Karen Ocamb

Paul Newman Taught Me How to Clean Fish

Filed By Karen Ocamb | September 28, 2008 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Media
Tags: alcohol, Joanne Woodward, Newman obituary, Paul Newman, Paul Newman memories, Scott Newman, Westport

It's strange how someone's death can trigger the oddest of memories. When I heard that Paul Newman died - I suddenly flashed to the moment he walked into the house where I was babysitting and said, "Come on, kid - let's clean these fish."

Piercing blue-eyes. Brilliant smile. Easy-going, if somewhat hurried manner. Tight white tee shirt, blue jeans and some kind of serviceable jacket - he was holding a plastic box filled with fish he and my summer-job boss and her husband had just caught.

Ugh! Of course, it was Paul Newman so I didn't immediately want to tell him 'Are you crazy?' Instead I said something like, 'Isn't that the man's job?' Well, he would have none of that. It was 1965 in Westport, Connecticut, the woodsy and quaint hide-away for liberal New York artists and media types - and he knew more about the nascent Women's Liberation movement than I did.

Westport at this time was kind of like Haight Ashbury/East - only richer. Very Age of Aquarius, folk-singing, both all black outfits and wildly colorful hippie hats and granny glasses, with civil rights activists who lent their names and gave money to good causes. In fact, closet impresario Leonard Bernstein lived in Westport - though he threw his big party for the Black Panthers in his NYC apartment in 1970. "Twilight Zone" creator and host Rod Serling lived there, too.

Even before the rest of the country caught onto the devastation that would be the Vietnam War, many in Westport spoke out against it as citizens of the world. Paul Newman, for instance, was one of those who later spoke out publicly on behalf of the important Vietnam Moratorium produced by then-closeted David Mixner and friends - the one where Mixner's friend Bill Clinton served as a volunteer.

So famous people blended in with the rest of the community. My father, a former Air Force colonel, was an executive at an aerospace company in Stanford that built helicopters for the military (lots of fights over the war) and my mother was a real estate broker. They liked to mix with old money and new. I was 15, transitioning from good girl to rebel, with a younger brother who could do no wrong.

I had seen Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in town - but like everyone else, I respected their privacy and left them alone. Truthfully, I had never seen any of Newman's movies - but I had one of his pin-up posters in my room - the one from "Hud," I think, as I tried to play the straight game.

Paul Newman pretended not to notice my flustered embarrassment as he dashed into the kitchen and plopped the fish container on the counter. He looked for a knife while telling me about how they caught the fish. I really didn't have a clue what he was talking about - I was focused on having to touch the smelly slimy things. Thankfully, he didn't make me do that. But he did insist on giving a running explanation while he cleaned them himself, as I looked on in disgust, swearing I would never ever eat fish again.

He seemed amused by my discomfort. He had three teenagers at home - Scott, who was my age, and two daughters. He remembered me later that summer when I was responsible for watching his two daughters Susan and Nell when we all went on this trip to see the Beatles play at Shea Stadium. It felt weird since Susan was just two years younger. But hey - we had great seats and a lot of fun - though it was actually hard to hear with all the screaming.

Several years later - shortly after Woodstock - I ran into Scott at a company owned by the husband of a friend of mine. We went out back and smoked some pot and chatted. I remember how unhappy he was - he was very dark and flippant. I'm not sure what he was so pissed about - but he acted out a couple of times, getting arrested for drugs (or a DUI, I don't remember) - and then he kicked the back of the driver's seat as the cops transported him to jail.

In 1978, Scott died of an accidental overdose of drugs and alcohol. I always wondered if it might have been more intentional than accidental since I was pretty dark and suicidal by then, too. Luckily, I worked for CBS News, which had an employee assistance program - and I got sober in 1980. Years later, I ran into Paul Newman at a fundraiser. Thinking I might never see him again, I pulled him aside, reminded him of the fish scenario, and then told him how sorry I was to hear about Scott - by then Newman had set up the Scott Newman Foundation to help people learn about the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse. I told him I smoked pot with Scott - and how dark we both had become. And suddenly, in this cocoon of intimacy that surrounded us, I became overwhelmed with emotion and I blurted out: 'I don't know why him and not me."

