Paul Newman was a foul-weather friend.
He helped this magazine when we needed it most.
He was also a fair-weather friend. When we came back to him and asked for more so that we might build on the base he had helped make possible, he had only one question, Where do I sign?
Although he was confident that he would lose every cent, on more than one occasion he told us, “The Nation is my favorite investment.”
It all started in 1994, when Arthur Carter, who for eight years had subsidized and published The Nation, which was losing about $500,000 a year, turned the magazine over to me.
Since I didn’t have $500,000 to lose–that year or any other year–I came up with a four-year plan. My idea was to find three shareholders who would put up $1 million each. That way we would have enough money to cover our losses, pay Carter off and invest in our future until the magic moment of self-sufficiency arrived (or so we hoped).
I called my friend E.L. Doctorow, who was also a friend of The Nation and, perhaps most important, a friend, or at least an acquaintance, of Paul Newman, who had returned from World War II to Kenyon College as a senior when Doctorow was a freshman. Could he arrange a meeting?
Two and a half months later, I found myself at dinner at a small Italian restaurant in the East Eighties with Doctorow, Newman and Joanne Woodward. Normally, I would have been thrilled to have dinner with Newman and Woodward, but my fundraising experience told me that when a “mark” (in the spirit of The Sting, let’s think of Newman as a mark here) brings his wife along, all too often no funds get raised. So, much as I admired Woodward, I worried about her presence.
Dinner began with Newman and Doctorow reminiscing about Kenyon. Doctorow reminded Newman that he had been a patron of the small laundry business Newman had started in competition with the college. He had made a deal with a local laundry that he’d collect student laundry and get paid. So he opened a store in opposition to the campus laundry. Then he got the bright idea of putting a keg of beer in the store window; any student who came in with laundry got a free beer. College authorities began to wonder why their laundry business was going down. When they found out, that was the end of Newman’s promising career in laundry–but not, as his all-natural food company, Newman’s Own, was later to make clear, his entrepreneurial instincts.
Then Newman turned to me and said, “So, Professor, what’s the damage? What can I do for you?”
When I told him what I had in mind, he said, “That’s very rich.”
At which point Woodward piped up and observed, “You’re very rich.”
“So are you,” said Newman.
“Not as rich as you, dear.”
I shouldn’t have worried.
Before our dinner was over, Newman had agreed to become a partner. And to make a very complicated and long story short, as a result of his participation we were able to attract the rest of the investment capital we thought we needed.
Over the years, Newman not only invested money; he also agreed to sponsor, chair and attend various fundraising events, although given who he was and what he did for a living, he was at times a remarkably reluctant showboat. Once, he traveled across the country to California, where he co-chaired a Nation event. When it was his time to speak, he announced that he was taking the Fifth Amendment.
On another occasion he had some investor prospects over to his New York City apartment. As bait, he let the word go forth that Robert Redford was going to be there. When the guests were assembled, Newman said he had some good news and some bad news. The bad news was that Redford couldn’t make it. The good news was that Redford’s six-figure check was on the way. And then there was the time he explained to potential members of The Nation‘s Circle of 100, a shareholder’s group that he helped us start, “I think The Nation is important not because I agree with everything it says but because it helps define where the center is.”
He flattered us by asking our advice on candidates before he endorsed them, and how to deal with a New York Times editorial that, he thought, took an unwarranted and unfair swipe at Newman’s Own (it did).
When Starr’s Last Tape, a one-act play on Clinton’s tormentor, Kenneth Starr, by Nation senior editor Richard Lingeman and myself, was produced at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Paul and Joanne journeyed up to the Stockbridge opening.
He was funny, he was thoughtful, he was considerate, he was supportive, he was committed and, in the end, he was a friend, period.