MY WASHINGTON — Summer 2008
   

 
A.E. Hotchner, A.B. ’40, J.D. ’40
A Multi-Storied Life

On campus, people know his name from the studio theater and an annual playwriting competition. In New York and Hollywood, it seems as though he is on a first-name basis with everyone. And across the country, his name can be found on every bottle of Newman’s Own salad dressing.

A.E. (Aaron Edward) Hotchner has an endless fund of stories about the famous and infamous people he has known during his remarkable career. The author of 16 books, a dozen plays and musicals, scores of scripts for television and movies, and countless magazine articles, he also serves as vice president of Newman’s Own, Inc., which he launched in 1982 with his neighbor and fishing buddy Paul Newman. The company donates all of its profits to charity—more than $200 million to date.

Hotchner has always managed to accomplish more than most people. He grew up in St. Louis, graduated from Soldan High School, and attended Washington University, where he earned both history and law degrees in six years. During his spare time, he wrote a column for Student Life, edited the literary magazine The Eliot, was a contributing editor of the law quarterly, performed in student theatricals, competed on the debate team, and played intramural volleyball, where he was the set-up man for his team’s star player, “Spike” Moldafsky. To pay for books and meals, he held down a series of part-time jobs, from organizing fraternity parties to promoting Marx Brothers movies dressed as Harpo.

He loved every moment. Today, he says: “When you have tough times, school is a bright place. It’s clean, it has order, it has a cafeteria with food in it, it has all the things you don’t have at home. The more I could achieve at school, the better life was.”

The tough times included growing up during the Depression. Hotchner’s experience was often brutal—at age 12, he was reduced at one point to eating paper—but he found escape by excelling in school. His resiliency and survival are described in two bittersweet memoirs, King of the Hill and Looking for Miracles, currently available in bookstores as The Boyhood Memoirs of A.E. Hotchner. A movie version of King of the Hill, produced by his friend Robert Redford and directed by Steven Soderbergh, was released in 1994.

Washington University offered Hotchner a scholarship, but the summer before he was to enroll, he was notified that no funds were available. In desperation, he appealed to the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, which provided the opportunity that would change his life. Hotchner describes it in Looking for Miracles as “the gift of being myself, of feeling equal; the light-hearted joy of looking forward; of feeling that someday I would be everything that I could be.”

At college, he says, “I did so many things because I could never decide what I wanted to do.” Following his performance in the annual Law Day entertainment, a beloved law professor, Tyrell Williams, took him aside. Hotchner recalls: “He said in his measured way, ‘Mr. Hotchner, I have no doubt that you will make a very fine lawyer. I’ve never given this advice before, but I think you’d be even better fitted to writing and doing things in the entertainment world.’ His words stayed with me.”

Charting a literary course

A number of professors recognized his talent, but it took World War II to help him find his career. He practiced law briefly in St. Louis with Taylor, Mayer, Shifrin & Willer before entering the Air Force, where his hopes for seeing action were dashed when he was assigned to make a movie on anti-submarine warfare. He ended up as a major, heading the European bureau of Air Force magazine. After the war, Hotchner decided to stay on in Paris. He remembers, “I sent a very arrogant letter to Mr. Shifrin, informing him that it was nice of him to keep my position open, but that I had gone on to bigger and better things.”

When his severance pay ran out two years later, he returned to New York. The only job available was what he describes as “a literary bounty hunter”—tracking down former contributors to Cosmopolitan (then a literary magazine) and asking them to write for the magazine again. The intimidating list included Dorothy Parker, Sinclair Lewis, Edna Ferber, John Steinbeck—and Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway agreed to meet Hotchner in Havana in 1948. They went on to form a close friendship and business association that lasted until Hemingway’s death in 1961. At Hemingway’s request, Hotchner adapted many of his friend’s works for television, stage, and film, and occasionally served as his agent. In 1966, he chronicled their friendship in the best-selling memoir Papa Hemingway, which has been published in 34 countries. Their correspondence was published in 2005 as Dear Papa, Dear Hotch, where Hotchner wrote: “The most resounding thing I learned from him was this: Don’t fear failure, and don’t overestimate success. It was a tenet he lived by and a legacy I treasure.”

Hotchner worked at Cosmopolitan for two years before he left to become a freelance writer. His work has always focused on perceptive portrayals of individuals, from historical novels, such as The Man Who Lived at the Ritz, to biographies of Doris Day and Sophia Loren. He says, “The real reward for a writer is when you are able to capture, really capture a person on paper.”

Sharing gifts of fun and learning

Hotchner maintains that “I never planned anything, ever. Opportunities came along.” The food business was no exception. It began with a batch of salad dressing that Hotchner helped Newman mix up in his basement with a canoe paddle. Newman’s Own became the first company to put all-natural foods in supermarkets. With the motto “There are three rules for running a business—fortunately we don’t know any of them,” the two friends succeeded by insisting on quality and relying on their own irreverent brand of public relations.

Twenty years ago, Hotchner and Newman used some of their early profits to create the Hole in the Wall Gang summer camp for children with life-threatening illnesses. Today, 14 affiliated camps have been built in the United States and abroad, which served 15,000 children and their families free of charge last year. Hotchner is a director of the Hole in the Wall Gang Fund and produces memorable benefit galas featuring Hollywood stars ranging from Jack Nicholson to Tom Hanks to Julia Roberts.

At Washington University, Hotchner has been helping students for 25 years. Henry I. Schvey, professor of drama and comparative literature, says: “Hotch’s generosity, encouragement, and friendship have been instrumental in building the Performing Arts Department. His support has included scholarships; collaboration with the Actor’s Studio that brought such legendary acting teachers as Shelley Winters and Ellen Burstyn to campus to work with students; and the A.E. Hotchner Playwriting Festival, a revival of the English 16 playwriting competition that he won as a student here in 1937.”

From Washington University, Hotchner received a Founders Day Distinguished Alumni Award in 1967, a Distinguished Alumni Award from the School of Law in 1992, and an honorary doctorate in 1992. Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton sums up his remarkable contribution: “A.E. Hotchner’s achievements have inspired generations of students, and he has enriched the creative and cultural life of our campus for generations to come.” —Susan Wooleyhan Caine