Memories of Paul Newman: James Cox and Nell Newman

On 26 October 2017, the most sought-after wristwatch in the world will go on sale for the first time since it was originally bought by actress Joanne Woodward in 1972. Engraved on the caseback with the simple message “Drive Carefully Me”, the watch was a gift for her husband, Paul Newman. Here we speak to their daughter Nell and the current owner of Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona ref. 6239, James Cox.

When James Cox headed off for college to study human ecology at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, in the mid-1980s, he had no idea that he was about to become a part of the greatest wristwatch story of all time. Enchanted by a beautiful blonde girl who drove her Datsun car like a bat out of hell and threw what-are-you-looking-at stares at anyone who dared to notice, Cox made it his mission to get to know her. The girl was Nell Potts, a pseudonym to allow her the anonymity she craved. After a hot pursuit, she and Cox began dating and only at this stage did the smitten Cox discover that Nell was the daughter of Hollywood legend Paul Newman.

During their decade together, while Nell was indulging a life-long passion for the reintroduction of peregrine falcons in Vermont, Cox offered to restore a treehouse on the Newman family property in Connecticut. Originally built in the 1960s, the maple tree that supported the treehouse had continued growing and squashed the structure, which took almost five weeks to rebuild.

“Paul’s wife Joanne [Woodward] was away doing a play and Paul would come by and check on my progress in the evenings,” remembers Cox. “I knew Nell pretty well by that time, and the family is so grounded that it became comfortable quite quickly. The treehouse was a common interest and we would have dinner and talk. There were always people popping by, but I was young and didn’t recognise any of them. My one regret is that I maybe over-compensated and gave him more privacy than he actually wanted, but I was just a kid and he was my girlfriend’s dad so I wanted to find that balance between familiarity and respect.”

Paul, Joanne, and daughters (clockwise from left) Clea, Nell, Melissa, and Stephanie, in 1973
Paul, Joanne, and daughters (clockwise from left) Clea, Nell, Melissa, and Stephanie, in 1973

The Gift of Cool

Whatever happened that summer, there is no doubt that Newman and Cox bonded. Although he was known for his generosity to others and a lack of attachment to material objects, it was still a pretty big gesture when, noticing that Cox never wore a watch and being a stickler for punctuality, Newman decided to remove any excuse Cox may have for tardiness by giving him his Rolex ref. 6239 – the original “Paul Newman” Daytona. Nell laughs as she remembers her father’s fixation on promptness. “He was obsessed with punctuality. He turned it into a game with people. He would look at the watches others were wearing and bet them his was more accurate. I remember him saying: ‘What time you got? I bet you a nickel my watch keeps better time than yours.’ He had the Speaking Clock on speed-dial and his Rolex Daytona would always win.”

“Joanne had recently bought Paul a new watch with a new inscription on the back, so I guess you could say he was updating,” Cox continues. “Why he chose me to give the old Rolex, we’ll never know. People question why he would give such an intimate object away. But that was him. He didn’t hoard. He was more interested in helping people. I do tend to run late and maybe this irked him – he was never late despite the fact that he could have easily got away with it – it was just how he rolled.”

Paul Newman's Rolex Daytona ref. 6239
Possibly the most famous wristwatch in the world, Paul Newman's Rolex Daytona ref. 6239 will go on sale on 26 October 2017 at Phillips, New York

According to Nell, the generosity Newman showed to Cox was typical of her father. “I didn’t know about it until after he passed away as he never spoke about things like that, but he financially supported some of our friends and family. When he set up Newman’s Own in 1982, it made $850,000 profit in year one and he just announced that he was going to give it away. After a couple of years, I told him to put that on the label but he didn’t want to because he said he didn’t want any publicity for it. Eventually he did agree to put it on there, but only in tiny writing. He wasn’t a show-off and always said: ‘Never let anyone name a building after me.’ When he turned 75, he decided he wouldn’t go to any more events where he was being honoured – he always hated them anyway. A while later, I asked mom what a sooty spot in the garden was and she told me it was where he had burnt his tuxedo with lighter fuel on the lawn to the left of the driveway.”

And the Rolex? “To him it was a tool – a watch that kept great time,” says Nell. “At the track, he would hand it to me to time the top three guys he was racing against. In pictures of him racing in the 1970s and 1980s, his sleeve is rolled up and the watch is visible but he is not posing. He genuinely used it for timing, while driving. My mom picked the watch out herself. She loved simple, practical things – she wore a Timex herself – and it was the right choice of watch for Pop. He wasn’t a fancy guy. He was stylish, but he wasn’t into fashion.

“There’s a great story from the 1970s when denim wasn’t allowed in smart restaurants. This really aggravated Pop and so he had a three-piece suit made from old blue jeans to wear out for dinner. He would walk in and challenge the maître d’ to say something. He was authentic and that’s why he was cool.”

Cox adds: “That’s why the watch is now a symbol of cool. It became cool because he was cool. People were touched by him – and, above all, Joanne picked a great watch!”

Dawning Significance

For the following decade, the ref. 6239 became everyday wear for Cox, who was oblivious to the fascination the watch world had for the piece and its current whereabouts. “I had no idea of its importance,” he says. “When Paul gave it to me in the 1980s, it was a beautiful personal gift. I knew Rolex was a great brand and it was a nice thing to own but that was it. In the 1990s, I found out that the watch was a cult. I was at an event and a Japanese man kept pointing at my wrist and saying ‘Paul Newman’. I nodded and wondered how he could possibly know [Paul] gave me the watch.

