To catch a glimpse of him or interact in some small way was better — the stuff of phone calls and dinner table conversations, a page in the album of our time in our town. But for those fortunate enough to have known him, he left an indelible mark. Some are famous, some not; fame never mattered to Newman, neither others’ nor his own. In the week following his passing, we asked half a dozen Westporters for their thoughts on what he meant to them and the town …
Dara Reid, director of Wildlife in Crisis, met Paul Newman for the first time last year when James Naughton, a long-time supporter of the organization, brought him to the group’s first fundraiser, which his company, Newman’s Own, and he had supported. “It was very cool and very poignant because he released one of our redtailed hawks, giving it a second chance. But I’ve lived in Westport all my life and had seen him often. It was so special that he chose this town to live in. Westport’s just a little less special without him here.”
Lee Papageorge, who owns Oscar’s Deli, knew the actor from the time he began working in the deli at sixteen. “Over the years he’d come in here often — in later years under a cap pulled low and sunglasses and his collar up — and once a month we would deliver lunch to his office. He’d always get a corned beef on rye toast with mustard and requested chocolate chip cookies. He was a nice guy, and down-to-earth, but then the whole family was. He was a star, but he wasn’t arrogant. I have a picture in my office of him and Charlie Moffitt, who for years washed towels at the Westport Y. When Charlie retired, Paul posed with him. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Emily Gordon is a Westport native and a friend of the Newman family. While at the farmers’ market behind the Westport Country Playhouse last September with a friend visiting from out of town, she ran into Lissie Newman, whom she hadn’t seen in several years. While talking, she recalled, “Joanne came over and then Paul. He was eating a muffin and he started splitting it into parts — he gave me some and my friend, Alice, some. She had really wanted to go to the green market, and who should walk over but the person responsible for originating it! It was a little slice of Westport, and a really nice thing for him to do.’ ”
“He was an incredible man — they are an incredible family, and so much a part of the fabric of Westport. I don’t think they make men like him anymore.”
Frank Deford, sports writer and Westport resident, says “I wished I’d been a personal friend — I think everyone would have loved to have been a friend of Paul Newman’s — but I wasn’t. I always thought we should have named something for him while he was alive, even though he ran away from those kinds of tributes, and I would hope now something appropriate will be named in his honor. Everybody’s got a Main Street — we don’t need a Main Street — so call it Newman Street, or Paul Newman Way, because I think he was just an exquisite citizen and neighbor. He never took a bad step, as far as I knew. I hold him in the highest esteem.”
Anne Keefe is the artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse and a long- time friend and associate of Paul and Joanne. “The theater has lost an amazing friend, but that’s just the beginning. The community and the world have lost an amazing person. There’s the political faction, there’s the humanitarian faction, there’s the entertainment faction. I think you have to invent words [for the loss] and I haven’t yet.
“We live in the town where Paul and Joanne live, and we’re still blessed that Joanne’s here. He left an amazing legacy and an amazing wife. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but God knows if there’s a person more deserving of it, I don’t know who that is.”
Michel Nischan is a chef, cookbook author and partner with Newman in the Dressing Room, the organic restaurant connected to the Playhouse that opened in July of 2006. The two got to know one another well. “We joked at times that it was as if he replaced my father, who I lost in ’95 to lung cancer. My dad’s dream was to open a tavern on a lake so he could go fishing all day and bartend all night, and my mother — she was an incredible cook; she taught me how to cook — she and I would cook in the kitchen. I had told Paul this and when the bar was finished, he looked over at me and said, ‘Look enough like a tavern for you?’
“In many, many ways, it was very much living the relationship that would have been with my Dad through Paul. I wasn’t expecting quite the sense of loss that I’m feeling — like losing my Dad again. All of the feelings I’m feeling now are so remarkably similar that it’s actually a little scary.
“It was wonderful, it was warm, and it was amazing the way he cared for the restaurant, and for the farmers’ market and the farmers in the farmers’ market, and the staff at the restaurant. He was always interested in knowing if it was improving the community.
“Paul has so influenced the world and had so much impact — and humbly so — that I think we all find ourselves thinking, ‘What can we do to pick up the flag and all be Paul?’ ”