they call junkets, sitting down April 1 with round tables of print reporters at a Manhattan hotel, then planting himself in front of posters for the film so a parade of TV types could have their go at him, five minutes each.

He knew what would happen, though. However much he'd try to steer the talk to the film, they'd steer back to him, often with reverence, as if his 75 years of being Paul Newman--in movies, politics, philanthropy, marriage, racing--might teach us all something about living a good and just life.

"In Hollywood a relationship that lasts longer than a carton of milk is a success," one of the first of the TV people noted. "How have you guys"--he and Woodward--"done it?"

"We drink a lot. I don't know."

On it goes. He did so many great films--what's his favorite? "Not 'The Silver Chalice,' " his first, in 1954, in which they put him in Roman garb that looked like a cocktail dress. Is it true he's given $100 million to his camps and other causes? "My spaghetti sauce grosses more than my films." The secret to his success? "Luck." On it goes.

In private, he may talk about "desperately trying to be part of your time." But when the lights go on, he'd rather tell a tale on himself.

Indeed, he'd hoped someone would notice the bandage on his middle finger. Then he'd really have a story for 'em: how he was cutting cucumbers and peppers and sliced a piece of himself, instead, right into the salad; how the doctor then ordered him to keep that middle finger elevated; and how he then was walking by this sweet old couple, following orders, and all they could do is stare agape at . . . the beneficent Paul Newman giving them the finger.

But no one noticed the bandage.

A couple of days later, he went on the Letterman show and told his finger story. He also announced that he was ready to quit the movies. Paul Newman said he wanted to do "one more film as a swan song and then get out."

*

At Lime Rock raceway, autopsying his film, wondering whether it was his fault, Newman looks up toward the track and notices the Leifert car, No. 05, running again, now with it's regular driver, Busch. He takes off his watch--a cheap plastic model--and begins timing the laps.

Does he honestly expect to have done as well as a younger, veteran driver--in the man's own car?

"About the same. Mid-54s," he reports, timing some more. "No, I was quicker. I was quicker today."

One of the basic issues of older age is whether to go quietly into the night, or keep fighting the fight. There's no easy answer, of course, and it's probably not a conscious choice. But is there any doubt what this man's inclination is?

The point is: If he's not ready to quit the on-the-edge insanity of racing, why believe, for a moment, that he's ready to slip quietly from films--or anything?

He confesses immediately. There's plenty of wiggle room in that one-more-and-out pledge.

"I think I've retired a lot," he says with a laugh. "I shouldn't have said that. I'd just like to do one more memorable film of some kind, a film that aspires to something. Some new way of telling a story. Some way of dramatizing the human condition. I don't mean significant with quotes around it, but something that would be memorable in some way."

He gets six or seven scripts a month, some offering leading roles, some supporting. Few excite him. He'd love to do one with his wife, and he and Robert Redford have said that they'd be open to doing one more together, as well--except how do you encore "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting"?

It's not that he needs to fill time. In addition to his own driving under the Newman Sharp banner, he's co-owner of Newman-Hass Racing, which fields the CART-circuit Indy cars driven by Michael Andretti and Christian Fittipaldi. Although one of his five daughters helps run the for-charity food business, he plays an active role--just as competitive about the sauce sales as racing. There are his summer camps--five now--and a committee encouraging corporate philanthropy. He still opens his living room for fund-raisers, and while Newman supports Al Gore for president, he recently gave Ralph Nader "a platform" to share his views. When a British firm took over a regional water company not long ago, there he was urging his Connecticut neighbors to protect 18,000 acres of watershed, to be "loud and disagreeable" if that's what it took, to "jump up and down and pound on car roofs."

"I'm not worried about not having anything to do," he sums it up. "I just want one of these films you could devote your time to and say, 'Yeah, I can swan song with this.'

"And then if another one came along that is just as memorable, you'd say, 'Jesus, dummy!' "

It's time to head back to Westport. He's come with several young buddies, 30-ish, he met through another competitive passion, badminton. He lobbied to have it included in the Olympics and took a group to the Games in Atlanta to watch what is, at top levels, an exhausting sport, nothing like the backyard variety. Players can rocket the shuttlecock at the speed of these race cars.

