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Jack Smith

Urban fables of the rich and famous; or, is vanilla still vanilla if you're Paul Newman?

December 08, 1986|Jack Smith

In writing recently about urban fables, I challenged the authenticity of a current favorite in which Paul Newman shows up in an ice cream parlor.

In the story now popping up sporadically, always from someone who knows the person it happened to, a woman in front of Newman in the line buys an ice cream cone and walks to the door, but suddenly realizes that she doesn't have her cone. She goes back to the counter and asks where it is, and Newman tells her, "It's in your purse."

I said I doubted the story not only because it was being told by too many different people, but also because high-octane celebrities don't frequent public places. I said, "Frank Sinatra doesn't eat at Burger King."

Former residents of Weston and Westport, Conn., assure me that Paul Newman does indeed show up in public places in those communities, and specifically in the ice cream parlor.

"When we lived in Weston," writes Nancy Villaneuve of Mission Viejo, "Mr. Newman was an accepted personality, readily visible, on the local scene. He actually, to my knowledge, was a regular in our very small local pizza . . . shop and a regular rooter at local high school sports events. . . . "

"Paul Newman does go into ice cream stores," writes Connie Kyle of Palm Desert. "If you lived in Westport, where I have recently moved from, you'd know that, at least on Saturday evenings, before the movie theater opened next door, you'd see Paul and his lovely wife, Joanne, in the Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor ordering ice cream.

"And the story about the lady putting her cone in her purse is true , too! At least, that was reported in the Westport newspaper. . . . "

John F. Dean, chairman, Department of Education, Whittier College, recalls an ingratiating experience with Dr. Joyce Brothers, the radio psychologist.

When Brothers was to speak before the California Reading Assn. in Fresno, Dean, as executive secretary of that organization, picked her up at the airport. On the way in they passed a McDonald's and she cried, "Could we stop there?"

"We stood in line," says Dean. "We sat on those orange plastic benches, and ate our burgers . . . just like ordinary people. . . . "

Well, popular as she may be, I wouldn't put Brothers in the same category of celebrity as Newman and Sinatra. I'll bet none of the other patrons of that McDonald's even recognized her. Besides, I've heard Brothers a couple of times on the air, and she sounds like an ordinary person to me.

Charles G. Gant of Santa Ana thinks he knows the origin of the story about the stranded male motorist. That's the one in which a woman driver stops to offer help, and he tells her all he needs is a push, but she'll have to get up to 35 m.p.h. He gets in his car, she backs up, and then to his horror he sees her bearing down on his rear end--at 35 m.p.h.

Gant said he read that story in the late 1940s as a straight news story in the Washington Post. It had originated somewhere in Connecticut under an AP dateline.

"A few days later the paper ran a retraction, saying the whole thing was a hoax. The AP deskman who had made the decision to put it on the wires admitted he had done so without first seeking any confirmation, in violation of the longstanding rule. When rebuked, he had defended himself with the rationale: 'The story was such a good one that it deserved to have happened even though it hadn't.' "

That AP man's grasp of journalistic ethics has a precedent in the works of Winston Churchill himself. In his "History of the English Speaking Peoples," Churchill tells the following story:

"Few mortals have led so full a life as Henry II or have drunk so deeply of the cups of triumph and sorrow. In later life he fell out with Eleanor. When she was over fifty and he but forty-two he is said to have fallen in love with 'Fair Rosamond,' a damosel of high degree and transcendent beauty, and generations have enjoyed the romantic tragedy of Queen Eleanor penetrating the protecting maze at Woodstock by the clue of a silken thread and offering her hapless supplanter the hard choice between the dagger and the poisoned cup."

Then Churchill adds: "Tiresome investigators have undermined this excellent tale, but it certainly should find its place in any history worthy of the name."

Gant concedes that the story of the woman driver exploits the stereotype of women drivers that was widely held by males in the '40s--before they were enlightened by the women's movement.

On the other hand, he observes, "That the stereotype was not without foundation is shown by my wife's reaction when I read your account to her. She looked a bit puzzled and then said, 'Isn't that what he told her to do?' "

A. MacPhail goes all the way back to Alexander Woollcott for a fable about a man who picked up what appeared to be an old woman hitchhiking. She wore a long calico dress and a sunbonnet and carried a wicker basket. Once she was in the car, the driver noticed that she was wearing men's trousers under the dress. He stopped and said, "I think my rear tire's going flat. Will you get out and look?"

When the hitchhiker got out, the man drove on. Only then did he notice a pistol in the basket.

Actually that happened to an aunt of mine.

She was the hitchhiker.

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