Julie Newmar and John Newmeyer, sister and brother, have supported the fight against AIDS—her, with wit, wisdom and warmth at fundraising events, and him, with front-lines advocacy and research
by Dann Dulin, with Hank Trout
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
Julie Newmar has a decidedly ethereal quality, almost otherworldly, not unlike the iconic Catwoman she portrayed in the wildly popular sixties television series, Batman. Julie is soft-spoken, evolved, spiritual, mystical, and an extraordinary beauty, raising the bar high as the New Normal for octogenarians.
Her unassuming Brentwood home in Los Angeles is also bewitching. An avid gardener, she has created an exquisite landscape of lush foliage that wraps around the house. From the street, her residence hides behind blooming rose bushes (a rose, begonia, and daylily are named after her), vine-laden trellises, and tall trees.
Strategically placed modern sculptures, one that even resembles Julie, are ensconced within the greenery. There’s a large waterfall in the backyard, constructed with massive prehistoric stones. Next to the water is an Alice in Wonderland mirrored door and not far away is a rubber snake resting by a tree. It looks frightenedly real! Rose bushes in the front yard are named for Marilyn Monroe, Oprah, Julia Child, and Betty White. A brick pathway meanders through this enchanted forest.
“I garden, therefore I am,” she writes in her 2011 book, The Conscious Catwoman Explains Life On Earth—part memoir, part self-help, and part spiritual. Gardening for Julie is an art that is vital and healing. It’s her life force. It brings her happiness. She envelops herself with the “ecstasy and choreography of nature” to think, to renew, and to refresh.
She designed the garden mainly for her son, John Jewl Smith, who lives with her. (She was married from 1977–1984.) John, thirty-five, is living with Downs syndrome and is deaf and mute. The garden also provides a place where Julie retreats to ponder on those she’s known who have succumbed to the AIDS epidemic.
“I’m not involved in the disaster part as much as I am involved in the inspiration part,” she asserts about the epidemic. “I’m on the other side of the dark coin.” Through the years Julie has offered her services to such organizations as AIDS Healthcare Foundation, AIDS Project Los Angeles, amfAR, and Children Affected By AIDS. She wore a Catwoman get-up designed by Thierry Mugler, for whom she modeled, at an AIDS fashion show fundraiser (the same one she wore in George Michael’s “Too Funky” video), she emceed an Out of the Closet benefit, and has attended several Ribbon of Hope Celebrations, which honors media companies that keep HIV and AIDS awareness out front in their programming.
“I’d show up and bless things, or do a performance, or just be there,” she points out, about her AIDS support.
“You’ve got the wrong person,” Julie adamantly contends about her contribution to the cause. “My brother is very worthy of this interview.” Her brother is epidemiologist John Newmeyer, PhD. (When she was nineteen, her mother shortened her birth name, Newmeyer, for numerological reasons.) “I’m in the background—way, way in the background.”
“My brother kept me abreast of the epidemic by informing me what he was doing with his patients who were HIV-positive or had AIDS,” she says. “He told me about the safe exchange of needles. In the beginning it sounded odd, as I was not familiar with drugs. Then it made splendid sense.” Dr. Newmeyer has written nearly ninety published works and Julie points to a corner of her office where she has stacked her brother’s books.
When I first arrived a short time ago, I was greeted at the transparent glass front door by Stephanie, her personal assistant and housekeeper, who’s been employed with Newmar for over sixteen years. She instructed me to walk down the shiny wood-floor to the door at the end of the hallway. I pass a large framed painting done by her son, several books lying on top of a contemporary curvy black wood table which included Deepak Chopra’s Life After Death, and a memento wall of framed articles and photographs including a Li’l Abner album cover, a Vanity Fair story on Julie, and a TV Guide cover story of “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.”
Entering Julie’s office, I’m slightly startled to find a beguiling figure looking beeline toward me, sitting in an ordinary roller office chair, ready to greet. A thirty-six-inch computer screen sits directly behind her on a white elongated desk, with a large Mullion-type window that opens up onto the dense garden, palm fronds, and overhanging tree branches. The room is saturated with memorabilia (including a Catwoman doll), paintings, and paperwork. There’s a fireplace and skylight too. The entire room is, well, bright, with lots of overabundant streaming sunlight.
