“I want to acknowledge luck; the chance and benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others.” - Paul Newman in 1994.
Westporter Paul Newman, who died 15 years ago, was one of Hollywood’s most celebrated (and dashing) actors, starring in iconic films such as The Sting, The Color of Money, and Cool Hand Luke.
He understood how fortune gifted him the means for celebrity and wealth, and he never took these blessings for granted. Though his legacy extends far beyond films (husband to Oscar-winner Joanne Woodward, father of six, race car driver, philanthropist), he knew what people wanted of him, once joking “People expect to see that 35-foot image that they see projected on a screen. Bigger than life. Articulate. Decisive. Scrappy. Sensual.”
But behind his sensuality, his glamour, his legend, was his greatest stroke of luck: his salad dressing.
At the height of his fame, around 1980, Paul and his friend A.E. Hotchner mixed a large batch (with an oar, according to rumor) of salad dressing which they bottled and gifted to close friends. His oldest daughter, Nell, says the recipe was based on (replicated from?) a dressing served at Madame Romaine de Lyons bistro, one of “Pops’” favorite restaurants. Madame was considered "the Queen of Omelette Makers.” In fact, her cookbook, The Art of Cooking Omelettes, was in Julia Child’s personal collection.
In addition to omelettes, Madame served “salad and wine.”
Madame also loved celebrities and the walls of her bistro were lined with photos of famous patrons, including Paul and Joanne.
His (her?) dressing contains olive oil, red wine vinegar, “a heavy dose of Dijon mustard, more salt than you’d think, and pepper,” says Nell. The secret ingredient? Celery seeds. “Madame didn’t use them in hers. I think one day there wasn’t any salt in our house except celery salt so Pop’s used that. Then it became the signature spice,” Nell muses. “I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone that."
In 1982, Paul stood in a room full of empty (“dirty” according to A.E.) wine bottles and had an epiphany. “An idea arised (sic) that would permit me to use the pulpit of my achievement, not only for the betterment of humankind, but also to recycle the bottles.”
He continued, “We would bring to the beleaguered of the world something they longed for more than hope, more than redemption, more even than immortality: salad dressing.”
Thus, “salad king” was born: Newman’s Own Olive Oil and Vinegar Salad Dressing.
Paul convinced his friend Stew Leonard to buy 10,000 cases. Stew agreed, cautioning Paul that celebrity stuff typically flopped and to prep for a big loss.
Stew was right. It floundered. If it ever made money, Paul vowed, he would give it all away. Then, as luck would have it, shoppers threw every bottle into their carts and grocery stores clamored for more.
This simple bottle of vinaigrette made millions and teased in the “Newman’s Own” empire. Paul gave every penny of profit, and the company still does, to those whose dice rolled in the opposite direction.
Salad dressing was soon followed by pasta sauce, lemonade, and frozen pizza. Their swift ascendancy to fame was attributed to a combination of “high quality ingredients you could find in your own kitchen” (NewmansOwn.com), stand-out packaging both witty and irreverent, and corporate responsibility, of which NO is considered a vanguard. Oh - and every label featured Paul’s handsome blue eyes staring straight into the eyes of every delighted shopper.
The first of NO’s largesse was creating a camp for kids burdened with “catastrophic blood diseases.” Looking back, Paul admitted it seemed like “a lunatic idea.”
But it wasn’t. “Everyone rallied,” including the Yale medical team, swimming pool builders, and the king of Saudi Arabia. When The Hole in the Wall Camp (named for one of his most famous films, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) opened on June 18, 1988, there were “so many volunteer counselors there wasn’t room to let them all in.”
By 1992, NO had given away $50 million.
In 1993, Nell, then 34 and the executive director of the Ventana Wilderness Sanctuary in CA, persuaded her dad to start an organic line of NO.
Nell grew up infatuated with birds, especially birds of prey. When she was 12, in 1971, she learned that peregrine falcons were extinct east of the Mississippi due to DDT. Concerned, she began learning more about pesticides on food crops, which eventually led to a passion for organic ingredients.
Sister Melissa dreamed up the idea for an American Gothic photo for the label featuring Nell and Paul, master-minding everything for the shoot, including making the costumes.
This label, with the NO trademark humor, reached near-icon status as Newman’s Own Organic (NOO) products morphed into household staples, licensed beneath the NO umbrella. Nell and her partner, Peter Meehan, started with organic pretzels which eventually became her Pops’ favorite snack. The line quickly grew to popcorn, coffee, tea, dog food and more.
The quality of the items, coupled with the celebrity endorsement, was pivotal in the mainstreaming of organic products. According to Nell, “I don’t like to toot my own horn, but the industry was grateful.”
By 2014, Newman's Own Organics had generated $50 million for charity through the royalties they paid to the foundation.
Today, Newman’s Own has, without publicity or fanfare, donated over $600 million to feed, heal, and bring joy to children’s lives. Its legendary altruism has inspired and motivated companies around the world to do the same.
However, Paul’s death in 2008, at age 83, brought some unexpected twists to his family's involvement with NO. Around 2014 Nell’s license to create NOO expired and was not renewed. In 2015, employees quietly removed her image from the labels, folding NOO items into the primary product line. Neither she nor his other daughters are associated with the company at this time.
Back in 1990, long before these controversies, Paul recounted a story about a professor at UConn who was a counselor at The Hole in the Wall Camp:
“One day he was with a boy, about eight years old, whose immune system began rejecting his own extremities, his hands, his feet, little by little.
“They were sitting on a rock by the lake because the boy wasn’t strong enough to go fishing, talking about God and whether there wasn’t one. The boy didn’t know much about God, but was fascinated with the Big Bang theory, in the expanding universe, forces balanced and finite, and that whatever energy you exert in one direction is what comes back from another.
“The counselor said he was glad this camp is different from all others because he got back a lot more than what he put into it. The boy thought about and said, ‘Well, maybe that’s God.’”
Paul paused, then remarked, “If that’s not God, it’s as close as I’d ever hope to get.”
In 1990, Joanne and their daughter Clea graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and Paul gave the commencement speech. His quotes, except otherwise noted, are from this speech.