The likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton might have been notorious for all the endless dramas, seen as evidence of their overpowering but ultimately destructive passion. Yet, Newman and Woodward were also bound by their extraordinary and undying desire for each other. His new autobiography, The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, has collated and condensed over 14,000 pages of notes taken from five years of interviews between 1986 and 1991. He speaks openly and honestly about their relationships, painting a powerful picture of a lifelong love that was so much deeper and more complicated than the simplistic public image of wholesome devotion and spectacular philanthropy.
Newman was actually married to Jackie Witte with two children, Scott and Susan, when they met in the 1953 play Picnic. Their connection was combustible from the start.
He wrote: “Joanne and I left a trail of lust all over the place. Hotels and motels and public parks and bathrooms and swimming pools and beaches and rumble seats and Hertz rental cars.
“I don’t know that Joanne and I sat around questioning our morals. There was passion in what we had. Something had happened to us and we had no idea where it was going. One day I’d determine to commit to her, and the next day, faced with having to do it, I’d find I couldn’t bring myself to break away from Jackie.
“I remember a night when everything exploded on me. I was leaving our house for the theatre, the kids were carrying on, there was food all over the floor. I just wanted to drop down on my knees and tell Joanne that I really loved her, and I had to get out of this mess that I was in. Then, all of a sudden, I realised I couldn’t do that; I didn’t have enough money and just couldn’t desert Jackie – God, it was horrible.”
Hollywood also came calling and Newman made his first film, The Silver Chalice, which he admits was “the worst movie produced in the Fifties.” His affair had continued throughout but was increasingly unstable and traumatic for both of them.
He wrote: “When I left Hollywood after Silver Chalice wrapped, Joanne (who’d also been working there) and I had this terrible fight. It was over, all finished between us. We decided we’d never see each other again. It was a miserable situation for Joanne; she was a backstreet wife and I wouldn’t get a divorce. I didn’t know how I’d do it, but I wanted to try and straighten out my marriage and be with my family. That idea permeated my thinking, and after I left California, Joanne and I didn’t communicate for what must have been months.”
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Newman decided to focus on his marriage, taking another broadway play and renting a family home in New Jersey. But fate kept throwing Joanne into his path.
They bumped into each other in New York: “We both just stood there, looking at each other, and it was on again And then it was off again. There were more separations, break-ups, lots of times we were not together. Terrible fights.”
Newman added: “Yes, we did want all the movie-star sh** and the lust and the scuttling around – I know we said we didn’t, but that was part of the allure. Because it was naughty and somewhere, somewhere, there was sacrifice involved. I don’t know when exactly that became clear, but there was also the most incredible, unforgivable brutality in that. Brutal in my detachment from my family. There was no signal given to Jackie, no chance for her to regroup.”
During that period, Newman somehow also thought another child might fix the situation and so daughter Stephanie was born in 1951.
Again a chance meeting changed everything when Newman flew to LA for a meeting Warner Bros and saw Joanne in the distance: “From the equivalent of four blocks away, we somehow saw each other and hollered; then, just like in some old movie, we began running toward each other, arms outstretched. It was amazing.”
Their affair continued for years, with Newman unable to fully commit to Jackie or Joanne. But eventually, his marriage collapsed beyond repair in the mid-1950s and the divorce was finalised in 1957.
That year, Newman and Woodward worked together on The Long, Hot Summer and he wrote: “For the first time, Joanne and I could do what we longed for years to do in public, as well as put on the screen what had already been discovered between us. There was a glue that held us together then, and through the rest of our life together. And that glue was this: anything seemed possible. The good, the bad and the wonderful. With all other people, some things were possible, but not everything. For us, the promise of everything was there from the beginning.
Futhermore, he added: “Making that movie was a lusty time together for us.”
After a swift Las Vegas wedding and honeymoon in London, the pair set up home in Beverly Hills, where Woodward created a special room just for the two of them.
Newman wrote: “Joanne stepped outside wearing a bandana and a paint-covered frock; I asked her what was up. She led me inside to a room off the master bedroom… Everything had been replaced by some thrift-shop double bed with a new Sealy mattress; next to it was a champagne stand, complete with an ice bucket in some raucous colour. Joanne had been in the middle of painting the room.
“‘I call it the F*** Hut,”’she said, proudly. It was wonderful and had been done with such affection and delight. Even if my kids came over, we’d go in the F*** Hut several nights a week and just be intimate, noisy, and ribald.”
The pair had three children, Elinor, Melissa and Claire and built a devoted and close-knit family life. Their extraordinary physical bond was matched by the way their completely different personalities meshed.
Newman said: “Joanne and I still drive each other crazy in different ways… She was always so vulnerable, and she seemed to have no ego, and yet there is a towering ego there. We had that in common. One moment she would be filled with a sense of worth and the next it would simply shatter, so when she would go off I would recognise it and hold her blameless. I would understand. Whatever it is, it’s wonderfully equal.”
The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man by Paul Newman is out now