Ms Newmar wears vibrant multi-colored Bermuda shorts rolled up to just under the knee, hot pink fitted sweater, and a delightful dressy straw hat with a light grey scarf wrapped around it. Her glossy long platinum hair flows loosely out from the hat. (She loves wearing hats.) Deep maroon-colored closed slip-ons and a simple silver watch on her wrist completes the ensemble. Without uncertainty, the lady looks thirty years younger than her age of eighty-three.
Julie is welcoming, gracious, and charming. Even though she was raised in Los Angeles, her diction is refined and has a cosmopolitan lilt to it.
Several times during our time together she refers to her brother. “John is eight years younger,” she remarks, “and in a way he’s my mentor. Everything I know about HIV and AIDS is from his experience. I’m the afterthought.”
A&U contributor Hank Trout spoke with Julie’s brother in San Francisco and understood why Julie nudges him to the foreground. Just looking at his résumé, one can understand why. Dr. Newmeyer was educated at Caltech and Harvard. Some of his published works appeared mostly in professional journals such as Harvard Magazine, The People’s Almanac #2, and CoEvolution Quarterly.
According to his website, Dr. Newmeyer has also “hitched freight train rides, worked on a kibbutz, trekked in the Himalayas, invented and manufactured a board game, made a nearly-successful run for Congress in California, and travelled to the seven continents.”
He began work at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic in 1973 and continued working there through the worst years of the epidemic. With his focus on intravenous drug users, Dr. Newmeyer instituted a needle exchange program and a bleach distribution program in 1983, providing clean needles and small portable bottles of bleach (for virus-killing needle cleaning) despite opposition. Dr. Newmeyer said that there is little efficacy in trying to figure out why some people use; we should concentrate efforts on getting addicts healthy again.
“There are four things that work in arresting the spread of the virus in intravenous drug users,” he explained. “Needle exchange, bleach distribution, education, and various twelve-step programs that provide peer support for a life of abstinence, are things that work.”
“A bone healed is stronger than it was before it was broken,” Dr. Newmeyer said. “In the same way, an addict who survives his addiction is stronger for it.”
The government’s “war on drugs” has hindered progress in eradicating HIV in intravenous drug users, Dr. Newmeyer told Hank. “The ‘war on drugs,’ which criminalizes rather than helps users, actually alienates the very people who we should be helping.” We know, for instance, that needle exchange is an effective tool in controlling the spread of the disease—and the recent outbreak of HIV infections among users in southern Indiana, where Gov. Pence vehemently fought needle exchange programs, attests to the devastation caused by not embracing needle exchange programs. His latest book, Mother of All Gateway Drugs, takes a hard look at drug use patterns, and concludes that the longstanding war on drugs has resulted mostly in vast cruelty visited upon people merely because of their addictive disease, and huge waste of money on failed drug policies.
“The war cannot be won. The only sound policy is embraced by four simple words: legalize, tax, regulate and discourage,” Dr. Newmeyer has written.
Dr. Newmeyer takes encouragement, though, from recent developments, such as the federal government’s lifting of its ban on funding for needle exchange programs, and the growing willingness to consider things like the legalization of marijuana without hysterics.
Although he worries about the exorbitant cost, Dr. Newmeyer also welcomes PrEP as a tool in eradicating HIV/AIDS, particularly, he said, for couples who are serodifferent but want to enjoy the intimacy of condom-free sex, and also especially for women. “My concern,” he said, “is the outrageous cost of PrEP. Who can afford it? Who’s going to pay for it? That is something we need to have a serious conversation about.”
Dr. Newmeyer said that he had known some 110 men who died of AIDS, “many of them my former boyfriends,” and although he was, by his own admission, “wildly sexually active in the seventies and eighties,” he remains HIV-negative and lives now in a monogamous relationship. When the subject turned to long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS, Dr. Newmeyer said that he knows dozens of men who have survived and thrived despite their diagnosis. “I am very glad that they are still here,” he said, “and I genuinely appreciate their struggle, their strength.”
In addition to his work in epidemiology, Dr. Newmeyer’s other passion is winemaking. When he was twenty-two years old, on a visit to wineries in France and Italy, “I decided, what a wonderful way to live, and what a gift to pass on.” Hence, thirty-eight years ago, Dr. Newmeyer teamed with winemaker David Mahaffey and another partner to create Heron Lake Vineyard in the Wild Horse Valley, five miles east of Napa in Northern California. The forty-acre vineyard has become a model for utilizing renewable green energy, biodiversity protection, and careful, efficient farming. His expertise in statistics and logistics, acquired through his epidemiological work, make him a valuable asset to Mahaffey’s winemaking.
