(May 6) Paul Newman was 80 years old when I met him in the paddock at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve at the 2004 Champ Car World Series race in Montreal (the track still hosts a NASCAR race and the Formula One Canadian Grand Prix each summer), but I still swooned when his blue eyes pierced me then like I’m sure they did James Dean back in a 1955 East of Eden screen test they did together.
"Kiss me," Dean says to Newman a few seconds into the clip.
"Can’t here," Newman replies.
Newman was married to Joanne Woodward for 50 years, but in the unauthorized bestseller Paul Newman: A Life (Crown Archetype books) author Shawn Levy, film critic for The Oregonian, also alleges homoerotic tendencies during the making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Still, this is not a salacious tell-all. Levy has done a remarkably fine job piecing together Newman’s full life and Oscar-winning career. Page after page reveals Newman the misfit, Newman the rebel, the champion race car driver, renegade, activist, and, perhaps most famously, Newman the philanthropist (he even gave tens of thousands of dollars to Montreal’s Sun Youth organization). Levy also covers the greatest tragedy of Newman’s life, the death of his son from a drug overdose.
Paul Newman also thought Hollywood was a four-letter town, and about folks like me whom he met in restaurants and at racetracks around the world, Levy writes, "[Those blue eyes were] a terrific asset but a terrific embarrassment too. He hadn’t worked for them or chosen them, and the whole world seemed to have an opinion about them and to want to possess them, if only for a moment. Strangers would literally walk up to him and stare right into them, and when he took to wearing dark glasses, they would insist that he take them off. ‘There’s nothing that makes you feel more like a piece of meat,’ he complained. ‘It’s like saying to a woman, ‘Open your blouse and show me your [breasts].’"
Paul Newman: A Life remains a great Hollywood read.
Other trashy and not-so-trashy celebrity biographies worthy of your time on the beach this summer include:
Little Richard: The Birth of Rock’n'Roll (Continuum Books) by David Kirby Elvis may be called the King, but it was really Richard Penniman – a.k.a. Little Richard – who invented rock'n'roll in two-and-a-half minutes with his juke joint rave-up Tutti Frutti which was originally about gay sex. They cleaned it up in the studio and the rest is history. Little Richard became the Queen of Rock’n'Roll. A great read on how Little Richard balanced the secular and the sacred, the forbidden and the carnal.
It’s Hard Being Queen: The Dusty Springfield Poems (Freehand Books) by Jeanette Lynes This book originally came out in 2008, but I’m including it here because it’s a wonderful meditation on the life and importance of the late Dusty Springfield. I loved this book so much that in 2009 I gave my copy to Springfield’s former longtime lover and partner, rock legend Carole Pope of Rough Trade, who deadpanned when I handed her the book, "[The author] is probably a stalker!"
City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and '70s (Bloomsbury) by Edmund White Some critics (read: straight) don’t like this book because they see it merely as a chronology of Edmund’s sexual conquests. But City Boy shows what it was like to live in the hedonistic 1970s before the onslaught of AIDS. Un-put-downable.
Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town (Jawbone) by Thomas Jerome Seabrook An engrossing look at Bowie’s most important and most interesting creative period, the three years he spent in Berlin, coked out in a
run-down apartment he shared with Iggy Pop while producing three albums: Low, Heroes and Lodger. Fascinating.
Poet in New York: Federico Garcia Lorca (Grove Press) The bilingual edition of the iconic Spanish poet’s writings during his nine months in NYC in 1930 at the beginning of the Great Depression. Lorca would later be killed in Spain by fascist dictator Franco’s Falangists for, among other things, being openly and proudly gay.
Under the Rainbow: An Intimate Memoir of Judy Garland, Rock Hudson & My Life in Old Hollywood (Da Capo Press) by John Carlyle This star-studded memoir takes readers on a glitzy and tawdry behind-the-scenes tour of gay Hollywood, rubbing shoulders with everybody from Hedy Lamarr and Mae West to Raymond Burr and Montgomery Cliff. Sometimes sad, other times salacious, but always riveting.
Clark Gable: Tormented Star (Da Capo Press) by David Bret Famed bestselling U.K. biographer Bret exposes notorious Hollywood homophobe Clark Gable’s secret gay life in this wonderfully trashy tell-all. When I was blabbing to Bret a couple years ago, he told me, "In those days there were two gangs in Hollywood – Joan Crawford’s and Carole Lombard’s. Lombard is the one who termed ‘fag hag.’ These gangs went to all the gay bars in Hollywood and no one thought anything of it because [actors like Gable] all had beards."
Gable also outed other actors such as Johnny Mack Brown and Rod La Rocque to prevent himself from being outed. "Yes, he was very hypocritical. It did make me think of him lesser as a man," Bret agrees. "Had I been in the same situation [as Gable], I would have done the same thing [stayed in the closet]. It was very difficult being gay in those days, much more than it is today. And today it’s impossible. But today I’d also stick to my principles. Back then I would have made allowances because you would not have had a career. It was okay [for Gable] to deny he’s gay. But to ruin his boyfriend’s career? That wasn’t cool. But Hollywood is a cutthroat business."
About My Life and the Kept Woman (Grove Press) by John Rechy Memoir of the early years of celebrated El Paso-born Mexican-American author John Rechy, author of the classic City of Night and hailed by Gore Vidal as "one of the few original American writers of the last century." This poignant pre-Stonewall memoir explores the struggle between Rechy the writer and Rechy the hustler trying to survive in a racist and homophobic America.
In Philadelphia recently, I dropped by one of America's last remaining gay bookstores, the wonderful Giovanni's Room (345 South 12th Street) where I bought Michael Gregg Michaud's Sal Mineo: A Biography (Harmony). I also recently purchased the star-studded True Stories: Portraits from My Past (Chelsea Station Editions) written by my mentor Felice Picano, the man I call the Godfather of Gay Lit. I'll keep you posted. Happy summer reading!