Patricia Neal: a life of drama on screen and off

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 Hud (1962) – 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 spokesperson said in a statement that Neal “faced her final illness a she had all the many trials she endured, with indomitable grace, good humour and a great deal of her self-described stubbornness.”

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

“I can only tell you that I was a member of the Methodist Church, I was there all the time,” 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 amassed hurrahs and 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 1949’s John Loves Mary, and her affaire de coeur with Cooper, her opposite number in 1949’s The Fountainhead.

Another year, another twist. In 1952, when Neal's Hollywood career was stalling, Hellman insisted the actress starred 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 in an interview with American TV host Ernie Manouse last year. "It was elegant, everyone [was] 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 at the party and talked to composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, who was also sat among the group. "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 an Oscar for “Hud” came Neal’s three strokes and coma. Dahl took a strict view on her recovery, overseeing her physical rehabilitation. In 1967 she announced she was ready to face the world by giving 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... and he did so much for me after my strokes... It was a terrible blow when I found out.”

She claimed never really to have got over Cooper, the great love of her life. In “As I Am”, she added: “He is one of the most beautiful things that ever happened to me in my life. I love him even now.”

Neal is survived by her four children, Tessa, Ophelia, Theo and Lucy; 10 grandchildren, including the model Sophie Dahl, and a great-grandchild.

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