“When I got home I did some research – and once I saw that the watch had its own Wikipedia page – I stopped wearing it and put it in a safety deposit box. It was interesting to know, but it made owning it a burden and that brings us up to the present day. Eventually I thought that as Paul had done something beautiful in giving the watch to me, it was time for me to do likewise. If he was alive today he would not want his watch to sit in a safe, he would say: ‘Let’s bring it out in the world.’”

Cox approached Nell about selling the watch and she gave her full blessing, but with little knowledge of the crazy world of horology, he was unsure of where to go or what the true value was. “All I knew was that we had to retell the stories of Pop and revisit his values,” says Nell. “I think he would have wanted this, to let the rest of the world enjoy the watch and to see the proceeds going to charity.”

“It was passed on in a gesture of generosity and it’s time for it to move again,” adds Cox. “Today the world is in chaos, it needs a hero that represents humility, generosity and kindness and that is Paul. There’s a generation that doesn’t know who he was. We wanted to bring him back.

“We felt that the watch world was ready. I don’t know watches but I had picked up a copy of Revolution in an airport two or three years ago and I thought ‘Wow!’ I was amazed by this huge magazine full of cultural and lifestyle stories. It brought it home how big the appeal of watches was.”

Through mutual friends, Cox and Nell were introduced to Aurel Bacs in 2015 and suddenly everything seemed possible. “Aurel made it easy and I trusted him immediately,” he says. “We met for lunch and I was wearing the watch. When Aurel saw it poking out from under my shirt, he dropped his fork. I took it off and gave it to him and he pulled out a loupe and for about 20 minutes he looked and I heard: ‘Uh-huh. Yes. Nice patina. Original dial.’ I just felt that the time is right. The Phillips team has been great – I know what an exciting find this is but they haven’t been at all pushy.

Paul Newman's "Paul Newman"

Father and Daughter

Nell’s memories of her father run deep. “My dad was very interesting,” she says. “He barely went to college but he was very well-read and an incredible writer with a tremendous sense of humour. He loved pranks and treated me and my siblings like little adults. We loved to fish together – he taught me and when I was eight I managed to out-fish him, catching a 4lb brown trout. He was such an interesting man. We loved to argue – ‘Are animals more intelligent than humans?’ was one of our favourite discussions.”

And, of course, Nell remembers well Newman’s love of cars and fast driving – another passion that he passed on to his daughter. “He liked fast cars,” she says. “He had VW Bugs with hot Porsche engines that had no weight in the front, so were pretty dangerous. One of his first race cars was a Triumph TR6 two-seater and he later imported a Triumph 4 door sedan which had a great power to weight ratio. He was a great driver and his first year in racing he won the regionals. He went to the nationals and won that, too. He loved our local track, Lime Rock, and said it was the one place where everyone was on an equal footing and no one cared if he was a blue-eyed movie star. He held the track record at Lime Rock for well over 20 years.”

“His favourite times were at the track, because it was real,” adds Cox. “He always said that movies were not real and he was happiest when it was just him and a machine. He was a truly gifted driver and he proved it many times.”

Nell caught the racing bug from her father and, as Cox’s initial meeting with her confirms, she has always loved speed. “I went to racing school when I was 21,” she says. “I was offered a ride in a 24-hour race that needed a third driver. I told dad and he was furious saying: ‘No you don’t! You get yourself back to school!’ We were incredibly similar – especially in our stubbornness and hot-headedness.”

But one person who did not share Newman’s love of speed was his wife. “It scared her,” says Nell. “She always hated fast driving and it was an ongoing battle between the two of them. She had to teach herself to enjoy it as we would all go to watch Pop’s race. But I think the Rolex and the message on the back was her totem of protection.”

Paul Newman's "Paul Newman"
A simple message “Drive Carefully Me” that engraved on the caseback

Sweet Charity

Just as philanthropy and giving back was important to her father, both Nell and Cox are active in the Nell Newman Foundation, whose mission is: “To fund the underdogs, and unpopular ideas my father and mother originally championed.” Among those “underdogs”, the Newmans supported planned parenthood programmes, anti-war organisations and animal defence charities – even narrating a film highlighting the plight of spotted owls at the hands of logging, leading to Newman being boycotted for the first time.

Today, through her Foundation, Nell looks for interesting small organisations that may be unable to get a grant from other sources. “I look for small, radical organisations that are actively affecting change in society. That can be in the fields of the arts, food production and distribution, healthcare access or ecology. For example, we are currently looking at a project involved in developing a machine that will take plastic from the oceans and turn it into diesel. It is a diamond in the rough but, if we believe in people, we want to help them.

“There’s a wonderful man in South Central L.A. called Ron Finley who is known as ‘The Gangsta Gardener’. One day, he decided not to mow the lawn between the sidewalk and house but instead planted vegetables there. This is officially illegal and he was ticketed and told that he had to buy the property hosting his garden. A fundraising campaign started and Ron rallied celebrities and locals to help. It is the kind of project my dad would have got involved in and is something we support unconditionally.”

And it is the legacy from Newman plus the needs of the Foundation that have encouraged the sale of the ref. 6239 – proceeds from which will go to the Nell Newman Foundation. “Paul always said, ‘If people knew how good it felt to give their money away, they wouldn’t wait until they were dead,” says Cox. “There is so much to do in life and doing it is so rewarding. Paul is a pillar of that for me and he has passed on the message of: ‘Life is short, so let’s rock and roll.’ Nell and I are both open-minded. We look to nature and how things are done in the natural world. I learnt so much from Paul. He hated that people get into power and then make decisions for selfish, short-term reasons. Taking care of people is a good long-term thing. That is what the sale of this watch will allow and I know Paul would approve of what we are doing.”

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