Inside a revealing Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward auction

<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

You, too, can have a piece of Newman’s own … everything.

Nearly 400 items from the personal holdings of the legendary actor Paul Newman and his wife and former co-star Joanne Woodward are on offer at Sotheby’s latest celebrity estate sale.

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The movie stars and enduring lovebirds met on the Broadway set of Picnic in 1953, and lived in what sounds like marital bliss for some 50 years. The pair collected Americana and held on to the Hollywood memorabilia and bits and bobs of a life that managed to be unpretentious yet high-flying. In addition to Woodward’s wedding dress, an Academy award plaque, and mementoes from The Color of Money, the auction includes the thrift store find that was the centerpiece of what Woodward referred to as their “fuck hut” – a room of their own, if you will.

Overseeing the event is Mari-Claudia Jiménez, Sotheby’s managing director and worldwide head of business development, Global Fine Arts. She logged on to a video call with the Guardian US having just learned that she was on the hook to bring an assortment of rare objects to the Today Show set the following day, as Hoda Kotb’s people were intrigued by Newman’s cabinet of curiosities.

Newman and Woodward, who primarily resided in Westport, Connecticut, but also had a home in New York City and, briefly, in Los Angeles, personified “shabby chic” before shabby chic was even a thing, said Jiménez. Their affinity for high-low extended to their collection of yard sale finds, as well as Newman’s small but much drooled-over stash of Rolex watches.

The enthusiasm surrounding the sale has already been more than the auction house accounted for. When the Memorial Day Classic, a race car event at the Connecticut track that racing enthusiast Newman considered his home base, led to a flood of online clicks, the auction house decided to open the sale earlier than planned. “It’s already had tons of bids, which is unusual,” said Jiménez. In the world of celebrity auctions, she went on to explain, people “normally jump in at the last minute because nobody wants to bid it up in advance”.

But it’s a different story with the personal effects of Newman and Woodward, whose glamorous and passionate union is more or less unrivaled. Among the items on offer are the shackles from Cool Hand Luke, a pocketwatch and a selection of baseball hats, which were the actor’s staple accessory. “They are already at many multiples of their estimated price,” said Jiménez. “They started at $100 or $200 and now we’re looking at $900 per lot.”

Jiménez said that Sotheby’s has been working with Newman’s five daughters (his only son, Scott, died in 1978) on the event for many years. Newman died in 2008 and Woodward has been ill with Alzheimer’s for several years. The proceeds will be split among the children, two of whom are daughters to Newman and his first wife, Jackie Witte. “They’ve been thinking about their parents’ legacy and how to do it justice, and what to do physically with all of the objects that they acquired,” said Jiménez. “And so they just felt that this was a good moment.”

The many sides of the hodgepodge on offer is evidence of the multifaceted aspect of Newman and Woodward’s lives. “We know them as movie stars and actors,” Jiménez said. “They were also hugely philanthropic and they were activists.” And, she pointed out, they were homebodies, content to nurse a martini at night among their ephemera salvaged from yard sales and the old film scripts they quartered with a paper cutter and recycled into notation paper.

Other items on sale include the jumpsuits Newman wore while tuning up his race cars; Richard Nixon’s enemy list, which featured Newman, who was friends with Martin Luther King Jr; as well as Rolex watches he wore as a hobbyist race-car driver. Newman won the 24 Hours of Daytona race at the age of 70.

She and her team expect to be swarmed by Hollywood memorabilia fanatics, as well as general collectors of cool ephemera. Newman and Woodward, she pointed out, weren’t pretentious in the least. “He lived his life the way he wanted to live it, without a need to be posing as a movie star. He just was very low key. And I think people really appreciate that about him, which is why it’s not just all glitz and glamour. He actually had high-low taste. That extended to the things he surrounded himself with.”

The greatest exception to the low-key tenor is the handful of luxury watches (Newman was a horological icon). The Daytona Rolex that he purchased for himself, and that would go on to inspire many more such purchases, is on sale, as are a few valuable paintings. Most of the items, though, feel warm to the touch.

Jiménez wasn’t a Paul Newman expert at the outset of this project, but she read his much-lauded posthumous memoir and came to understand how uncomfortable he felt with the movie-star mantle and his disarmingly good looks, which he described as an aberration to the flawed whole of his being. Her understanding deepened when she watched the six-part documentary made by Ethan Hawke, another thespian who knows what it’s like to be married to a fellow actor who has her own dreams to contend with. “When you watch the documentary, and you hear [Newman] speak to his family members, you see that there’s so much more to him than just the persona.”

He and his wife made about 15 movies together, but Woodward, who was a movie star before he was, threw herself into the raising of their children and the keeping of their homes. “They weren’t the Architectural Digest type,” said Jiménez. “They cultivated homes that somebody wanted to live in and they were surrounding themselves with the objects they wanted to see every day.” The pair frequented flea markets and antique shows, and were constantly loading up on new treasures. “They were thrifty and thoughtful,” said Jiménez. “It wasn’t like, I went to Sotheby’s and spent $10m on a painting. It was: I found this great find and I loved it.”

They were also totally, completely enamored of each other. In his memoir, Newman revealed that Woodward trussed up their Beverly Hills home with a modest brass frame bed that she found at a yard sale “for probably $20”, Jiménez estimated, and designated as the centerpiece of their “fuck hut”, the room they repaired to for intimate encounters.

“It’s interesting, we think of [Newman] as this really handsome stud with these gorgeous blue eyes, somebody who people must have been fawning all over, but he doesn’t think about himself that way,” said Jiménez. “He always thought of himself as being kind of awkward and uncomfortable with his physicality. Joanne is the one who he says turned him into this sex symbol. Even into their 70s, people who knew them said that they couldn’t keep their hands off each other.”

The “fuck hut” bed, listed for an estimated $500-$1,000, is still accepting bids.