His eyes welled up and he hugged me. "Just be thankful that you're still alive," he said.

"I am. I'm very grateful. And I'll never forget Scott - I promise," I said.

"Thank you," he said, giving me one more hug before returning to the party.

Last June, I celebrated 28 years clean and sober - and I haven't forgotten Scott Newman.

And I've never forgotten how kind Paul Newman was to a strange teenage girl who didn't want to get her hands dirty cleaning fish. Hell, his little lesson about women's independence may have helped create the rebel I became - and remain.

Thank you, Paul Newman. Rest in Peace.

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Absolutely stunning post, Karen. Well done.

Wow... What a lovely way to be able to remember this wonderful man. :)

Karen, thanks for this wonderful story that gets behind the Newman myth and let's us see the human being.

Thanks. I saw you on a panel at the West Hollywood Book Fair today - sorry I couldn't stay and say hello but I had to get back to start work on my next Prop 8 story.

re the myth - it's funny how we create this mythology around famous people, many of whom, like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, really liked being regular folks.

Remembering the fish story - and other stuff I left out - such as that Paul Newman's friend writer AE Hotchner was a neighbor and I was friends with his daughter Tracie - etc - made me think that there really might be fewer than six degrees of separation among us, at least spiritually.

I enjoyed reading of your encounters with Paul Newman, Karen. I recall my early broadcasting days when a colleague and I interviewed Mr. Newman while he was shooting "Slapshot" scenes in Hamilton, Ontario. He was, as I recall, very 'careful' about granting interviews; let's face it, the media can be pretty tunnel-visioned when it comes to celebrities. But he agreed to speak with us and was one of the most grounded, humble, gracious and caring people we ever interviewed. He always wanted to give credit where due, ego was not part of his career plan, he spoke highly of those with whom he was working. I thoroughly enjoyed the ribbing he gave me when he found out I wasn't really a hockey fan. "What kind of Canadian are YOU? Maybe you should move to Florida!" He was, is and shall remain a very unique Icon of Hollywood, in my mind at least.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | September 28, 2008 5:02 PM

Thanks so much, Karen, and Don, too, for sharing your stories of Newman. Even though I never met him, I loved many of his movies and had heard so many stories like yours throughout the years that I always thought the man was a person to look up to. That this is an exceedingly rare occurrence among Hollywood types and celebrities, only makes Newman even more admirable.

My heart goes out to his widow and family.

Time for an admission:

I've never seen one of Paul Newman's movies - at least not that I remember. To me, he's always been the older liberal actor who started making salad dressing. I knew him more for his food products and liberal political stances.

Thanks for the personal glimpse, Karen.

RIP, my beautiful Cool Hand Luke.

Thank you for sharing that Karen, what a great piece. And now I know about Scott too, and for some reason, I don't think I will forget him either.

"First, we have to go over the rules."

"Rules? In a knife fight?"

"Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?"

"I can't swim!"

"Hell the fall will probably kill ya!"

"What we have here . . . is a failure to communicate."

Karen, tears came to my eyes when I read this. He has given me more moments of entertainment then I can ever count. But, your personal experience added that much more to one of my cinematic heroes. Thank you.

You got to meet him? Stare into those baby blues, get close enough to see how tight his t-shirt was.

Damn, some people have all the luck.


Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | September 29, 2008 1:13 AM

Karen, I think what is wonderful is what your story meant to Newman. There was no "failure to communicate" there.

Congratulations on your continued sobriety which I know is both a daily weight and victory.

I never met Paul Newman. But we were one of the first people to ever taste His salad Dressing! My SO aunt was very good friends with the Newman's. She brought Us Mason jars of it then cases of it(We loved it!)Until the aunt died he would send products to us for us to try. It pleased him so much that "Regular" people liked his food. We cried like babies when we found out that he had died. He was so nice to us and we never had met! Hopefully our cousin will send the Newman family condolences.

it's hard not to admire Paul Newman for putting his money to work in such productive ways, such as his Newman's Own line--high quality stuff and the proceeds go to good causes... very smart.