The coolest man on the planet died this weekend.
Sure, Paul Newman had all the outward accoutrements of cool: the mesmerizing blue eyes, the charming smile, the fame, the wealth, the love of car-racing. But what really made him cool was his character.
Here was a man who was still a heartthrob into his 80s, yet was married to the same woman–and by all accounts, a faithful and adoring husband–for more than half a century. His face was so famous that he could have made millions in marketing it outside of movies, but instead he used it to sell an ever-growing line of food products, with all of the profits (more than $200 million!) going to charity. And despite all his achievements, he was humble and self-effacing. Nate Bloom sent me this passage from a Los Angeles Time article on his death:
Friends said Newman abhorred what he called “noisy philanthropy.” He felt the awards and honors offered him were excessive and once declined a national medal in a letter to President Clinton, calling such recognition “honorrhea.”
When people would say, ” ‘What a mensch you are,’ he would always denigrate himself,” said friend Alice Trillin. To friends, Newman was open, if vague, about not always having lived an exemplary life. Exceptionally tolerant of others’ foibles, he explained, “I used to be a fool myself.”
Bloom points out that it is appropriate that the quote came from Trillin, who, like Newman, came from an interfaith family. Newman’s father was Jewish and owned a sporting goods store in Shaker Heights, Ohio; his mother was a Hungarian-descended Catholic who converted to Christian Science when Newman was 5. As Bloom said:
For the most part, Newman has rigorously eschewed organized religion or identifying with a religion, once telling a reporter that he didn’t believe in any religion and “I’ve been worked over by experts.” On the other hand, he once said that if he was really “pressed,” he would say he was a Jew, “because it is more of a challenge.”
Via his role as Ari Ben-Canaan in Exodus, he did as much as any U.S. president to cement the emotional attachment and loyalty Americans have toward Israel. His Jewish practice may have been non-existent and his Jewish identity tenuous, but he exemplified all the values that Jews hold dear.
Few have lived as fulfilling a life as Paul Newman. My life is a little less fulfilling without him.
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