Connecticut’s Own

A day of support for ill children shows how Paul Newman redefined celebrity

None of the 400 or so guests at the 19th annual “Fandango” gala expected to bump into Paul Newman even though he had never missed a benefit for his Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.  The actor who delivered measures of joy to thousands of children suffering from cancer, sickle cell anemia, hemophilia and other serious maladies was himself gravely ill at his home in Westport.

John Pizzarelli performs with a camper

By that summer of 2008 he was no longer a regular presence in the camp’s secluded Ashford acres where entrance signs announce, “The Fun Starts Here,” and “Hug Someone — It’s the Law.” In this place, Newman wore a name tag that read “Paulie.” To the campers, he had been the old man who sat with them at mealtime and asked what they were up to. He never mentioned Hud, or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or the Academy Award for his work in The Color of Money. To him, the children’s deeds came first, and his actions underscored the camp’s mission.  Everywhere else, these kids struggle with limitations.  In the wilds of Ashford, there are no boundaries for achievement and self-esteem.

With no Paulie here and with his death imminent, this edition of the Fandango — a day and evening of star-studded events designed to play to the most generous instincts of donors — seemed to have a real and perceived overcast about it.  To protect against the predicted thunderstorms, the designer Kenneth Cole provided scores of free umbrellas. To protect against the inevitable news — indeed, the actor’s death from cancer would come a week later — there was no preparation, except in the recognition of the legacy he left, the example he set, and in the delight on the faces of the children he loved.

The Tour. We walked the grounds with our guide, a college student named Jordain. She had come to work here after her brother became a camper. She took us to the cabins and the path to the tree house and to the lake and past the village designed to look like a set from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (where the name Hole in the Wall Gang originated.) And on the way, she said that, “Fate can be a funny thing.”

The family burden when serious illness occurs to a child is no small matter. But, she said, because of her brother’s hemophilia she has had the privilege of witnessing the magic that is routinely worked here. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be the person I am now.” Which, from what I could see and hear, is a compassionate voice for people whose physical disabilities are apparent but whose hidden capacities can stretch beyond ordinary measure. As Jordain mentioned, Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp has expanded — now there are more than a dozen worldwide, and annually they welcome more than 100,000 children.

The Live Auction. There was celebrity news that came out of this. Alec Baldwin, a regular visitor to Ashford, watched from the wings as the bidding for an African safari began. As the price ascended, the star of 30 Rock and many movies joined in. It eventually came down to a contest between the actor and a couple in the 12th row. At the end, it was Baldwin whose $12,000 nod won the adventure. “But,” he said after the applause and pointing toward the couple he had outbid, “You’re the ones going on the trip.” He gave away the safari to the next highest bidder, as the whole idea for him was not the prize but the donation. Such acts of generosity seemed to symbolize the day.

One bidder paid $12,000 for the platinum ring Newman won as a race-car driver, and another paid $20,000 for a poster that featured the actor in the film Exodus. Someone bid $40,000 for a guitar donated by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. When Dodger legend Sandy Koufax, at 70 looking stylish and trim, auctioned off a large bottle of Shiraz, the label of which was signed by him and “a bunch of old guys” — fellow members of the Baseball Hall of Fame — the profit to the camp was more than $20,000.

The highest single bid of the day came for the chance to sit with NBC anchors Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw during election night as the network reported the results of the 2008 presidential race. The winner of that rare privilege wrote a check for $61,000.

But the largest yield of the night came from another intangible prize. The auctioneers pointed out that it takes $2,500 to send each child to camp. “Who is willing to send a child to camp next summer?” Hands went up everywhere. Some of those hand showed five fingers extended, and some donors indicated they’d send ten children to camp. In the space of less than five minutes, more than $130,000 was raised on this alone. And in the course of the afternoon, as I kept scribbling the numbers in my program, I’d reached the $400,000 mark. The money had poured out of this crowd as if it had never heard the word recession.

Before the Show. A volunteer passed through aisles in the wooden theater, handing out small packs of facial tissues. “You’ll need them,” she said.

I thought about Newman and the effect he had on our state. Connecticut, of course, is home to celebrity. Dozens of film actors live here, as do best-selling authors and artists. To many, Connecticut is a convenient and lovely place to plant roots. Others have been prominent in charity work. Paul Newman, however, is in a class by himself. Here, he redefined celebrity, and the founder of Newman’s Own became Connecticut’s Own, using his fame for the great good even as he kept a low profile.

In 1985, I wrote him to ask if he would participate in a project I was working on that identified the state’s most prominent residents and, in their own words, why they live here. He wrote a cordial note in which he said that Connecticut is “better than Montana…and my wife and I have nice cemetery plots.”

The fact that he answered surprised me because of his reputation for privacy. At that point, the actor had just introduced the first of his line of Newman’s Own products, with the idea of giving all profits to charity. He reluctantly allowed a drawing of himself to go on the label only after Stew Leonard, owner of the first retail outlet to carry the Newman products, insisted on it for marketing reasons.

Around Westport, Newman wore sunglasses on jaunts to the ice cream shop. When someone asked him to remove them so she could see his famously blue eyes, he replied, “If I take off my glasses, my pants will fall down.”

The Performance. The thing the audience members noticed was the order in which the performers were listed on the program. The first bios were not of the big stars but of the children in the show — because in this place the children always come first.

At the start, a 10-year-old girl named Carly walked out on stage and welcomed everyone. Her delivery was crisp and assured. And then, as the curtain opened, out came her fellow campers, a chorus line of boys in tuxes and girls in sequined dresses singing, “I Got Rhythm.”

There were many highpoints: a hilarious skit, for example, with Alec Baldwin, James Naughton and John Pizzarelli imagining auditions by other actors (John Wayne, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson) for some of the movie roles Newman played. There was an Ed Sullivan-style dog-trick act.

And then Bette Midler, dressed in a sexy ensemble and killer pumps, offered commentary (“I never went to camp — I didn’t have the right footwear). When she sang “The Rose” and “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” backed up by a brassy band, she brought down the house. But no more than with her ensemble piece — her last number. During “Wind Beneath My Wings,” she put the microphone to the lips of several of the kids, and each of them did a little impromptu duet with a superstar.

These were all touching moments — I could see that the tissues had come in handy — but there were two others that outdid them. The first was when one of the daughters of Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward appeared. Melissa “Lissy” Stewart confessed to stage fright because the event was emotionally overwhelming. She thanked the audience for its generosity and added, “If it was up to my father, he would be here today, too.”

The other moment was after the mother of a camper read a letter to the audience about her brave 10-year-old son Greg’s seven-year trial with cancer. Then the curtain opened. There was young Greg, sitting at the piano, wearing his tux and a black sequined bandana wrapped around his bald head. He astounded the audience with a hot blues number. When he played the last note of the last arpeggio, his right wrist rose with a flourish.

His reward was a standing ovation, which in show business is often a cheap and expected response. But in this place where the enduring gift of an American icon and the resilience of children becomes very personal, it came from 400 hearts.

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