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The assassination of 'Saint Paul'

In a shallow industry that perceives a long marriage as one that makes it past the first anniversary, the 50-year union of Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne, remains one of Hollywood's most enduring fairy tales.

Despite his devastating good looks, his piercing blue eyes and his magnetic charm, the legendary actor and philanthropist -- who became one of the 20th century's most captivating sex symbols -- had eyes only for his demure wife.

But now a controversial new biography of Newman, who died from lung cancer last September, portrays a darker side to the iconic actor, saying that he was a "functioning alcoholic" who cheated on his loyal spouse.

The biography, Paul Newman: A Life by American film critic Shawn Levy, claims that Newman wore a bottle-opener around his neck and knocked back "beer after beer after beer, a case or more a day . . . and often followed by the hard stuff, Scotch mainly".

While on the set of his Oscar-winning movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Newman allegedly indulged in a "hot-and-heavy" 18-month affair with a beautiful Hollywood journalist that ended only after she left him for his drinking.

"I finally said to myself: I can do better than this," his mistress claims in the book. "I told him: 'You're always drunk, and you can't even make love.' I ended it."

The revelations have caused outrage in Hollywood, where many view the book as an attempt to sully the image of a revered cinematic legend and committed philanthropist, and to cash in on the secrets of an intensely private man.

Newman's widow, who still lives in the quaint 18th-century-style home in Connecticut that she shared with her husband for over 40 years, is reportedly distraught at the allegations.

"Joanne is devastated and furious. She cannot understand why this cruel book is being written about Paul," a friend said. "Joanne and Paul had one of the longest, happiest marriages in Hollywood. She is terrified everyone is going to say it was all a sham and they lived a lie. She's furious his good name and legacy are being ripped apart."

His friends in Ireland, where Newman visited frequently to oversee the Barretstown camp for sick children in Co Kildare that he created in 1994, were quick to come to the actor's defence.

"I think he is a modern day saint. I really think he was a quite extraordinary man," Dr Fin Breatnach, a paediatric oncologist and chief executive of the Barretstown Camp told the Weekend Review.

Dr Breatnach remembers an unassuming man who was reluctant to talk about his movie career but whose face would light up at the mention of car racing or of his mission to ease the pain of kids suffering from cancer.

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"He was an extraordinarily caring individual who thought beyond his own needs and the needs of his family," he said.

The new biography of Newman, which took over four years to write, was written without the cooperation of the actor and his family but includes interviews that Newman and people close to him gave throughout his life.

But Levy, the film critic for the Portland Oregonian and author of Rat Pack Confidential, says that his "nerdy" book about Newman was meant to be a respectful tribute to the actor and that the allegations about his womanizing -- which take up just five pages out of 496 - have overshadowed the rest of the story.

He blames an American tabloid for honing in on the most salacious gossip from the book and publishing wildly sensationalist claims: "It's like someone came and farted in my hyperbaric chamber," he said.

The tabloid in question -- the New York Post -- had a long standing feud with Newman, according to Levy, that stretches back 30 years. At one point the actor and tabloid were fighting about how tall the actor was with Newman claiming he was 5' 11" and the Post saying he was only 5' 7".

"I wish I could sue the Post," Newman once said, "but it's awfully hard to sue a garbage can."

Although the controversy will undoubtedly boost the biography's ratings and Levy stands to make a mint from the serialisation of the book, the author does seem unusually incensed by the preoccupation of the media about Newman's philandering.

"Is The Godfather a movie about cutting off horses' heads? There's a dark Paul Newman in this book, but he's not Jack the Lad," said Levy.

But with the book due out in the US this week, it remains to be seen if Newman's reputation as a loving family man can survive the onslaught of publicity. Newman, who shot to fame in the role of boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me, acted in more than 65 movies over 50 years. Initially labelled as a 'pretty boy' lightweight because of his striking good looks, he came to resent his brilliant blue eyes and hated it when fans asked if he would allow them to stare into them.

"There's nothing that makes you feel more like a piece of meat," he once said. "It's like saying to a woman: 'Open your blouse, I want to see your t**s.'"

In 1958 -- after a messy divorce from his first wife and mother of his three children -- Newman married actress Joanne Woodward.

As a wedding gift, he presented his bride with a silver cup inscribed: "So you wound up with Apollo. If he's sometimes hard to swallow, use this."

Aware that some women did view her husband as something close to a Greek god, Woodward nonetheless seemed unfazed by the amorous attention he received.

"He's 44, has six children and he snores," she said. "How can he be a teenage sex symbol?"

Famously devoted to his wife, Newman was once asked how he resisted the lure of the scores of beautiful women who threw themselves at him: "I have steak at home, so why should I go out for a hamburger?" he replied.

But 11 years into their marriage, according to Levy, the union hit a rocky patch.

On location in Mexico, Newman allegedly began an affair with Nancy Bacon, a divorced Hollywood journalist.

"It was the worst-kept secret in Hollywood. People used to joke about it. Referring to his old remark, they'd say: 'Paul may not go out for hamburger, but he sure goes out for Bacon,'" said Nancy.

Bacon claims she finally ended the affair, tired of watching from the sidelines as Newman appeared in public with his young family. Besides, she says, "he was always drunk".

Newman freely admitted that his drinking had caused problems in the past: he was allegedly expelled from Ohio University for a curious incident.

The sudden death of his first child, Scott, from a drug overdose in 1978 caused Newman to seek solace in alcohol again, but it also propelled him into his charitable work which he said became "way more important than my acting career".

It is this work that Newman wanted to be remembered for -- not his famous blue eyes or the renegade characters he so brilliantly portrayed onscreen. And despite his alleged womanising, those who know him best say his other great legacy was his extraordinary love for his wife.

Dr Breatnach remembers watching Paul and Joanne Newman on a visit to Barretstown some years ago.

"She was behind him in the queue and put her arm up on his shoulder and looked into his face and said, 'You're just gorgeous.' And he replied, 'You're not so bad, either,'" he said. "Now these were people in their late 70s, but there was so much love and romance there. It was quite exceptional. "He was humility personified," said Dr Breatnach. "A guy totally without ego. And I'd just wish they'd leave him alone."

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