Legendary Oscar-winning Hollywood star Patricia Neal, whom I knew during some of the many vicissitudes in her amazing life, once said of her dashing 30-year marriage to writer Roald Dahl, ‘Our life together was the stuff movies were made of. ‘
Her comment was prophetic. In 1981, while still married, the couple became the subject of a TV movie, The Patricia Neal Story, with Glenda Jackson as Neal and Dirk Bogarde as Dahl.
Now that they are both no longer alive, an infinitely more penetrating account of their often traumatic, sometimes brutal and ultimately tragic marriage will soon be released, featuring Keeley Hawes as Neal and Downton Abbey’s Earl of Grantham, Hugh Bonneville, as Dahl.
Based on Stephen Michael Shearer’s biography, Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life, the film is titled To Olivia, the name of the Dahls’ beloved daughter who died of measles-related encephalitis at the age of seven.
Roald Dahl’s tragic personal life, especially the time of his marriage to Hollywood star Patricia Neal, is the subject of a new film starring Hugh Bonneville and Keeley Hawes
Neal was a seductive character and the least theatrical actress I’ve ever known.
Sardonic and deeply intelligent, Willowy had beautiful green-brown eyes, an unforgettable hoarse voice that resonated with the timbre of her Kentucky and Tennessee origins, and an explosive barmaid.
A tough, gritty realist, speaking from the hip – never overpowering – and pushed her way through a life that changed irrational from triumph to tragedy and back again.
After passionate but ill-starred affairs with future US President Ronald Reagan and screen legend Gary Cooper, she reluctantly drove into love-less marriage to writer Roald Dahl, one of the most complex men of his generation, a war secret agent, a series of womanizer and a relentlessly distant, cold-blooded character capable of extreme emotional cruelty.
Their lives together were undermined by a series of devastating tragedies.
One of their five children, Theo, suffered a brain injury in a horrific traffic accident. This was followed by the loss of Olivia, who died within a few days of contracting measles.
At the peak of Neal’s career, just two years after winning her Oscar for portraying Alma Brown in the Western Hud of 1963, she suffered a series of massive strokes that left her paralyzed, unable to walk, partially blind and had poor speech.
Her career seemed to be over, but Dahl, at his most ruthless, imposed a grueling recovery regime on his wife that has since been largely adopted as the standard therapy for all stroke victims.
Keeley Hawes stars as Patricia Neal in the upcoming movie ‘An Unquiet Life’ which focuses on her tragic marriage to author Roald Dahl played by Hugh Bonneville
Against all odds, Neal returned to the screen to win yet another Oscar nomination and worldwide admiration bordering heroine status.
She even had a rehabilitation center named after her.
Patsy Louise Neal had the most de-theatrical debut in life imaginable. Born in a mining camp in Packard, Kentucky in 1926, she was the daughter of a transportation manager for the Southern Coal And Coke Company.
Despite this, she later said, “I was one of those people who was born to become an actress. I remember when I was about 11 and went to church to give a monologue, and I said to myself, “This is what I want to do.” ‘
Neal and Dahl go on vacation together. Their marriage was marked by tragedy and infidelity
She left Northwestern University in Illinois in 1943 to go to New York to play a role in Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon For The Misbegotten.
She met O’Neill in person after attending one of her performances.
“I think his interest was personal,” she recalled. Even then she had no illusions about the ways of the world.
“Flirting was an instrument of the trade and I was an expert. It is terrible what I did at the time.
“I don’t know what happened to my morale. If I wanted someone, I wanted them. ‘
Patricia Neal (1926-2010) married Roald Dahl in 1953, but they divorced in 1983
After studying on Broadway in The Voice Of The Turtle at the age of 19, she won the first-ever Tony Award for her role as calculating opportunist, Regina, in Another Part Of The Forest, and her career started at the age of 20.
When Jane Wyman announced that she was divorcing her husband, Ronald Reagan, Warner Brothers gave Neal the role Wyman would play opposite Reagan in John Loves Mary.
Reagan was devastated by the breakup of his marriage and broke down in tears for Neal.
Reagan and Neal started an affair that continued in a later film they made together, The Hasty Heart, but it ended in nothing because by then she had fallen in love with one of Hollywood’s most legendary icons, the heavily married Gary Cooper, who she played opposite in The Fountainhead.
American actress Patricia Neal with her husband, writer Roald Dahl (1916 – 1990), at the Screen Directors Awards, circa 1962
Cooper, 48, was 25 years her senior and was married to his wife, Veronica, for 16 years. Neal thought “Coop” was “the most beautiful attractive man,” but when his wife heard of their affair, she sent Neal a telegram demanding that they end it, and Cooper’s daughter, Maria, publicly spat at Neal.
Cooper was hesitant about the possibility of leaving his wife, and when he found out that Neal was pregnant, he urged her to have an abortion.
She did it, but it was the only act in her life she regretted forever.
When her affair with Cooper ended, Neal suffered a serious nervous breakdown and left Hollywood for New York.
Actress Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper in a scene from the movie “The Fountainhead” where the two met and became lovers – the relationship ended after forcing her to have an abortion
She would always describe Gary Cooper as her only true love. “He’s one of the most beautiful things that ever happened to me. I love him even now, ”she admitted 40 years later.
But she added, “If I only had one thing to do in my life, I’d have that baby.”
