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Paul Newman Left 1st Wife to Marry Joanne Woodward Yet Felt Guilty about It His Whole Life

Esther NJeri
Apr 19, 2022
06:00 P.M.
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Despite having one of Hollywood's longest-running marriages, Paul Newman could not shake off the feelings of guilt he carried with him for years, and he never did come around to forgiving himself for betraying his first wife. 


Paul Newman was a 24-year-old Navy veteran when he met the beautiful, dark-eyed Jackie Witte. She was 19 years old, aspiring to be an actor, just like Newman, and had yet to graduate college.

Newman had turned down a job at his successful family firm that sold sportswear in Cleveland, Ohio, hoping to pursue theatre. He had done some acting at university, and with his little experience, he tried finding work in local repertory theatres around the Mid-west.

Actor Paul Newman [Left] The actor with his wife, actress Joanne Woodward [Right] | Source: Getty Images


Newman and Witte first met after taking up summer stage work in a small town. Soon after, they moved to a theatre company in Woodstock, Illinois together, and got married that December.

Unsurprisingly their rushed nuptials began raising questions, with some speculating that Witte had fallen pregnant. Still, when no baby was forthcoming, it became evident that the two were simply in love. 

Actor Paul Newman | Source: Getty Images



In Woodstock, Newman's career in the theatre seemed to have stalled. Despite being "a good-looking blue-eyed guy," his theatre manager often thought he was not "leading man" material. Around the same time, his wife became pregnant with their first child.

Coincidentally, his father passed on, and the baton of running his family business fell in his hands. So he packed up and returned to Cleveland, where the couple would later welcome their son and where Newman's acting dreams seemingly went to die. 

American actor Paul Newman, circa 1958. | Source: Getty Images


Newman was, however, not one to give up that easily and he would still go to performances in the town's playhouse to watch the actors take their curtain calls. He recalls how taunting it was for him, saying:

"It nearly drove me out of my mind."

To give acting a final shot, he gambled all his savings on a master's degree in theatre at Yale University, hoping that even if he did not get to become an actor, he could at least teach the subject. For the second time in less than a year, he loaded up his belongings, and together with his wife and child, he headed off into uncertainty.

Actor Paul Newman in 1963 | Source: Getty Images


Newman began selling encyclopedias while Witte sought modeling jobs in the nearby New York City. Around the same time, Newman also learned that he would be a second-time dad, and with his growing responsibilities, he had no choice but to make it in the big city. And so, he developed a habit. He recalled:

"I had one decent suit, and I'd put it on every morning, take the ferry from Staten Island to Manhattan, make the rounds of the casting agents, follow up all the tips in the trade papers, and then get home in time to peddle encyclopedias."

His efforts soon began paying off, and he was now landing minor roles on TV. Slowly but surely, his career started taking off. He had a lovely wife at home, two children he adored, and his acting finally began to bear fruit. For the first time in a long time, things seemed to be going well until he met the leading lady in the play "Picnic."



Actor Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in 1960 | Source: Getty Images

Newman's new role on "Picnic" required that he take dancing rehearsals with the leading lady Joanne Woodward. The play became a success and boosted Newman to new levels in his career, with his booking agent saying:


"He looked like a Greek god, and he was cast in nearly every part he tried out for."

And yet, his prowess did not seem to impress Woodward. She thought he was "just a pretty face" and did not think much of his acting. Besides, he was married and was a father of two. Every way she looked at the situation, it seemed anything but attractive to Woodward. 

Actor Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward circa 1962 | Source: Getty Images


On the other hand, Newman was undeniably drawn to the 22-year-old Southern beauty from Georgia. Her looks struck him from their first encounter, and as they became more acquainted, she seemed more and more like his ideal woman. He gushed:

"She was modern and independent, whereas I was shy and a bit conservative. It took me a long time to persuade her that I wasn't as dull as I looked."

At home, Witte began getting suspicious of her husband. He was away a lot and spent most of his time with Woodward. Nevertheless, his marriage maintained its "perfect" facade, and in 1954, the couple welcomed their third child Stephanie. 



Actor Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward circa 1965 | Source: Getty Images

Soon after, Newman became the leading man for "Somebody Up There Likes Me," which became an instant hit. To celebrate, he took Witte out to a party and, a short while after, got out to go roaring off in his car. Drunk, he knocked over a fire hydrant, ran a red light, and the police handcuffed and locked him in a cell after chasing and catching up with him.


