Patricia Neal: A life of drama on screen and off

By Rob Sharp

An affair with Gary Cooper and an abortion; a 30-year marriage to Roald Dahl culminating in the author's two-timing with her friend; three strokes, a three-week coma and enough chutzpah to compete with any of the malcontent men sharing her on- and off-screen lives. If anything epitomised the orbit of the actress Patricia Neal, who has died aged 84, it was that her real existence matched anything she performed in front of the camera.

To film fans, Neal will be best remembered as the gutsy, gravely voiced ranch housekeeper pawed over by Paul Newman in the 1962 film Hud - for which she won an Oscar - or the wealthy patroness locked in an amorous pas de deux with George Peppard's writer in a bowdlerised version of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961).

On Saturday evening, the day before Neal died from lung cancer at her home in Martha's Vineyard, New England, she simply told her family: "I've had a lovely time."

A spokesman said in a statement that Neal "faced her final illness as she had all the many trials she endured, with indomitable grace, good humour and a great deal of her self-described stubbornness." Neal is survived by her four children, Tessa, Ophelia, Theo and Lucy, 10 grandchildren, including the model Sophie Dahl, and a great-grandchild.

That her life was immortalised in its own biopic, The Patricia Neal Story, 29 years ago, almost says it all. Born in the mining village of Packard, Kentucky, in 1926, Neal went into acting aged 10 after she moved to Tennessee.

"I can only tell you that I was a member of the Methodist Church," she said in the 1968 documentary Pat Neal is Back. "I went there one night when there was a woman giving monologues and I almost fainted. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life. I wanted to take drama lessons from then on out."

It didn't take long for her to make an impression. In 1946, Neal won a Tony award for her Broadway debut in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest. Her subsequent move to Hollywood was marred by her inexperience in comedic roles, including her movie debut opposite Ronald Reagan in John Loves Mary (1949), and her affaire de coeur with Cooper, her opposite number The Fountainhead (1949).

Another year, another twist. In 1952, when Neal's career was stalling, Hellman insisted the actress star in the Broadway revival of her play The Children's Hour. Shortly afterwards, Hellman introduced Neal to Dahl at a supper party. "It was fabulous," said Neal of the event. "It was elegant, everyone in fantastic long dresses. I had a short dress. I asked if I could go home and change, and [Hellman] said, 'Nah, you look alright'. So I stayed. That's when I met Roald Dahl."

Of her first impressions of Dahl, she said he was "very handsome". But the actress insisted Dahl ignored her and talked to composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. "At the end of supper I said I never want to see him again." Dahl telephoned her two days later and asked her out; she refused. The author rang a second time and she says she "couldn't think of an excuse".

But their marriage was blighted by tragedy. In 1960, their four-month-old son, Theo, was brain-damaged in his pram in a New York street. Two years later, their eldest daughter, Olivia, died of measles encephalitis aged seven.

A year after winning her Oscar Neal suffered three strokes and went into a coma. Dahl oversaw her physical rehabilitation. In 1967 she gave a speech at a charity gala. In her 1988 autobiography, As I Am, she wrote: "I knew at that moment that Roald the slave-driver, Roald the bastard, with his relentless scourge, Roald the Rotten, as I had called him more than once, had thrown me back into the deep water. Where I belonged."

The pair divorced after Neal discovered Dahl had been having an affair with her best friend and Dahl's next spouse, Felicity Crosland.

Of Dahl's betrayal, Neal told an interviewer in 1984: "I am bitter, yes. But I keep remembering that Roald and I had some good times together... It was a terrible blow when I found out."

-The Independent

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