Joanne Woodward always admitted that she wasn’t terribly impressed with Paul Newman when they met on a hot August afternoon in their agent’s air-conditioned office. While she wilted in a dress, hose and heels, Paul looked “like an ad for an ice cream soda” in a cool seersucker suit. “No sweat, big blue eyes, lots of curly hair,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Ick. That’s disgusting!’”
Despite this inauspicious first meeting, Joanne and Paul’s union would become one of Hollywood’s greatest love stories — although their private lives were largely conducted 3,000 miles away in Westport, Connecticut. The deep love, connection and respect they had for each other would allow them to overcome alcohol abuse, the loss of a child and the ups and downs of twin acting careers. “They were pretty unusual, and a great thing to watch,” their daughter Clea Newman tells Closer, calling her parents “partners in every way.”
But getting to that point proved difficult. When both joined the cast of 1953’s Broadway production of Picnic, Joanne discovered Paul was more than just good-looking. He made her laugh — a quality she cherished in a man. “He had a crazy sense of humor,” Clea recalls. “It was childlike but very funny. He’d tell you the same joke over and over and think it was as funny the 10th time around.”
The pair shared a passion for their profession and a healthy mistrust of stardom. “There was no bull— about them at all,” A.E. Hotchner, a Westport friend, told Closer. “They were quite simple people in terms of their social life and in terms of their ambitions.”
This deepening connection, however, was stymied by Paul’s romantic unavailability. He’d wed actress Jackie Witte in 1949 and was already father to Scott and Susan when he met Joanne. (A third child, Stephanie, was born in 1954.)
Paul and Joanne managed to keep things platonic until they were cast opposite each other in 1958’s The Long, Hot Summer. On location in Clinton, Louisiana, they started an affair. “They were inexorably tied to each other by every molecule of their being,” says their daughter Lissy. “The good, the bad and the ugly. They were stuck together.”
Paul obtained a divorce and married Joanne two months before the movie was released.
In the early days of their marriage, the newlyweds maintained a New York City apartment and made weekend excursions to Connecticut. “Westport is an hour by train from NYC, and in the late 1960s was rural and very charming,” says a friend. “Paul and Joanne realized it was a nicer way of life and a good place to bring up children.”
They created a home with their daughters, Nell, 62, Lissy, 60, and Clea, 56, in a lovingly renovated 18th-century barn on a large wooded property. “It was on the Saugatuck River. They had a menagerie of dogs and cats, friendly neighbors and lives free of spoiled movie stars,” the friend recalls.
There were some famous neighbors, including Sidney Poitier, Robert Redford and Martha Stewart, but it was not Hollywood East. “Joanne was a homebody,” Martha, who worked on a fundraiser for Paul’s charity, the Hole in the Wall Gang, tells Closer. “I went to his house a lot. He lived a simple life, except for his car racing.”
Paul and Joanne’s home in Westport also allowed them to shield their girls from the spotlight. “They wanted us to have as normal a childhood as possible,” Clea says. “They were very hands-on. We went to normal schools, they helped us with our homework, and we had dinner together and talked about our day.”
The sweetness of Paul and Joanne’s life together was tested by his drinking. He often chased a long day of downing beer by drinking scotch. “Joanne and I have had difficult, body-bending confrontations, but we haven’t surrendered,’’ Paul said of their arguments. “I’ve packed up and left a few times, and then I realize I have no place to go and I’m back in 10 minutes.”
Joanne, who won an Oscar for 1957’s Three Faces of Eve, put her career on hold while their daughters were young. But as time when on, she grew increasingly unhappy and dissatisfied. “If I had to do it over, I would either have a career or children. I wouldn’t do both unless I could work in my home. I spent 20 years feeling guilty,” said the actress.
Paul, meanwhile, also felt responsible when his son Scott died of an accidental overdose in 1978. The 28-year-old had never forgiven his father for leaving, and their relationship was strained. “I think about him often…it hurts,” Paul said. “The guilt. All I could have done…and didn’t do.”
After their daughters left the nest, Paul and Joanne worked together in films like 1990’s Mr. & Mrs. Bridge and at the Westport County Playhouse, where she became artistic director in 2000. Paul escorted his wife to the ballet; Joanne cheered on Paul’s racing, even though she remained terrified he might crash. “I think they found
something in each other that they never had before,” Hotchner said. “It was strong enough to overcome all the difficulties that followed.”
Today, Joanne, 91, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, still lives in the Westport home where Paul passed away in 2008 at age 83. “They were so old-fashioned together. He always opened doors for her, and they held hands all the time,” Clea says. “They were passionately in love. They respected each other and laughed more
than any other couple I’ve known.”