An American beauty and the big but not-so-friendly giant

The big but not-so-friendly giant: How Roald Dahl’s marriage to Patricia Neal was scarred by the loss of a child – and finally destroyed by the author’s adultery

The legendary Oscar-winning Hollywood star Patricia Neal, whom I knew during some of the many vicissitudes in her astonishing life, once said of her tempestuous 30-year marriage to the writer Roald Dahl: ‘Our life together was the stuff of which movies are made.’ 

Her remark was prophetic. In 1981, while they were still married, the couple became the subject of a TV movie, The Patricia Neal Story, starring Glenda Jackson as Neal and Dirk Bogarde as Dahl. 

Now, with both of them no longer alive, an infinitely more penetrating account of their frequently traumatic, sometimes brutal, and ultimately tragic marriage is soon to be released, starring 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’ adored daughter who died at the age of seven from measles-related encephalitis. 

The tragic personal life of Roald Dahl, especially the period of his marriage to the Hollywood star Patricia Neal, is the subject of a new film starring Hugh Bonneville and Keeley Hawes

Neal was a beguiling character and the least theatrical actress I have ever known.

Willowy, sardonic and deeply intelligent, she had beautiful green-brown eyes, an unforgettably husky voice resonant with the timbre of her Kentucky and Tennessee origins, and an explosive barmaid’s laugh. 

A tough, gritty realist, conversationally she fired from the hip –— never prevaricating — and slugged her way through a life that veered irrationally from triumph to tragedy and back again. 

After passionate but ill-starred affairs with the future American president Ronald Reagan, and screen legend Gary Cooper, she drifted reluctantly into marrying without love the writer Roald Dahl, one of the most complex men of his generation, a wartime secret agent, a serial womaniser, and a ruthlessly detached, cold-blooded character who was capable of extreme emotional cruelty. 

Their life together was undermined by a series of devastating tragedies. 

One of their five children, Theo, was brain-damaged in a horrifying road 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, only two years after winning her Oscar for her portrayal of Alma Brown in the 1963 western Hud, she suffered a series of massive strokes that left her paralysed, unable to walk, partially blind and with badly impaired speech. 

Her career appeared to be over, but Dahl, at his most ruthless, imposed a gruelling recovery regime on his wife that has since largely been adopted as the standard therapy for all stroke victims.

Keeley Hawes stars as Patricia Neal in the upcoming film ‘An Unquiet Life’ that focuses on her tragic marriage to author Roald Dahl played by Hugh Bonneville

Neal, against all expectations, returned to the screen to win a further Oscar nomination and worldwide admiration that bordered on heroine status. 

She even had a rehabilitation centre named after her. 

Patsy Louise Neal had the most untheatrical debut in life imaginable. Born in 1926 in a mining camp in Packard, Kentucky, she was the daughter of a transportation manager for the Southern Coal And Coke Company. 

In spite of this, she would later say: ‘I was one of those people born to be an actress. I remember being about 11 and going to church to give a monologue, and I said to myself, ‘This is what I want to do’.’ 

Neal and Dahl holidaying 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 he attended 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 a tool of the trade and I was an expert. It’s terrible what I did in those days. 

‘I don’t know what happened to my morals. If I wanted someone, I wanted them.’ 

Patricia Neal (1926-2010) married Roald Dahl in 1953 but they divorced in 1983

After understudying on Broadway at 19 in The Voice Of The Turtle, she won the first-ever Tony Award for her performance as the calculating opportunist, Regina, in Another Part Of The Forest, and her career lifted off at the age of 20. 

When Jane Wyman announced that she was separating from her husband, Ronald Reagan, Warner Brothers gave Neal the role Wyman was to have played opposite Reagan in John Loves Mary. 

Reagan was devastated by the break-up of his marriage, and broke down in tears in front of Neal. 

Reagan and Neal began an affair which continued in a later film they made together, The Hasty Heart, but it came to nothing because, by then, she had fallen in love with one of Hollywood’s most legendary icons, the heavily married Gary Cooper, whom 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, at 48, was 25 years her senior and had been married for 16 years to his wife, Veronica. Neal found ‘Coop’ ‘the most gorgeously attractive man’, but when his wife learned of their affair, she sent Neal a telegram demanding that they end it, and Cooper’s daughter, Maria, spat at Neal in public. 

Cooper wavered over the possibility of leaving his wife, and when he found out that Neal was pregnant, he urged her to have an abortion. 

She did so, but it was the one act in her life that she bitterly regretted for ever after. 

When her affair with Cooper ended, Neal suffered a severe 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 he forced her to have an abortion

She would always describe Gary Cooper as her only true love. ‘He is one of the most beautiful things that ever happened to me. I love him even now,’ she confessed 40 years later.

But she added: ‘If I had only one thing to do over in my life, I would have that baby.’ 

Neal was about to go into rehearsal for a Broadway revival of Lillian Hellman’s play, The Children’s Hour, when she attended a dinner party at Hellman’s home, and there met Roald Dahl, later to find fame as a children’s author with titles such as The BFG (Big Friendly Giant), who was then working for The New Yorker magazine. 