That's why a visitor suggests that Newman's young friends must ease up a bit in their matches with Grandpa. Big mistake to say that.

Newman retorts, "Five dollars."

*

When Freud once was asked what a normal person should be able to do well, he replied with unexpected briefness, "Lieben und arbeiten," to love and to work. But he might have added a third type of engagement with the world beyond ourselves--play.

It's often been told how Redford once discovered hundreds of live chickens stuffed in his on-the-set motor home. When Redford sent the perpetrator a wrecked Porsche with a red bow around it, it came right back to him--compacted.

On the Trans-Am circuit, Newman's foils were young drivers Wally Dallenbach Jr. and Chris Kneifel. That pair once recruited two dozen very gray women from a Chicago senior citizens club to show up at a race in "Paul Newman Fan Club" T-shirts. Newman retaliated by hiring a plane to fly over a Detroit track with a banner saying, "Chris and Wally, call Mommy."

Let's not forget Richard Nixon, back in 1968. Newman was campaigning in the New Hampshire primary for antiwar Democrat Eugene McCarthy when he learned that the car taking him around would next chauffeur a certain Republican candidate. The soon-to-be president found a note waiting: "Welcome. You should have no trouble driving this car at all because it has a very tricky clutch."

To this day, Newman counts among his great accomplishments winding up on Nixon's infamous Enemies List, No. 19.

It is not entirely a surprise, then, when taunting faxes begin arriving in the days before our badminton match. The first demands "heavy odds" based on "reliable sources," who claim I am engaging in a "chicken----" tactic, "receiving badminton instruction." Another reports that the referee will "not allow you to wear your hair net." No lame excuses, either, about "surgery related to your knees and brain." Another--from his assistant--warns that "Mr. Newman is carrying a concealed weapon, so one way or the other, he is going to win."

What can you say? I am lame, from three knee operations--none to the brain, thank you. As for that badminton instruction . . . well, one little session with Chibing Wu, the former Chinese national team member, seems reasonable.

I show up at his New York badminton club on a Sunday afternoon, eager to try out the strange racket--having not touched one since I was 15--and to get advice on how to frustrate someone who may be an experienced player but is "a geezer," a quarter century older than I am. Wu says it's simple: Hit the birdie deep to the backhand, then short to the forehand. Side to side, in other words. He explains in broken English how an "old gentleman" would have trouble to "pivot body." He demonstrates. "Then you win," he says.

Yellow tape lays out the badminton court in the middle of the gym at the Westport YMCA, ready whenever the town's most eminent resident wants to play. He arrives that Tuesday wearing ratty Bermuda shorts, a T-shirt from the "Hole in the Wall Gang Camp" and a cap that says "No Mercy." He lays a $5 bill on the ground and his three young buddies do the same--all want in on the action.

He is not, as he says, graceful. He's a banger. On the very first point he smashes the shuttlecock right at my head--too hard. I duck and it flies long. On the next point, I hit low to his left, and Wu's advice holds--he does have a hard time pivoting. His spindly legs wobble. A minute into the match, I'm up 3-0 and almost feeling sorry for him. "I didn't warm up enough," he tells his pals.

Then he does this: He hits deep to my backhand, then short to my forehand. Side to side, in other words. Then he varies the theme, sending the birdie deep to the forehand corner first.

Soon we're shaking hands and he's shaking his head. "I'm really sorry," he says, "that you got those three.

"When I was getting ready to do 'The Hustler,' " Newman says later, after he's won the group's regular doubles game as well, "I went into this pool hall in New York. Dark glasses. Cap down. Fellow comes up to me and says, 'You want to play?'

" 'No. I'm watching.'

"Then he comes again, 'Want to play?'

" 'No, but let me ask you something--how do you know how well I can play?'

" 'Oh, see that big tall skinny guy over there? He'd play you.'

" 'What if I beat him?'

" 'See that stubby little guy over there?'

" 'And if I beat him?'

" 'Then we call Chicago.' "

I hand over a $20 bill and we head out onto the streets of downtown Westport.

