A Great Lady: Remembering Patricia Neal
But, perhaps, above all, Patricia Neal was endurance personified.
The willowy, husky-voiced actress was an Oscar, Tony, and Golden Globe winner, and appeared in such noteworthy films as A Face in the Crowd, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Hud. And while she certainly couldn’t be labeled a film noir icon, a la Marie Windsor or Claire Trevor, Neal earned a solid place in the world of noir with her starring role in The Breaking Point (1950) opposite John Garfield. Away from the cameras, Neal suffered a series of tragedies, heartbreaks and setbacks, any one of which would have understandably caused irrevocable devastation to most of us. But not Patricia Neal.
On August 8, 2010, Patricia Neal’s extraordinary life came to an end when she died of lung cancer at the age of 84 in Edgartown, Massachusetts at Martha’s Vineyard. In honor of what would have been her 86th birthday, Shadows and Satin remembers her here.
Patricia Louise Neal was born in a mining camp in Packard, Kentucky, on January 20, 1926, one of three children of the town doctor’s daughter and a transportation manager for the South Coal and Coke Company. She grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee – by the time she entered Knoxville High School, she was giving monologues at local social clubs and had won the Tennessee State Award for dramatic reading. After high school, Neal studied drama at Northwestern University in Chicago, where her classmates included future performers Jean Hagen and Ralph Meeker. She would later say that she was destined to be an actress: “I remember being 11 and going to church to give a monologue, and I said to myself, ‘This is what I want to do.’” After two years at Northwestern, Neal moved to New York, where her eye-catching good looks earned her work as a model. In 1945, Neal got a job understudying Vivian Vance in The Voice of the Turtle on Broadway, but her big break came the following year when she caused a sensation as Regina, the spoiled and willful daughter in Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest. Hailed by one critic as “a young Tallulah Bankhead,” Neal, at the age of 21, won a Tony (the first year they were awarded) for best actress, and was seen on the cover of Life magazine.
Hollywood beckoned soon after. Neal’s film debut was in the mostly forgotten John Loves Mary (1949), where she portrayed a senator’s daughter engaged to ex-GI Ronald Reagan. But later that year, now under contract to Warner Bros., Neal made a more memorable impact in King Vidor’s The Fountainhead, based on the bestselling Ayn Rand novel. The film would be more than just another cinematic experience for the actress.
In The Fountainhead, Neal portrayed Dominique Francon, the beautiful and tempestuous daughter of a granite quarry owner who falls in love with architect Howard Roark, played by Gary Cooper. Although the role of Dominique was coveted by many actresses, including Barbara Stanwyck, the overly melodramatic film was not well-received. Neal later recalled, “You knew, from the very first reel, it was destined to be a monumental bomb. My status changed immediately. That was the end of my career as a second Garbo.”
But the crackling sexual chemistry on the big screen was no act – Neal and Cooper began an affair during filming that lasted for the next three years. Although Neal fell deeply in love, and would always consider Cooper as the great, true love of her life, the 48-year-old Cooper was married with a daughter, Maria. During the affair, Neal became pregnant with Cooper’s child and, reportedly at his urging, got an abortion. When Cooper’s wife, Veronica, learned of the affair, she sent Neal a telegram, demanding that she put a stop to the relationship. Although Cooper and his wife briefly separated, the affair eventually ended (but not before Cooper’s daughter spat at Neal in public). After the actor returned to his family, Neal suffered a nervous breakdown.
Meanwhile, on screen, Neal played opposite Ronald Reagan in the British-made The Hasty Heart (1949), followed by another starring role with Gary Cooper in Bright Leaf (1950), in which she played an aristocratic southern girl vying for the affections of Cooper’s tobacco tycoon. Also that year, she was seen as a “wised-up good time girl” in the film noir The Breaking Point (1950), the second – and more faithful – adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not. The film’s star, John Garfield, played a financially strapped fishing proprietor who finds himself embroiled in a scheme involving a shady lawyer and a gang of crooks.
Neal’s next big role was in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the Robert Wise-directed sci-fi classic in which a humanoid alien and his robot companion land on Earth to warn its inhabitants that they must learn to live peacefully or be destroyed. As a widow in whose boarding house the alien seeks refuge, Neal’s uttered the film’s most famous line, “Klaatu barada niktu.”
