There are probably no two people in America who have done more to “move the heart of business” than Paul Newman and A.E. Hotchner. In 1980, the two long-time friends decided that rather than just giving bottles of Paul’s homemade salad dressing to friends as Christmas presents, they would also offer it to a few local stores. Combining a purist’s insistence on high-quality, all-natural ingredients with an irreverent anti-marketing style, the fledgling enterprise would be lots of short-lived fun—and then gracefully die. At least, that was the expectation.

A quarter-century later, Newman’s Own is a massive success and the charitable efforts spearheaded by the duo of unlikely entrepreneurs have changed the face of American philanthropy. Newman’s Own has given away over $150 million of the company’s profits (that’s 100 percent) to a host of charities garnering widespread recognition for their good works (including an honorary Oscar® for Newman in recognition of his charity work). In 1988 they opened a camp for children with cancer and other life-threatening diseases, The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, in Ashford, Connecticut. The camp inspired a string of parallel ventures around the world, with now nearly a dozen members of the Association of Hole in the Wall Gang Camps.

Newman’s partner-in-crime, A.E. Hotchner, is best known (at least before the publication of Shameless Exploitation) for his biography of long-time pal Ernest Hemingway, Papa Hemingway. An accomplished military journalist, novelist (King of the Hill) and playwright (Welcome to the Club, The White House, The Fifth Column), Hotchner brings a literary élan and raconteur’s edge to the tale in their moving (and hilarious) book, Shameless Exploitation. We recently spoke with Hotchner (who urged us to call him “Hotch”) from his home in Connecticut. — JDM

What was the initial spark of the idea for Newman’s Own? It wasn’t philanthropy.

Oh, we had no idea of philanthropy. We were just two guys having a little fun, and Newman had a great salad dressing. We thought we’d do this thing locally, and people would maybe buy it off the gourmet shop shelves, a local delicatessen or two.

As a matter of fact, we actively resisted it going any further. The guy we’d found to be our local food broker called and said, “Listen, Grand Union and A&P are inquiring about the product.” I told Newman and he said, “Absolutely not! What are we gonna do, go into the food business?!” But our broker pointed out that there was a federal statute against discriminating in sales (the Robinson-Patman Act), which doesn’t allow you to favor one purchaser (like the local deli) over another (like A&P). So we were sort of forced into it.

When did the business take on its philanthropy-driven character? Was there a moment of reckoning?

The definitive moment came toward the end of our first year, when the earning sheet came in at $946,000. We looked at each other and said, “Oh my God, we’ve got a business going!” And then Newman said, “My God—my face is on a bottle of salad dressing!”

At that moment he knew that if this were really going national, we would give it all away. If Newman hadn’t come to this philosophy, I don’t think he would have gone forward. A highly-paid movie star trying to stuff his coffers with food money?! No, he would have dug in his heels and never gone ahead.

Now, I didn’t have the same problem as Newman. (Who does?) But I’d always wanted to be a philanthropist—and this was my chance.

So you hadn’t really anticipated making a profit?

We had no idea we could make that kind of profit. At the beginning, we decided that indulging our little lark was worth $40,000 and a little legwork. When that was gone, we would go out of business. That was our business plan.

That’s pretty much still your business plan: go out of business every year.

The first of the year we give it all away, and then we go back to the bank for money to keep the operation going till the first royalties come in.

That’s an interesting interpretation of “bottom line”: your goal at the end of each year is to hit bottom!

Of course no other business can do that; you can’t ask businesses to give away 100 percent of their profits, that just doesn’t make any sense. But you can make them aware of what you can do by putting some of your earnings back into the hands and the lives of the people who gave you that money in exchange for your product.

It’s easy to say, “Hey, famous movie star, famous writer, how could it go wrong?” But it was almost guaranteed to go wrong!

Exactly. When we started out, we met with the largest marketing company in America, and they told us it absolutely wouldn’t work. They went down a list of some 20 celebrities’ brands; every single one had failed. They estimated that the total start-up loss for a celebrity product would be in the neighborhood of a million dollars.

That didn’t phase Newman. He believes that whatever you believe in is possible, and if you start looking at the past and at the statistics, you’ll never get anywhere.