It's only a few blocks up Post Road to the Westport Country Playhouse, the converted barn that has become a cause for Newman's wife. With lobby posters showing Basil Rathbone and Gloria Swanson, the theater has quite a 70-year history. But it had fallen on hard times before Woodward and three other women took over the management in January. Serving as co-chairwoman of the artistic advisory council, she helped launch a multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaign while agreeing to direct W. Somerset Maugham's "The Constant Wife" this summer and participate in onstage readings of a new A. R. Gurney play, "Ancestral Voices." She also convinced her celebrity husband to play the grandfather in that week of readings, guaranteeing an immediate sellout of the run.

On the other side of Post Road is the headquarters of Newman's Own, the nonprofit he started on a lark in 1982 when a friend suggested he sell the salad dressing he mixed up for neighbors at Christmas. Newman had marketing in his blood--his father had the largest sporting goods business in Cleveland, and he ran a laundry service himself in college, picking up the dirty clothes of fellow students. But who could have seen how everything from popcorn to Fig Newmans would follow, along with an offshoot run by daughter Nell in Aptos, Calif., Newman's Own Organics? The manufacturing and distribution are contracted out, so it takes only 10 employees to run the show from the second floor of a brick office building behind a bank. Sales in 1999: $90 million.

All of this--the Y, the theater and the offices--are an easy drive from the 1700s farmhouse on 15 acres that Newman and Woodward bought in the '60s, making it their main home ever since. No question, they've put down deep roots in the quiet Yankee town of 24,000, a world away from Hollywood.

But it's not where Newman wants to be buried.

*

The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp is in Ashford, in the northeast corner of Connecticut, closer to Boston than New York. You drive in under a ranch-style arch, past a sign reading "Yippee--You're Here." The dirt road goes around the edge of the lake and through woods to the guard shack. Past that: A $17-million refuge for kids too sick to go to camp most anywhere else, most too poor to afford it, anyway. This week, in July, all 111 have HIV or full-blown AIDS.

When asked how he came to start the camp, Newman says, "I just woke up one day."

He had started a charitable foundation before, after the death of his only son from a Valium and alcohol overdose in 1978. But the Scott Newman Foundation operated safely within what one of Newman's daughters called "our own level of expertise," the entertainment industry. It encouraged movies and TV shows to tackle drug and alcohol issues, hoping the messages would reach people in need.

By 1986, however, the food business was bringing in serious cash. Newman decided to use it to help kids directly, almost one-on-one--not waiting for any message to trickle down.

He approached Yale's chief of pediatrics, Dr. Howard Pearson. "There were only two things he knew," Pearson recalls, "the name of the camp"--drawn from the hiding place used by Butch and Sundance--"and that it would be built yesterday."

If Anheuser-Busch enjoyed how he had guzzled Budweisers all those years, why shouldn't it kick in for a dining hall? If the Saudi royal family was looking to create goodwill in the U.S.--and looking to get some AWACS surveillance planes--sure, he'd appear with them in Washington, D.C. To collect $5 million. And why shouldn't the Navy Seabees build a boardwalk to the boathouse as a favor to a tough old WWII vet who'd manned the radio on a torpedo bomber in the South Pacific?

That's how "the Taj Mahal of camps," as Pearson terms it, was ready for business in 18 months, a fantasyland on 300 acres. Hospitals and clinics referred kids with cancer, sickle cell anemia and other diseases. None would pay a penny.

Even so, Michele Gill wanted no part of the camp when the social worker at her Staten Island hospital told her about it that first summer, in 1988. She was an 11-year-old cancer patient, bald from chemotherapy, and worried "it was going to be sick kids just hanging out and talking about being sick, like some kind of counseling session."

After she was cajoled into going, Gill discovered that the counselors and volunteers--one for every two kids--never brought up their illness. For 10 days, they swam and rode horses and did arts and crafts. Some wiry old movie actor personally taught her to fish, and told her about the legend of "Wee Pee," a 488-pound greenish-blue creature said to inhabit the lake.

At night, the counselors would put them to bed and go to their own rooms in the log cabins, "and the lights would go off and then we would talk," Gill recalls, "just us kids, asking each other, 'What do you have?' "

"I came back the next year and never stopped."

Today, she's a college graduate, 23, working with emotionally disturbed children during the year. During the summer, she's at the camp, where she's cancer-free and sporting lustrous reddish-brown hair. One of eight former campers on the staff, she oversees three cabins of kids, the Purple unit.