The affection in Dr. Newmeyer’s voice is palpable when he talks about his sister. “Julie is such a beautiful, life-affirming person,” he said. In addition to admiring Ms. Newmar’s HIV/AIDS work, Dr. Newmeyer also enjoyed talking about his sister’s contributions to drag queens! “Julie has really enjoyed working with very tall drag queens—including RuPaul, Donna Sachet in San Francisco—teaching them how to be more ‘feminine’ despite being six feet tall or taller. Julie herself is such a statuesque beauty, approaching six feet herself, she was a natural at teaching taller drag queens how to hold themselves, how to move.” He is clearly, and rightfully, proud of his sister’s HIV/AIDS advocacy, as well as her acting legacy.
Raised in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles, Julie Newmar has a lineage that extends to the Mayflower. Her mother was a Ziegfeld Follies girl and her father was a professor at Los Angeles City College, where he taught engineering, and was head of the phys. ed. department and head football coach. She is the eldest of three children. (Her brother Peter died in a skiing accident at the age of twenty-five.) Julie studied classical piano and dance extensively, graduating high school at fifteen. Then for a year, Julie traveled around Europe with her mother and brother, John. Obtaining a 99% score on her entrance exam to UCLA, she spent only six weeks on campus before landing a choreography job with Universal Studios as a teacher and dance double.
At eighteen, she landed the film, Serpent of the Nile, where her entire body was spray-painted gold (see clips on YouTube), way before actress Shirley Eaton was spun gold in the famous death scene of the James Bond thriller Goldfinger. Newmar also played one of the brides in the lavish musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
At nineteen she hit Broadway in Silk Stockings. Then came the musical Li’l Abner, where she
portrayed the voluptuous man-magnet, Stupefyin’ Jones. At twenty-five, she won a Tony Award for her role in the Broadway show The Marriage-Go-Round, starring legendary actors Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer. She was accepted to the esteemed Actor’s Studio which Marilyn Monroe, Shelly Winters, Karl Malden, and Marlon Brando also attended.
Next, she toured the country, opposite Joel Grey in Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.
Her legs were insured for $10 million (except in the event of theft).
Transitioning to television, Julie played in most of the popular shows of the day: Bewitched, Columbo, Get Smart, Twilight Zone, Star Trek, The Beverly Hillbillies, and The Monkees. She scored a lead role in My Living Doll (playing a robot).
Of course, the pièce de résistance role was playing Catwoman in Batman. “I didn’t audition,” she recounts flippantly, “I think they were just hard up.” It was her brother John and his friends who were responsible for Julie accepting the part. “I had a lovely penthouse in Manhattan on Beekman Place and John and five of his friends had come down from Harvard. They were all sitting on my nine-foot couch and a call came in. I answered. Someone was asking about this Batman series. I knew nothing about it. ‘Would you like to play Catwoman?’ they asked. I replied, ‘What do you mean? What’s that?!’ The guys overheard my conversation and three of them leapt off the couch yelling, ‘Batman’s our favorite program!’ They told me that when Batman is on, they would cut class or drop their homework and run to the TV room to watch.” She stretches her legs out and leans back into the chair. “So essentially, my brother pushed me out the door to get on the plane the next day to California for a costume fitting. Four days later, I was on the set.”
Fast-forward fifty years later, to today, Batman returns! A Warner Brothers animated film, Batman: Return of The Caped Crusaders, was recently released and the original stars of the series, Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie are voicing it. “Oh, it’s marvelously written; so clever and funny,” she says. Julie scoots up to her computer and shows me the first page from the script. She reads a couple of lines, also articulating the action words that she wrote in the margins of the script as well.
Catwoman never loses, never fails, or falls.
Not a problem, because she’s got nine lives.
Julie chuckles. She thinks back on when she recorded this several months ago in a tiny soundproof recording studio at Warner Brothers in Burbank.
Thanks to Catwoman and her other roles, Julie is firmly ensconced in pop culture. Her popularity as a Hollywood icon is so intense that she inspired a plot point in the 1995 film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, a road movie where three drag queens, played by Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo, travel cross-country to Hollywood, but end up stuck in a redneck town.
This highly intelligent and self-actualized woman has also dabbled in real estate, returning to UCLA to learn more about the business. She even received two patents, one for brassiere design and the other for pantyhose called Nudemar.