Once you decided to give it away, did you get nervous about doing it right?

That was a challenge. Obviously there were areas we were really interested in. The environment has always been a concern of ours. We were also touched by illnesses that had occurred to people we were close to. For example, George Roy Hill, the famous director [Butch Cassidy, The Sting], was stricken with a disastrously debilitating neurological disease. So we began to concentrate on all sorts of medical research.

We were putting money into research in areas well before they were known to the public, early AIDS research, that sort of thing. Rita Hayworth’s daughter contacted us and said, “We’re trying to get some research going on this affliction that nobody knows about yet; it’s called Alzheimer’s disease….” We were one of the first people to give to her foundation.

Since there were just two of us and we weren’t responsible to a board, we were in a position where we could send this money to sources directly. That still pertains today. This November the two of us will sit down and sort through the 2000 or 3000 requests we receive each year from legitimate 501(c)3 charities. We go through these carefully to balance it, so we don’t give overboard to one category rather than another.

Primarily, we are interested in the young and the old, and in the sorts of educational and environmental projects that wouldn’t be funded otherwise. For example, we don’t give to the American Cancer Society or Red Cross, because they’re already very well publicized. We’re able to deal with the smaller charities that are normally passed over.

And of course you have the network of kids’ camps.

Like the food business, it’s a tremendous surprise that this has been so successful. With all the new camps on the threshold or in construction, there’ll probably be a dozen of these by the end of the year.

As I read about your building that first Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, you had me on the edge of my seat. It really had the flavor of attempting the impossible…

This was one time when we actually started to doubt ourselves a little.

Here we were, going into an area that we really knew nothing about—not that we knew anything about foods, but this was even more foreign to us. Now we had built this elaborate camp with the capacity for 125 kids, and when we opened, maybe 30 showed up!

We realized that just because you’re Paul Newman, or just because your salad dressing is selling, doesn’t mean parents are going to trust their children with you. We had the sinking feeling that maybe we’d gotten into something we could never get over the top with.

What happened?

As happens with so many things—a movie, a book, a play—if those who first see it go out and tell friends, that creates a ripple effect. The parents of the kids who came that first season told other parents of children with cancer. That brought in other children…soon we were filling our quota and even spilling over.

The word of mouth is good if you have the genuine article.

That’s also true of a product; in fact, it’s true of anything. That doesn’t mean there aren’t those who have peddled bogus stuff and bilked people of their money; yes, it happens. But it also happens that if you put out something that is of genuine value, usually it will find a source of acceptance.

This is a comforting thought.

It’s something you have to believe in.

We were warned in the very beginning that a celebrity name won’t sell a thing unless what’s in the bottle is damn good. From the beginning, we decided that we would put the very best ingredients in whatever we were doing. If it cost a little more, so be it.

All our products have very high end ingredients. We were the first to use real virgin olive oil in a salad dressing. Nobody else wanted to touch it. They didn’t realize that when you add olive oil, vinegar and mustard, you don’t even need to refrigerate it after you open it! The truth is, we didn’t know that either—but we knew that’s what we wanted to put in the bottle.

We stuck to our guns and defied convention—and people started swearing by the quality of the products. Consumers are a lot smarter and keener in judgment than the manufacturer often gives them credit for.

Contrary to popular belief, people are not stupid.

No, and I’m not so sure about that “sucker born every minute” idea, either.

Maybe that was wishful thinking on Barnum’s part, more than wisdom!

I think so. At any rate, we don’t go in for that theory.

How did your association with Paul Newman start?

My first teleplay happened to be his first big role. In 1956 there was a program on NBC called Playwright 56. I was hired to write an adaptation of Hemingway’s The Battler. James Dean was supposed to play the lead—but just before rehearsals started Dean was killed when he crashed his sports car.

These were the days of live television, remember. Arthur Penn, who was directing, couldn’t find any other movie star to step in for Dean. He said, “Well, I know this fellow Paul Newman who’s in the cast; I worked with him at the Actors’ Studio. He could do it.”

MGM saw him in the part, grabbed him and put him in the lead role playing Rocky Graziano in the big feature film, Somebody Up There Likes Me—and Newman was a star.