After this feature, Neal’s film career stalled, but she rebounded the following year with a return to Broadway in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, playing a schoolteacher accused by a student of lesbianism. At a dinner party given by Hellman, Neal met best-selling author Roald Dahl, who would later pen such beloved classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Matilda, and James and the Giant Peach. Dahl was immediately interested in the attractive actress, but Neal was less enthused. She would later state: “Deliberate is a good word for Roald Dahl. He knew exactly what he wanted and he quietly went about getting it. I did not yet realize, however, that he wanted me.” Neal and Dahl were married in 1953, dividing their time between homes in Manhattan and England. Their first child, Olivia Twenty Dahl, was born two years later, but by all accounts, the union was a troubled one from the start.
Following a series of mediocre film roles, Neal was back on Broadway as the mother of a difficult teen in 1955’s A Roomful of Roses, and the next year, she took over from Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie in the Elia Kazan-directed play, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. Kazan cast Neal in his next film, A Face in the Crowd (1957), a first-rate offering where Neal portrayed a small-town radio personality who discovers folksy country singer Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith), and transforms him into a nationwide sensation, creating a monster in the process.
The year that A Face in the Crowd was released, Neal gave birth to her second child, Chantal Tessa Sophia, and three years later, would add a son to the family, Theo Matthew Roald. Career-wise, Neal was a hit in Tennessee Williams’s one-act play, Suddenly Last Summer, in London in 1958, but she was disappointed when the role in the big-screen version was given to Elizabeth Taylor. She returned to Broadway in 1959 to play Helen Keller’s mother in The Miracle Worker but again, she was initially frustrated that she was not offered the more significant role of Keller’s teacher. Still, with a sense of pragmatism that seemed to typify her personality, Neal took the news in stride.
“It was not a starring role, but I hadn’t done a play in the United States in four years or a film in three,” Neal later wrote in her autobiography, As I Am. “I was in no position to command the star spot and I knew it. I could fantasize all I wanted, but if I was to keep working, I would have to go with what was offered.” Ultimately, the role of Annie Sullivan was played, both in the Broadway and screen versions, by Anne Bancroft.
Neal was cast the following year in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) as a rich society matron known as “2-E.” But just after filming ended, Neal’s four-month-old son, Theo, suffered brain damage when a New York taxi struck his baby carriage. Several surgeries were required and the infant’s sight was endangered when a tube inserted to drain cranial fluid repeatedly became blocked. After several months, Roald Dahl worked with hydraulic engineer Stanley Wade and pediatric neurosurgeon Kenneth Till to create the Wade-Dahl-Till valve to prevent the blockage of the tube. The device would later be credited with saving the sight of more than 3,000 children worldwide. But Neal barely had time to recover from this horrific incident when personal tragedy struck again – in 1962, her oldest daughter, Olivia, died at the age of seven from measles encephalitis.
Perhaps Neal channeled her grief into her performance in her next big film, Hud (1963) – as the cynical, world-weary housekeeper Alma Brown, Neal earned an Oscar for Best Actress.
“It was a tough part to cast,” the film’s director, Martin Ritt, said later. “This woman had to be believable as a housekeeper and still be sexy. It called for a special combination of warmth and toughness, while still being very feminine. Pat Neal was it.”
In 1964, Neal’s fourth child, Ophelia Magdalena, was born, and the following year, the actress added a BAFTA to her list of awards for In Harm’s Way, in which she played the divorced lover of a naval captain (John Wayne). But later that year, just a few weeks into filming for John Ford’s Seven Women (1966), and three months pregnant with her fifth child, Neal suffered three massive strokes that left her in a coma for several weeks (during which the showbiz publication Variety announced her death). When she emerged from the coma after 21 days, she was paralyzed on her right side, unable to walk or read, blind in one eye, and incapable of articulate speech. She was 39 years old.
