September 28, 2008


Got back this morning from exercising Lola and was all set to jot down my thoughts about the national Spanish sport of returning to school which has dominated events for the past two weeks. And how, having registered my partner (P) and myself for intermediate Spanish classes at the local Ayuntamiento or Town Hall, this is starting to take over an increasingly large part of our lives...

But then I heard the news. Paul Newman had died. And everything dropped away and I was instantly taken back in time to the period I spent in LA in the late eighties - and my unforgettable meeting with him.

Although a glittering star of Hollywood for more than half a century, Paul Newman was starry in a very un-Hollywood way. He stayed away from the glitzy milieu, famously preferring his steak at home to the illusory hamburger outside. He was a clever businessman, a dedicated motor-racing enthusiast, an unabashed liberal and an active philanthropist with a clutch of crusades that he actually did something about, such as the plight of sick children.

Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he didn't frequent the trendy in-restaurants like Morton's which the most powerful players in Hollywood have made their unofficial canteen, particularly on Monday nights, ever since it first opened in 1979 and instantly became the choice of stars and billionaires alike. The DreamWorks deal was done there and David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Spielberg are all Monday regulars. So too are Ron Meyer (now an owner of Universal studios), Marvin Davis, the billionaire former owner of Twentieth Century Fox and Michael Eisner, the chairman of Disney. And not forgetting the post-Oscars party held there - the place for le tout Hollywood to see and be seen.

Paul Newman was, then, an intensely private person. And for all his charm, he was wary of his fans, once saying: "If people come up to me, perfect strangers and ask me to take off my dark glasses so they can have a look at my eyes, I just say, 'Is that all you think of me?' Are they going to write on my tombstone, 'Here lies Paul Newman who died a failure because his eyes turned brown'?" And another time, he snapped, "If people start treating you like a piece of meat or a long lost friend or feel they can become cuddly for the price of a five dollar movie ticket, then you shut them out."

So all the more remarkable that I not only got to see those famous blue eyes and sensual mouth up close and personal but also got to meet him...

It happened one weekday evening when Jeff, a friend and colleague of P's called to invite us out to dinner. "It'll be kinda surprise," he muttered.

Jeff, like most Americans, doesn't do understatement so we were unsure what to expect. A handsome and extremely eligible bachelor, he was, moreover, a member of every WASP Club in town - The California Club, Jonathan Club, Los Angeles Country Club; you name it, he joined it - which included all the movers, shakers and, above all, old money of Los Angeles. In other words, Jeff was extremely well-connected.

Anyway, we found ourselves driving in Jeff's Ferrari along Interstate 405 towards Malibu Colony when he suddenly turned off and parked in front of a small, unprepossessing Italian restaurant. And I mean small. So small, you'd have to step outside to change your mind. So small, it didn't even merit valet parking! And this in Los Angeles, the home of valet parking!

Slightly bemused, we followed him inside and waited while he had a brief word with the owner at reception, at the same time glancing into the darkened interior. Without missing a beat, we were then escorted to the rear of the restaurant where the dim lighting was struggling but losing its battle with the gloomy atmosphere. Exchanging smiles through clenched teeth, P and I followed Jeff further into the dismal darkness, unsure how much longer we could humour him with our forced enthusiasm.

Just as we reached our table, he turned to the one immediately behind and gestured towards its occupant. And, as Jeff introduced us, I found myself staring into those unforgettable, piercing blue eyes, luminous even in the blackness all around. I don't remember exactly what I said or what Paul said. It's now all a blur. The rest of the evening, too, is something of a blur. All I do recall is his saying that this small, unassuming Italian restaurant was a favourite local of his where he could enjoy his favourite cuisine without paparazzis and hangers-on waiting outside to pounce...

Unlike at The Ivy in London where it's quite usual to find yourself seated next to a Hollywood star only too game for photo coverage in the next's press exiting the restaurant. But more on that in my next post...

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