Did the two of you work together again as writer and actor?

Later I did a film called Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man (1962) in which Newman played one of the leads. And for the past 15 years we’ve done an elaborate gala every year at the theater in our camp, in which I have humiliated him by making him play mostly transvestite roles. I had him play Tinkerbell at one point.

Cruel and unusual punishment!

That’s it.

I think of Paul racing cars in his 70s, and you gallivanting around with Hemingway, which must have carried some risk—

Every minute was risk-laden! That was indeed a dangerous lifestyle, but certainly one I enjoyed. With Hemingway, you have a real American original. There’s never been anybody like him.

You certainly do have a penchant for picking some interesting compadres.

Well, it just happened, really. Both Hemingway and Newman came into my life by chance, by luck. I certainly didn’t pick them.

Preparedness meeting opportunity. How did you meet Hemingway?

After the war [Hotchner served in the Air Force] I lived in Paris for a while. When I ran out of money I came back here, but there were no jobs, ’cause all the guys who’d come back from the war had them all. So I got this odd job of being a literary bounty hunter—

Excuse me, “literary bounty hunter”? What exactly is that?

Arthur Gordon, a friend of mine, became the editor of Cosmopolitan, which was a literary magazine in those days. Arthur gave me a list of names—people like Dorothy Parker, John Steinbeck and Edna Ferber—and said, “Look, these people used to write for us, but we haven’t heard from them since the war. If you get something from them, we’ll pay you $300 a head.”

I got Ferber to write something, and Dorothy Parker. They both became friends of mine as a result.

I got turned down, too. Steinbeck said no. In fact, it was kind of like W.C. Fields: “Don’t bother me, little boy.” But most of them were very courteous, and I got many of them to write for the magazine.

And Hemingway?

I went down to Cuba where he was living and wrote him a note: “I’m down here on this dumb assignment to ask you to write for this magazine. If you could just write me a note telling me to go to hell or whatever, then I could show I was here.”

That’s how it started. He started to write a short story, but it turned into a novel, Across the River and Into the Trees, which we serialized in the magazine.

Things work out in funny ways. You don’t plan these things.

What makes risk pay off? Is it believing in what you’re doing, the quality of what you’re doing? Is it the sheer adventure and love of the ride?

You’ve got to be interested in life. Nobody won anything in roulette without putting down a bet. You’ve got to commit yourself. If you just take a perfunctory job because it gets you enough money doing something you don’t really like or care about, then nothing happens.

As a young man living in Paris, when Hemingway would send out a story and get back a rejection slip, he said it was like being run through with a bayonet every time. You feel it, it hurts. It’s real.

You’ve got to be willing to believe in whatever your gamble is. Companies who say, “Well, we’re indebted to our shareholders—we’d love to give two percent of our profits, but we’ve got to be responsible to our shareholders…” those companies have never asked their shareholders! If they did, they’d find what we’ve found, which is that people want to contribute to their community and to the world around them.

Has your enterprise had an impact on others in the business community?

Yes, I think people like Ben and Jerry all picked up on what we were doing. We get correspondence from all sorts of people who tell us we’ve influenced them, that they’ve begun giving away portions of their profits to good causes. They may not be big percentages, but what the hell, it’s something.

The big question is, what do you do with that? What are you interested in? Be specific. If you really feel that Alzheimer’s is a terrible thing, then you could concentrate on funding Alzheimer’s research. It’s better than just saying, “We want to give away two percent.” Give it away to what?

What strikes me about your philanthropy is not just the money raised but the work. You two put tremendous amount of personal effort into actually creating these things.

For us, of course, what we cared about most was the kids’ camp, and we’ve put a huge amount of effort into it. We knew we could just send a check to the Flying Doctors, and they do wonderful work. But we wanted to create something where we could be at the site, interacting with the people who were creating it. We were there driving them to get it done, we were part of the process of selecting the camp director, counselors and the whole makeup of the place. We still are.

It’s easy to write a check, whether big or small—but if you get yourself a project, that’s doubly rewarding. You don’t have to be a big company, there are all kinds of ways to do this. But very few people do.

The money’s important, but the time, effort and attention are perhaps the greater part of the equation.

That’s right. That, and you have to care.