At the guard house, a visitor checks your name and raises the gate. Down the road, a woman in a floppy white hat and sundress is walking her dog. Joanne Woodward smiles as you pass.

She and her husband have their own cedar log cabin in the woods. They try to come half a dozen times during the summer, usually for a couple of days. But this is a full week stay, and Newman is working with Yellow No. 5, a cabin of boys 9 and 10.

The ground rule for a visit is that you leave him be when he's with the kids, no fuss. There are no plaques branding this the Paul Newman Camp. About the only thing you see with his name is the totem pole he crafted as a thank-you to the staff.

"Doc" Pearson suggested sessions for kids with AIDS in 1992, amid the frenzy over the disease. Parents were so worried about the stigma, the camp had to call them "immunology" weeks. Perhaps 35% of those campers would not survive to the next summer.

Today, with new drug treatments, it's hard to tell that many are sick. They splash in the pool like campers anywhere. Yet the average child this week is taking six medications, some as many as 17, administered by two physicians and four nurses. They give chemotherapy in the infirmary called the "O.K. Corral." Some of the children are bald, as Gill was, and more than a few are in wheelchairs.

Self-esteem may have become an overused, mushy concept, but here it's a high goal, without apology, symbolized by getting to the top of the climbing wall. Gill helped one 13-year-old do it in a wheelchair, supporting the girl's fragile neck. They were lifted with hoists and pulleys, the girl "so nervous she was shaking," Gill noted. "Her eyes were closed so tightly, until midway up. Then they opened and got really big, absolutely in a state of bliss. She said, 'We're flying! We're flying!' "

"I don't believe this metaphysical sort of stuff about miracles happening, but many children seem stronger," Pearson says over dinner, Newman at another table with his Yellow crew. "They accept their treatment better. And the ones who literally are dying, God knows, I've seen them pull themselves together just to make another summer of camp. I firmly believe that."

After dinner is Stage Night, a highlight of the week. Each camper performs in the Old West-style theater, complete with U-shaped balcony and "green room" for warming up. Some bang drums in top hats. Others sing in glittery robes or stammer through jokes. "Why does Superman save somebody?" "He was tired from eatin' chicken!" Whatever they do, the audience gives hoots and hollers and wild applause.

One boy, about 9, has to be lifted down each stair toward the stage. His attempt to dance to a rap tune is little more than a stiff shuffle. But he grows more animated as the cheering begins, and when the music ends, he refuses to stop. He keeps on dancing, giving the audience no choice but to keep applauding, two pairs of clapping hands belonging to a couple with three Academy Awards on their resumes.

*

When people nominate him for sainthood, "what am I supposed to say?" he asks

When they gush over his 42-year marriage, is he supposed to remind them that he was wed to another actress, with three kids, at the time he met Woodward? When they gush over all he does for children, is he supposed to say that he could have been more in touch with his own son? There's more, of course, like the years he chugged too many of those Buds.

On Judgment Day, he figures, he'll fall somewhere in the pack.

His plan at the moment is to be buried at the camp or have his ashes scattered on its lake. "I always admired the fish," he says.

He's getting to that point, he says, where he ponders such things. He worries about "the grace of the disappearance." He explains, "You always wonder about how much guts you've actually got. Until you've faced it, you never really know."

Until then, the campers remind him how lucky he's been, indeed, not merely because he was born beautiful and with charisma that shot through a camera. Movie grosses are meaningless at a place like this, which he leaves exhausted every time but feeling he got more than he gave, whether from the 9-year-old on the stage or from staffers like Gill. "It reaffirms everything that's gracious and generous and aspiring and inspiring," he says.

But he still wants to beat their butts.

They stage a race on the last full day of camp. During the week, everyone builds miniature cars in the wood shop. Then they put up a long track--a slide, really.

There was grumbling this week that someone from the Yellow team snuck into the shop and attached a couple of metal bolts to the bottom of his car. The bolts looked like tiny exhaust pipes--and gave the car extra weight.

"One little girl accused me of cheating," Newman confessed. "But I'm racing against myself! Who am I cheating?"

The girl got some justice, at least. When his car was used to test the track, the bolts snagged on the rail. Two times straight, his yellow car flipped right off.

That was practice, though. When they did it for keeps? "It really got goin'," said the man racing himself toward that state of grace.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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