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  • NYS Writers Institute

Editor of Paul Newman book to present during Albany Film Fest

By Jack Rightmyer, March 29, 2024, Times Union

Reprinted with permission

Veteran editor David Rosenthal was asked to help edit an autobiography of actor Paul Newman, something he had done before with writer Hunter S. Thompson and actress Carrie Fisher. For five years, from 1986-1991, Newman met with his friend screenwriter Stewart Stern and the two of them sat down and spoke about Newman’s childhood, his two wives, his children and his acting career. For years the tapes and transcripts were believed to be missing but a few years ago they resurfaced along with transcripts of interviews Stern had conducted with Newman’s friends and family members.

“This project was not on anyone’s radar,” said Rosenthal. “Some of the transcripts with the friends and family members were five to 10 pages and some were hundreds of pages. Some like Elia Kazan and Karl Malden were very candid, and I made good use of those to interject into what Paul was saying.” 

What has come from all this is the book “Paul Newman: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man” (Knopf), published in October 2022. Rosenthal will be speaking about the book and Paul Newman during the Albany Film Festival on April 6 at the University at Albany. The talk is a presentation by the New York State Writers Institute.

4th Annual Albany Film Festival

10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, April 6

University at Albany Campus Center

1400 Washington Avenue

Albany NY 12222

“This book came about because the family wanted it done,” said Rosenthal, “especially Newman’s daughter’s Melissa and Clea. They made the deal with Knopf, and they felt it was ultimately their father’s wish. I think because of the intimacy of the book it has also helped to burnish his reputation as an excellent actor. Most critics and most movie watchers always liked Paul Newman, but this book, mostly in his own words, looks at him in a serious way.” 

What Rosenthal was given, when he signed on to become the editor, was approximately 7,000 pages of transcripts. He had only eight months to turn it into a readable book. “I did a lot of sitting and reading. Transcripts are tricky to read. They usually don’t follow a rhythm. What we read is edited, but a transcript is often just a ramble of people talking. The transcripts often went from one topic to another.”

Rosenthal thought the best way to tell the story was to put it in some type of chronological order. “That’s often the simplest form. It creates a framework, and it’s rare when a chronology doesn’t work. After working on books like this before, I think readers buy them to find out how these creative people achieved such success, and what happened in their childhood to lead them to their accomplishments.”

What surprised him the most was how introspective Newman was. “This was a guy who had the benefit, or the detriment to a great deal, of psychoanalysis in his adult life. He has thought deeply about his childhood, his parents and his relationships with his wives and his children. He also talks candidly about his excessive drinking.”

Rosenthal was surprised how functional Newman was during his heavy drinking days. “Active alcoholics don’t normally have the energy to wake up in the morning and make a picture with all the close-ups, and during the 1950s he often played on Broadway where he was doing six or seven shows a week often after passing out drunk the night before. How do you do that?”

The autobiography has an undertow of melancholy throughout, with Newman’s belief that he really was nothing special. He admitted to being very insecure and he often focused more on his mistakes than he did on his accomplishments. “But he also has this great love of life,” said Rosenthal. “He had passion for cooking and racecar driving and he was deeply in love with his wife Joanne Woodward.”

The book also details the amount of antisemitism Newman faced as a boy growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and in the military during World War II. Newman was Jewish on his father’s side. “If you were Jewish when Newman was growing up, Shaker Heights was remarkably segregated. There were families who did not want their kids playing with a Jewish boy,” said Rosenthal. “It was pretty ugly, and he was a very handsome kid which may have been another reason to hate him.”

The transcripts stopped in 1991 which is a bit of a shame because some of Newman’s best years occurred after that time. When he was 70 years old, he became the oldest winner of a professionally sanctioned car race. He eventually stopped drinking to such excess, and as a political activist and a humanitarian he raised and donated over one billion dollars to charities. 

Rosenthal enjoyed working on this project, and in his long literary career he has done just about everything from writing, to editing and to publishing. “I started out as a newspaper reporter at the old New York Post where I spent many days in Albany covering the Legislature. That was great fun and at times I miss it tremendously.”

He eventually moved on to editing and publishing and working in the book industry. “I’ve loved working with writers to help their writing, and I think being a writer is actually more difficult than being an editor. Nothing can intimidate you more than looking at a blank screen, and with editing I have something to look at. It’s also very satisfying to edit a manuscript and eventually see that become a book.”

He still enjoys writing but does not want to write a memoir of his own. “It’s too hard to write a book, and I have much more fun helping others write their book.”


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