While his behavior that night resulted from his high spirits, it also indicated his underlying confusion and pain. He was undeniably attracted to Woodward and knew his feelings towards her only threatened his marriage. 

Despite the inhibitions, Newman and Woodward's romance only grew, and everyone in their inner circle became aware of the duo's mutual attraction and the strain it had on Newman's marriage. 

Actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and director Nunnally Johnson (right), at the 29th Academy Awards, March 27th 1957 | Source: Getty Images


Newman became increasingly torn between staying loyal to his kids and pursuing a woman he knew in his heart to be "the one." On the other hand, Woodward had to endure being referred to as a "home-wrecker." Their colleague would say of the situation:

"But being what they were, neither could help what was happening to them."

When it became imminent that Newman would eventually leave his first wife, Witte tried holding on, fighting for what she believed was rightfully hers, but the straw that broke the camel's back came when Woodward fell pregnant. Once Witte learned of the news, she finally agreed to give up her claim on Newman. 


Actor Paul Newman in the 1960s | Source: Getty Images

The divorce went through, but the situation would remain a strange time in the actor's life. Decades later, he still couldn't shake the guilt of having built his enviable second union on the failure of his first. And while he would often dodge questions about his first marriage, he repeatedly confessed to being "guilty as hell," adding:


"And I'll carry it with me for the rest of my life."


American actor Paul Newman (1925 - 2008) with his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, circa 1963. | Source: Getty Images


Despite the situation surrounding their coming together, Newman and Woodward had a good marriage. They were far from perfect as a couple, but their love for each other was evident, and their daughter would say they "had an unusual connection and passion for one another that is rare," adding:

"They respected each other and laughed more than any couple I have ever known."

However, it was not all roses, as their marriage often experienced tragedy and substance abuse. The union almost ended after Newman started an affair with Nancy Bacon, a divorced Hollywood journalist whom 20th Century Fox had sent to write a piece about him for a magazine. 


Paul Newman and wife, Joanne Woodward, shown with their daughters Melissa, 13, and Clea, 9, | Source: Getty Images

But despite the challenges, they remained together for decades, working through their shortcomings the best way they knew how. They built their marriage and culminated in their union after welcoming their three girls, Nell, Lissy, and Clea. 



After years of making numerous films and winning many accolades while at it, Newman finally hung his acting coat in 2007. He could no longer work in the capacity that he desired to, saying:

"You start to lose your memory. You start to lose your confidence. You start to lose your invention. So I think that's pretty much a closed book for me."

Close-up of actor Paul Newman | Source: Getty Images


Unfortunately, a year after the announcement, the star waved the world goodbye after losing a long battle against cancer. He died at his farmhouse near Westport, Connecticut, at 83. His publicist would say that the actor spent his last moments surrounded by friends ad family. 

Following her husband's demise, Woodward's health took a nosedive, and she began showing signs of distress. Her girls, at first, credited her ill health to their father's death.

Joanne Woodward at Chelsea Piers on April 4, 2013 in New York City. | Source: Getty Images


Unfortunately, soon after, Woodward was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and could barely recall all the beautiful memories she shared with her husband. An insider would tell Closer Weekly: 

"She barely speaks anymore and hardly ever recognizes her own daughters or grandchildren. It's heartbreaking to see her this way."


American actor Paul Newman | Source: Getty Images


Many remember Newman for his award-winning films and the legacy he left behind in the form of his six children from his two marriages. His daughters said he was an adorable dad, and it was no surprise that the death of his son Scott, at only 28, hit him hard. Newman said he often felt guilty about not doing more about his son's situation. 

Newman's three daughters from his second marriage followed in his footsteps and became actresses. Bu away from their careers, they are also wives and some mothers. They remember him fondly, a far cry from the memories that Newman's children from the first marriage have of him.

Unlike their step-siblings, Scott, Susan, and Stephanie lived troubled lives; their woes heightened by being the children of divorcees and the inability to see their father as often as they would have wanted to. They often felt like outsiders as their father spent most of his time with his second family.


US actor Paul Newman on August 6, 2003 in Echouboulans, France | Source: Getty Images

In August 2007, Newman bared his plans for his family concerning their inheritance. Still, after he began falling ill, he confided in a new lawyer and re-wrote his will, which led to a nasty battle between Newman's children and his advisor Robert Forrester.

However, despite his ever-changing will, Newman reportedly made sound decisions until his death in September 2008. Forrester would say Newman "remained lucid, made well-reasoned decisions, and was fully in control of his planning, at least until a couple of weeks of his passing."