Neal was about to rehearse for a Broadway revival of Lillian Hellman’s play, The Children’s Hour, when she attended a dinner party at Hellman’s house, where she met Roald Dahl, to later gain fame as a children’s author with titles such as The BFG (Big Friendly Giant), who then worked for The New Yorker magazine.
Dahl, born in England to Norwegian parents, was ten years older than Neal and had arrived in New York in 1942 as a 26-year-old RAF officer, assigned as an assistant air attaché.
He started working almost immediately for British Security Coordination, a division of MI6, which controlled over a thousand wartime secret agents.
He quickly settled in New York as a serious womanizer and skilled flirt.
One of the first to become a willing victim of his “male beauty” was Beatrice Gould, co-editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal.
Other rich and mostly older women also succumbed. It was not long before Dahl had an ‘entire stable’ of ladies who considered him ‘drop-dead gorgeous’.
A friend found him very arrogant towards women, but he got away with it. The uniform didn’t hurt. I think he slept with everyone on the East and West coast who had more than $ 50,000 a year. ‘
A celebrated older woman who had succumbed to Dahl’s appeal was Congressman Clare Boothe Luce, a relationship reportedly encouraged by the British Embassy in Washington.
Dahl is said to have told the British ambassador, Lord Halifax, that he was’ completely f **** d out ‘because Luce screwed him from one end of the room to the other for three nights.’
Dahl was also showered with expensive gifts by American oil heiress Millicent Rogers, who was having an affair with Dahl’s friend James Bond maker Ian Fleming at the same time.
Another friend of Dahl’s, David Ogilvy, noted that while he may have liked putting notches on his bed style, his partners were often injured.
“When they fell in love with him, like many people, I don’t think he was nice to them,” said Ogilvy.
According to Dahl’s biographer, Donald Sturrock, during his four years in Washington, he had “experienced enough excitement to last a lifetime, while the reality of war had added a cynical, misanthropic, and world-worn aspect to his personality.”
This was the man who turned his attention to Patricia Neal in 1952. Her response to him was cold.
She would later say that she “loathed” Dahl initially. “I was furious at his rudeness,” she added.
However, after having her baby broken off by Gary Cooper, Neal desperately wanted children, so she married Dahl in 1953.
But later she would admit she didn’t love him. They bought Gipsy House in Great Missenden, 30 miles from London, and split their lives between there and New York.
In 1960, just after Neal finished filming Breakfast At Tiffany’s, the Dahls’ four-month-old son, Theo, became brain dead when his pram was hit by a taxi, his skull shattered by the force of the impact.
Fluid built up in his cranial cavity, making him blind.
Doctors placed a tube to drain the fluid, but over the next nine months, the tube was blocked six times, causing further blindness.
In his determination to help his son, Dahl nearly left his writing career to work with toy maker Stanley Wade and pediatric neurosurgeon Kenneth Till to develop a ‘cerebral shunt’ for draining fluid that became known as the Dahl-Wade- Till (DWT) valve.
The valve has been successfully used on nearly 3,000 children worldwide.
Two years after Theo’s accident, the tragedy hit the Dahls again when, as we have seen, their seven-year-old daughter Olivia died of encephalitis.
Dahl sobbed on Neal’s shoulder and she knew he had been “destroyed.”
Yet he did not seem to recognize his wife’s suffering.
It was then, she decided, that the “landslide of anger and frustration” began to almost bury their family.
In 1964, Neal peaked her career when she won the Oscar for Best Actress, Bafta and New York Film Critics for performing opposite Paul Newman in Hud.
She won another Bafta Prize in 1966 for In Harm’s Way, starring John Wayne.
She had just started filming Seven Women for acclaimed director John Ford, and was pregnant with her fifth child when she suffered three heavy blows.
Doctors removed blood clots from her brain, and she was in a coma for 21 days, during which the show business newspaper Variety mistakenly announced her death.
When she regained consciousness, she was paralyzed on her right, unable to walk, and had speech impairment and partial blindness in her right eye.
Her fifth child, Lucy, was born healthy, but Dahl realized that Neal had only months to relearn what was lost.
He imposed a brutal regime on her and forced her to ask things with their correct name and word, or without going.
At the end of ten months, Neal’s only remaining weakness was the loss of vision in her right eye.
Show business cynics were convinced she would never work again, but in 1968 she miraculously returned to the screen in The Subject Was Roses, for which she won another Oscar nomination.
President Lyndon Johnson presented her with the Heart Of The Year Award, and the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center opened in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1978.
But if her career lasted, her marriage wouldn’t. She had befriended a young widow, Felicity Crosland, who – after an invitation to stay in Great Missenden – repaid Neal’s hospitality by becoming her husband’s mistress.
When Neal heard of their affair, she was devastated and returned to New York for good this time.
She and Dahl divorced in 1983. He died in 1990.
In her 1988 autobiography, Neal wrote, “Often my life is compared to a Greek tragedy, and the actress in me cannot deny the comparison.”
But Patricia Neal, the courageous and courageous survivor, didn’t dwell on her tragedies.
When lung cancer ended her life on August 8, 2010 at the age of 84, her family said that “she was exposed to her last illness because she had passed all the many trials: with indomitable grace, good humor, and much of her self-described stubbornness.” .
Her own final words about her extraordinary life were heartwarmingly positive. “I had a good time,” she said.