After Neal returned home, her husband badgered her into recovery – forcing her to walk, refusing to help her with such seemingly simple tasks as buttoning a blouse, holding items out of her reach until she was able to ask for them, and arranging for hours of physical and speech therapy. Six months later, Neal gave birth to a healthy daughter, Lucy Neal. In early 1967, Dahl decided that she was ready to perform and announced that she would give a speech in New York that spring at a charity dinner for brain-damaged children. In her autobiography, Neal 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.” After working daily to memorize the speech, Neal delivered it at the event to thunderous applause. Of her ability to learn to walk and talk again, Neal once said, “A strong, positive mental attitude will create more miracles than any wonder drug. I think I was born stubborn, that’s all.”
Although she turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1968), Neal was back on the big screen the next year, playing an embittered wife in The Subject was Roses (1968), for which she earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (this time, she lost out to dual winners Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand). That same year, Neal was honored with the American Heart Association’s Heart of the Year Award, presented to her by President Lyndon Johnson. A decade later, the Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, dedicated the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in her honor. The Center is devoted to rehabilitating stroke, spinal cord, and brain injury patients.
During the next several years, Neal was seen in a number of made-for-TV movies, including the pilot for the long-running series, The Waltons (1971), in which she played the family matriarch and earned a Golden Globe Award; A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story (1978); and All Quiet on the Western Front (1979); as well as a variety of television series including Kung Fu and Little House on the Prairie. She also appeared in such feature films as The Night Digger (1971), which was adapted by Dahl from a novel by Joy Cowley; Baxter! (1973), where she played a speech therapist; and Ghost Story (1981), a creepy tale starring Hollywood vets Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. And in 1981, she made a cameo appearance in a small screen recounting of her life, The Patricia Neal Story, in which she and Dahl were portrayed by Glenda Jackson and Dirk Bogarde.
Then, in 1983, Neal’s world was rocked yet again – her 30-year marriage to Roald Dahl ended after she learned her spouse had been having an 11-year affair with Felicity Crosland, a set designer and close friend who Neal and Dahl had both met while Neal was filming a Maxim coffee commercial years earlier.
“It’s horrible looking back on how many times we were all together on holiday and I never knew,” Neal said later. “He’s had this affair for God knows how many years. It’s not the first one, I know, but I think this one’s been going on for years, so that’s a little much . . . It’s just really ghastly. . . . I did not want a divorce, but I would go through with it and begin my life over. I had done it before. I would do it again.”
After the 1983 divorce, Dahl married Crosland, with whom he remained until his death from a rare blood disease in 1990. Interestingly, in later years, Neal would reconcile with the widow and daughter of Gary Cooper, as well as with Felicity Crosland. (Upon hearing of Neal’s death, Crosland would tell reporters, “I join the rest of the family in saluting a terrific and brave woman who will be so missed by all who knew her.”)
In 1988, Neal wrote her well-received autobiography, and went on to appear in a handful of film and television productions, most notably the Robert Altman feature Cookie’s Fortune (1999), a first-rate dark comedy in which she played the title role of a wealthy dowager who commits suicide. Her last role was a small part in the 2009 feature Flying By, starring Billy Ray Cyrus.
In recent years, Neal enjoyed life on Martha’s Vineyard, where she’d purchased a home in 1979 – reportedly, she’d been intrigued by the island since reading 30 years earlier that famed actress Katharine Cornell summered there. According to locals, Neal was a fixture at the annual fundraising auction for the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, and in 2005, she hosted a yard sale after decluttering her home, donating the proceeds to Vineyard House, which provides group home environments to recovering substance abusers on the island.
“Here on the Vineyard we were fortunate that we didn’t know her so much as the actress, but as our neighbor who participated and gave back,” said a long-time member of the auction committee. “You’d see her everywhere, doing things. I saw her scooping ice cream at a benefit up at the Catholic church, elbows deep in a tub of ice cream. She loved people.” Another resident of the area, Neal’s neighbor and pastor of the local Federated Church, stated that he was “always intrigued” by Neal. “She was a fascinating woman who was totally unassuming about who she was. I always thought that her stardom and her stature were really not that important to her. She loved people, and she loved to sit on her patio and talk to people as they walked by. She was just a great, great lady.”
Patricia Neal died in her home on South Water Street, with her three daughters by her side. She is survived by her four children, 10 grandchildren and step-grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. According to reports, on the night before her death, Neal shared with her daughters, “I’ve had a lovely time.”
Watching her films and basking in the glow of Neal’s talent, beauty, and resilience, we can honestly say, so have we.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of The Dark Pages.