Dahl, British-born of Norwegian parents, was ten years Neal’s senior and had arrived in New York in 1942 as a 26-year-old RAF officer, appointed as an assistant air attaché. 

He almost immediately began working for British Security Coordination, a branch of MI6, which controlled more than a thousand wartime secret agents.

He rapidly established himself in New York as a serial womaniser and skilled flirt. 

One of the first to become a willing victim to his ‘manly beauty’ was Beatrice Gould, co-editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal. 

Other wealthy and usually older women also succumbed. Before long, Dahl had a ‘whole stable’ of ladies who considered him ‘drop-dead gorgeous’. 

One friend thought him ‘very arrogant with women, but he got away with it. The uniform didn’t hurt one bit. I think he slept with everybody on the East and West coasts that had more than $50,000 a year’. 

One celebrated older woman who succumbed to Dahl’s allure was Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce, a relationship said to have been encouraged by the British Embassy in Washington. 

Dahl is alleged to have told the British Ambassador, Lord Halifax, that he was ‘all f****d out’ because Luce had ‘screwed (him) from one end of the room to the other for three goddam nights’. 

Dahl was also showered with expensive gifts by the American oil heiress Millicent Rogers, who was simultaneously having an affair with Dahl’s friend, James Bond creator Ian Fleming. 

Another of Dahl’s friends, David Ogilvy, observed that while he may have enjoyed putting notches on his bedpost, his partners were often hurt. 

‘When they fell in love with him, as a lot did, 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 realities of war had added a cynical, misanthropic, and world-weary aspect to his personality’. 

This was the man who, in 1952, turned his attentions to Patricia Neal. Her reaction to him was cold. 

She was later to say that she initially ‘loathed’ Dahl. ‘I was infuriated by his rudeness,’ she added. 

After aborting her baby by Gary Cooper, however, Neal desperately wanted children, so she married Dahl in 1953. 

But she would later admit that she did not love him. They bought Gipsy House in Great Missenden, 30 miles from London, and divided their lives between there and New York. 

In 1960, just after Neal had finished filming Breakfast At Tiffany’s, the Dahls’ four-month old baby son, Theo, was braindamaged when his pram was hit by a taxi, his skull shattered by the force of the impact. 

Fluid built up in his cranial cavity, causing him to go blind. 

Doctors inserted a tube to drain the fluid, but six times in the next nine months, the tube became blocked, causing further blindness. 

In his determination to help his son, Dahl almost abandoned his writing career to work with toymaker Stanley Wade and paediatric neurosurgeon Kenneth Till on the development of a ‘cerebral shunt’ for draining fluid that became known as the Dahl-Wade-Till (DWT) valve. 

The valve went on to be used successfully on almost 3,000 children around the world. 

Two years after Theo’s accident, tragedy struck the Dahls again when — as we have seen — their seven-year-old daughter Olivia died from encephalitis. 

Dahl sobbed on Neal’s shoulder and she knew he was ‘destroyed’. 

Yet he seemed unable to acknowledge his wife’s suffering. 

It was then, she decided, that the ‘landslide of anger and frustration’ began that almost buried their family. 

In 1964, Neal reached the peak of her career when she won the Best Actress Oscar, Bafta and New York Film Critics Award for her performance opposite Paul Newman in Hud. 

She won a further Bafta award in 1966 for In Harm’s Way, co-starring John Wayne. 

She had just begun filming Seven Women for acclaimed director John Ford, and was pregnant with her fifth child, when she suffered three massive strokes. 

Doctors removed blood clots from her brain and she was in a coma for 21 days, during which showbusiness news­paper Variety mistakenly announced her death. 

When she regained consciousness, she was paralysed on her right side, unable to walk, and had impaired speech and partial blindness in her right eye. 

Her fifth child, Lucy, was born healthy, but Dahl realised Neal had only months in which to re-learn what had been lost. 

He imposed a ruthless regime on her, forcing her to ask for things by their correct name and word, or go without them. 

At the end of ten months, Neal’s only remaining infirmity was the loss of vision in her right eye. 

Showbusiness cynics were convinced she would never work again, but in 1968 she made a miraculous return 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, in 1978, the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Centre opened in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

But if her career endured, her marriage did not. She had befriended a young widow, Felicity Crosland, who — after accepting an invitation to stay at Great Missenden — repaid Neal’s hospitality by becoming her husband’s mistress.

When Neal learned of their affair, she was devastated and returned to New York, this time for good. 

She and Dahl were divorced in 1983. He died in 1990. 

In her 1988 autobiography, Neal wrote: ‘Frequently my life has been likened to a Greek tragedy, and the actress in me cannot deny the comparison’. 

But Patricia Neal, the courageous and gutsy survivor, did not dwell on her tragedies. 

When lung cancer ended her life at the age of 84 on August 8, 2010, her family said that ‘she faced her final illness as she had all the many trials she had endured: with indomitable grace, good humour and a great deal of her self-described stubbornness’. 

Her own last words on her extraordinary life were heart-warmingly positive. ‘I’ve had a lovely time,’ she said.

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