10/29/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Paul Newman and the Vanished Modesty of Celebrity

"Celebrity" is a loaded concept today. "Celebrity culture" has become shorthand for everything we love to hate -- and hate to love -- about the sensationalist, exploitative, superficial contours of American life.

When John McCain's strategists were looking for a kung-fu move that would turn Barack Obama's popularity and ability to energize massive crowds against him, they chose to frame him as a manufactured product of our celebrity culture, a political doppelganger of Britney Spears.

It was a shrewdly calculated move. If there are some swing voters who worry that there's something about Obama that smacks too much of performance and self-love, the invidious comparison could be the tipping point.

If there was ever an entertainer who could have become the Poster Boy of unmoored, culturally carnivorous celebrity it was Paul Newman, who died this weekend. He was gorgeous and the media swarm was thick and relentless.

Yet he never lost his footing. He brought a modesty to celebrity that allowed to him create a life and a career that flowed in a kind of parallel harmony. When Newman was on the screen every frame said, "Look at me." But off camera, his life said, "Don't look." It wasn't a Garbo-esque tease of reclusivity -- which itself is a cry for attention -- but a legitimate demand for proportion.

Dahlia Lithwick has a touching piece in Slate about her personal experience as a counselor at the Hole in the Wall Gang camp, reporting on the way Newman wandered the grounds, doing his thing, proud of what he did, not who he was.

Newman lived improvisationally. He used his power and access for quiet good works, manipulating celebrity rather than being used by it. He talked a lot about luck, and once told Time magazine, in talking about the success of Newman's Own, "If we ever have a plan, we'll be screwed."

He might not have had a plan, but he had something called values, which is ironic term of art to use for an un-reconstructed liberal who was on Nixon's Enemies List. And that's why Newman's life should be a lesson to so many young actors who seem bent on living in a self-constructed, self-destructive haze that invariably spirals into a tabloid tragedy.

In a gross and immodest time, we will miss the media-abstemious modesty of Paul Newman.