It wasn’t all hearts and flowers, but Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were “passionately in love” for more than five decades. Even though their romance was anything but perfect, the longtime couple “had an unusual connection and passion for one another that is rare,” their daughter Clea Newman Soderlund exclusively tells Closer Weekly.
“They respected each other and laughed more than any couple I have ever known,” Clea, 56, reveals in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. Their marriage would last 50 years until the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid alum’s death in 2008 at age 83.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the late actor and Joanne, 90, found something very special together. “That’s why I didn’t get married until later in life,” admits Clea. “It was hard to find somebody who was really that kind of partner in every way, as my dad was to my mom.”
Though Joanne and Paul’s enviable relationship was a meeting of true soulmates, it wasn’t always easy. There were guilty feelings about the family the Cool Hand Luke actor left behind when he married Joanne, and their union was tested by tragedy, resentment and substance abuse. “There were some rough times and a give-and-take on both sides,” a friend of the couple tells Closer. “But the close loving bond between them would prove to be unbreakable.”
Paul, whose father owned a successful sporting goods store, landed in New York in 1951 to study acting, towing his first wife, Jackie Witte, and infant son Scott with him. “Jackie had encouraged Paul to stay in Ohio so he could inherit a successful business,” says the friend.
The fledgling actor met Joanne, a beauty from Georgia, at Lee Strasberg’s famous Actors Studio, which also nurtured the careers of Marlon Brando and James Dean. “He began to resent Jackie and turned to Joanne as a friend,” says the confidante.
Time passed and Paul’s family with Jackie grew to include two more children, yet his connection with Joanne deepened as they worked together in 1953’s Broadway play Picnic. “They were inexorably tied to each other by every molecule of their being,” says the couple’s daughter Lissy, 59. “The good, the bad and the ugly. They were stuck together.”
Not long after divorcing Jackie in 1958, Paul and Joanne wed in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, both of their careers took off. The actress won a best actress Oscar for 1957’s Three Faces of Eve, while Paul received his first Oscar nomination for 1959’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “He did not see his children from his first marriage on a regular basis, partly because he was too busy filming movies,” says the friend, adding that the actor’s son Scott “resented Paul leaving and disliked Joanne intensely.”
Although Paul and Scott were able to rebuild their relationship in the ’70s, Scott’s drug use had already become a problem. He died at age 28 from an overdose. “Paul felt he should have done more,” says the friend.
This tragedy wasn’t the only hurdle for Paul and the Long, Hot Summer star’s marriage. For many years, Joanne, who had put her own career on hold to raise their three daughters, put up with her husband’s heavy drinking. “Most of their arguments centered around his inability to curb it and the trouble that he would get into because of it,” confides the friend, noting Paul’s alleged 1969 affair with writer Nancy Bacon.
But the gravity that held Joanne and Paul together never waned and he did his best to make amends. “He realized the sacrifices Joanne made for their marriage and their family and stepped up,” says the friend, noting that Paul “produced and directed several movies to support Joanne’s career as a character actress.”
In December 2020, a Rolex watch given to Paul by his wife Joanne for their 25th anniversary sold at auction for $5.4 million. On its back, the actress had engraved the words ‘Drive slowly, Joanne.’ “To me, this watch shows my mother’s tolerance of his continued passion for racing,” their daughter Clea told Closer, “and reflects the enduring love between them which remained for another 25 years until his passing.”