Among our joys when capturing life stories from people across a wide age spectrum has been the opportunity to listen to elders in their 80’s and 90’s sharing the well-remembered trajectories of their lives. Sometimes people in later life remember more details of their early lives than of their more recent experiences. Either that’s the way memory works, or maybe those early episodes were more formative and therefore unforgettable. Regardless, it’s precious for extended families to have the benefit of those histories. The tragedies come when offspring want too long to gather those accounts, and the memories are lost forever.
I was recently struck by this phenomenon after watching the six-episode documentary about the 50-year-long professional and personal marriage of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. (“The Last Movie Stars” on HBO). It was so moving to hear about the ups and downs of their relationship, see snippets of the 16 films they made together, and contemplate their huge imprint on the 20th century at large. Several interviews with both these legends had been recorded over the years, and of course we have their films to peruse.
But in his old age, Paul Newman gathered the cassette-taped original recordings and threw them all in the trash, not wanting his celebrity to be carried into posterity. He was a guy who lived in present time. He was not defined by his successes; he lived for the experiences themselves, even though his fans found him larger than life.
Thankfully those tapes had been transcribed, and we viewers got the benefit of their contents, accompanied by photos and videos provided by the Newman offspring. In some cases, the Newman daughters were able to provide anecdotes to fill in the blanks of their parents’ saga. But sadly, given the depth of their connection and important experiences together, much was lost. Joanne was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s within days of Paul’s death. Although still alive in her 90s, she has no memory of her husband, her family and her life with Paul. She cannot tell her own life story.