Julie credits her strength to her belief in Christian Science. Her mother and grandmother were Christian Scientists. It provided Julie stamina and discipline. “It’s very helpful…and healthful,” she states. She goes on. “I see young people floundering so unnecessarily. Religion is not dogma or history for me it’s the wellspring of life—goodness, values, morality. If you don’t get that in the first ten years of your life, you’re going to flounder, like getting into the drug world…and all of that.”
Christian Scientists rely on faith, not doctors, and they do not dwell on disease. “I cannot get into other people’s skin,” she pitches straightforward and precisely, fussing with her hair. Since discussing disease is negative for the Christian Scientist, it was a challenge to pull information from Julie about her feelings regarding the epidemic.
“Instead of talking about those people I’ve lost to AIDS,” she offers, “I think of the people who survived and—how did they do it?” (In a follow up email she admitted that Rudolf Nureyev was the person she missed the most). Julie has deep empathy for those who have died and who still suffer today from the disease. “I’m not a good sufferer,” she admits, adding, “I see the good in all things.” She pauses a moment. “That sounds disrespectful because of what you’re speaking of…such a misery. I’m sounding like an idiot. I see you are expecting full-throated answers. I’m a Christian Scientist.”
Julie’s brother acknowledges that faith can complement medical science. “Christian Scientists dwell in quite a different world than I do, given my work as an epidemiologist and my certainty that disease and disease vectors are very real. Julie knows this about me, and doesn’t challenge my work and that of my colleagues in the great battle against HIV,” he notes. “She is shrewd enough, however, to have figured out just where the ‘positive thinking’ of Christian Science is effective, namely in those many ailments which have a psychosomatic base. Some examples: stress-related ailments, neuroses, and insomnia.”
Julie is all about “yes” and inner life. She rises above the fray of sickness, sadness, and depression. Or, one can look at it that she avoids it or denies it. Either way, one can create their own reality. It’s a choice. Julie mentions the teachings of Abraham-Hicks, which is loosely based on several modalities such as reality therapy, cognitive therapy, and rational emotive therapy. Some common axioms of Abraham-Hicks: “Life is not meant to be a struggle, but a process of allowing”; “People are creators of their own thoughts.”; “People cannot die. Their lives are everlasting.”; and “Any desire born in one can be fulfilled.”
Julie’s bookkeeper will soon be arriving, so we wind down the interview. She invites me to lunch, lauding her live-in chef, Emmanuel. “And you’ve got to see the garden!” she politely insists, as lunch is being prepared. She calls out for Stephanie to give me the grand tour.
Awaiting Stephanie, Julie points to a huge image of her that’s standing against the wall. The image shows her in semi-profile; pensively looking down, garbed in a black high-necked outfit, holding a red rose that one petal has fallen. (The photograph is titled, “Tears Fall Like Petals,” taken by Sean Black as an homage to those who’ve died of AIDS. It appears in this article.) Julie tells me about an upcoming AIDS auction where this photo will be sold to raise funds.
As I exit the office door to begin my garden outing with Stephanie, I ask Julie, “What makes you care?” She swiftly responds, “You have to see things from other’s point of view.” Julie takes a beat, then her penetrating acorn eyes blaze and she fervently exclaims, with half-a-smile, “You… have… to!”
Finish this sentence: I feel sexiest when I am . . . When am I not sexy?
What’s the greatest value of growing older? Basically, you clean up your act and get rid of negativity. You refine all that is good about your life.
What do you believe happens after we die? There’s a continuance, that’s why we have to care for others and ourselves at the highest level.
If you could have any singer stop by your home to sing who would it be? Renee Fleming.
Who is your celebrity crush right now? Catherine Deneuve. She’s elegant, she’s forthcoming, and she’s a smart lady.
Out of the many people you have met is there one in particular who stands out the most? Violet Walker. She’s one of my junior high teachers who taught English and Social Studies. She was from Scotland and came to America to teach. I had her two hours every day. What an elevation that was and how differently I saw the world. There was clarity of thought and my focus was competent. Violet Walker was the ultimate. I wish every child to have a Violet Walker in their life.
Post-production (digital styling) by Eve Harlow Art & Photography (www.EveHarlowe.com). Flower portraits’ credits: Hair: Louise Moon/GRID Agency; Makeup: Garret Troy Gervaise/GRID Agency.
Sean Black is a Senior Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @seanblackphoto.
Hank Trout writes the column For the Long Run for A&U. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor of A&U. He interviewed singer/songwriter John Grant for the July cover story.