By Gretchen Webster
WESTPORT — In a conversation reminiscent of having coffee with a neighbor, Melissa Newman, daughter of renowned actors and longtime local residents, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, chatted about her late father’s new memoir at a Sunday program in the Westport Country Playhouse.
The second of the couple’s three daughters talked casually about family life in the Newman household, her father’s account of growing up, and the daunting task of putting together the posthumous memoir, “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man,” which was published Oct. 18.
Sharing memories about Paul Newman, and learning more about his private life, were many in the playhouse audience who recalled the days the actor was regularly seen in Westport.
Newman died in 2008 at the age of 83.
“Their legacy is disappearing,” Melissa Newman said of her famous family’s history, when asked why she thought publishing the memoir was important.
Discussing the memoir with Newman was Anne Keefe, the playhouse’s associate artist, who served as the theater’s co-artistic director with Woodward in 2000. The event was sponsored by the Barrett Bookstore in Darien.
Keefe said a favorite memory is the time Paul Newman asked her if he could perform in the 2002 production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” at the playhouse.
“I think I could do the part of the stage manager [role] in ‘Our Town,’ ” Keefe recalled the Academy Award-winning actor suggesting.
Woodward then asked Keefe if she seriously thought casting Newman in the theater’s production would work. “She said, ‘What do you think? Do you think we could use him?’ ” Keefe laughed as she recounted the anecdote, and her joy at the opportunity to cast Newman in the role.
The day tickets for the playhouse production of “Our Town” went on sale, the line stretched to the Post Road, Keefe said. After the play’s local run, the production went on to Broadway where Newman was nominated for a Tony Award.
Much of Sunday’s conversation centered on the memoir itself, which was assembled from a series of interviews the actor had with his friend, screenwriter Stewart Stern, over a five-year period. The more than 14,000 pages of transcripts were locked in storage for years.
Calling it “an interior narrative,” Melissa Newman, an artist and singer, said she worked with the book’s editors to round out the memoir’s portrait of her father and his life.
“The editors had settled on a dark viewpoint,” including almost nothing but her father’s own words and thoughts, she said.
But extra transcript materials from others in Newman’s life, including entertainment and political figures and close Westport friends, who Melissa Newman referred to as her “second mothers,” provided more context about the actor’s varied life and family history for the finished memoir.
“We put a lot of other voices in there,” Melissa Newman said of the book, which has been on the New York Times best-seller list for four weeks.
Her father’s early life wasn’t easy, his daughter said, including a complicated relationship with his mother, followed by a difficult path out of working-class life in Ohio.
“My dad was a hustler,” she said. “He sold Fuller Brushes, he sold encyclopedias; he started the first student-owned business at [Kenyon] College — a laundromat.”
Among her father’s greatest joys in later life were his grandchildren and his love of race-car driving. He was highly respected on the race track, she said, and not because he was a movie star. To commemorate his achievements in racing, a stretch of track at upstate Lime Rock Park raceway was named “Paul Newman Straight” in his honor in September.
The actor’s greatest sadness, Melissa Newman said, was the death of Scott Newman, Paul Newman’s oldest son in 1978 from drug and alcohol poisoning.
The memoir, she added, will give its readers a fuller view of the real Paul Newman.
For instance, “Something that people don’t know about my dad is that my dad was a quirky guy — he was a real goofball,” Melissa Newman said.
And as for her, she regrets the transcripts used to write the memoir weren’t unearthed earlier while her father was alive so that she and other Newman family members could have talked about his life with him.
“I’m really sorry about not talking to him about finding ourselves as artists,” she said. “I wish he had given me these transcripts earlier.”
Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and currently teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.