The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp opened in Connecticut in 1988 to provide a summer camping experience—fishing, tie-dye, ghost stories, s’mores—for seriously ill children. By 1989, when I started working there as a counselor, virtually everyone on staff would tell some version of the same story: Paul Newman, who had founded the camp when it became clear his little salad-dressing lark was accidentally going to earn him millions, stops by for one of his not-infrequent visits. He plops down at a table in the dining hall next to some kid with leukemia, or HIV, or sickle cell anemia, and starts to eat lunch. One version of the story has the kid look from the picture of Newman on the Newman’s Own lemonade carton to Newman himself, then back to the carton and back to Newman again before asking, “Are you lost?” Another version: The kid looks steadily at him and demands, “Are you really Paul Human?”
Newman loved those stories. He loved to talk about the little kids who had no clue who he was, this friendly old guy who kept showing up at camp to take them fishing. While their counselors stammered, star-struck, the campers indulged Newman the way they’d have indulged a particularly friendly hospital blood technician. It took me years to understand why Newman loved being at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. It was for precisely the same reason these kids did. When the campers showed up, they became regular kids, despite the catheters and wheelchairs and prosthetic legs. And when Newman showed up, he was a regular guy with blue eyes, despite the Oscar and the racecars and the burgeoning marinara empire. The most striking thing about Paul Newman was that a man who could have blasted through his life demanding “Have you any idea who I am?” invariably wanted to hang out with folks—often little ones—who neither knew nor cared.
For his part, Newman put it all down to luck. In his 1992 introduction to our book about the camp, he tried to explain what impelled him to create the Hole in the Wall: “I wanted, I think, to acknowledge Luck: the chance of it, the benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others; made especially savage for children because they may not be allowed the good fortune of a lifetime to correct it.” Married to Joanne Woodward, his second wife, for 50 years this winter, Newman always looked at her like something he’d pulled out of a Christmas stocking. He looked at his daughters that way, too. It was like, all these years later, he couldn’t quite believe he got to keep them.
Of course, it wasn’t all luck. He lost his son, Scott, to a drug overdose in 1978, so in 1980, he founded the Scott Newman Center, which works to prevent substance abuse. When he first began to donate 100 percent of the proceeds from his food company, Newman’s Own, to charity, critics accused him of grandiosity. Grandiose? Tell that to the recipients of the quarter-billion dollars he’s given away since the company’s creation in 1982. First Paul Newman made fresh, healthy food cool, then he and his daughter Nell made organic food cool. Then he went and made corporate giving cool by establishing the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy. And all this was back in the ‘90s, before Lance Armstrong bracelets and organic juice boxes.
But Newman never stopped believing he was a regular guy who’d simply been blessed, and well beyond what was fair. So he just kept on paying it forward. He appreciated great ideas for doing good in the world—he collected them the way other people collect their own press clippings—and he didn’t care where they came from. Whether you were a college kid, a pediatric oncologist, or a Hollywood tycoon, if you had a nutty plan to make life better for someone, he’d write the check himself or hook you up with somebody who would.
Today there are 11 camps modeled on the Hole in the Wall all around the world, and seven more in the works, including a camp in Hungary and one opening next year in the Middle East. Each summer of the four I spent at Newman’s flagship Connecticut camp was a living lesson in how one man can change everything. Terrified parents would deliver their wan, weary kid at the start of the session with warnings and cautions and lists of things not to be attempted. They’d return 10 days later to find the same kid, tanned and bruisey, halfway up a tree or cannon-balling into the deep end of the pool. Their wigs or prosthetic arms—props of years spent trying to fit in—were forgotten in the duffel under the bed. Shame, stigma, fear, worry, all vaporized by a few days of being ordinary. In an era in which nearly everyone feels entitled to celebrity and fortune, Newman was always suspicious of both. He used his fame to give away his fortune, and he did that from some unspoken Zen-like conviction that neither had ever really belonged to him in the first place.
Hollywood legend holds that Paul Newman is and will always be larger-than-life, and it’s true. Nominated for 10 Oscars, he won one. He was Fast Eddie, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy. And then there were Those Eyes. But anyone who ever met Paul Newman will probably tell you that he was, in life, a pretty regular-sized guy: A guy with five beautiful daughters and a wonder of a wife, and a rambling country house in Connecticut where he screened movies out in the barn. He was a guy who went out of his way to ensure that everyone else—the thousands of campers, counselors, and volunteers at his camps, the friends he involved in his charities, and the millions of Americans who bought his popcorn—could feel like they were the real star.