Feature

Patricia Neal, 1926–2010

The stage and screen star who overcame heartbreaking setbacks

“Frequently my life has been likened to a Greek tragedy,” Patricia Neal wrote in her 1988 autobiography, “and the actress in me cannot deny that comparison.” In a storied career that took her to the heights of fame and the depths of despair, Neal won Broadway’s top honors, including a Tony, before turning 21. But her stratospheric rise was brought low by Hollywood flops and personal tragedies that sometimes seemed more than anyone could bear.

Born in Packard, Ky., and raised in Knoxville, Neal was a mine manager’s daughter who began delivering theatrical monologues at age 10. After two years as a drama major at Northwestern University, Neal arrived in New York, where she rocketed to fame when Lillian Hellman and Richard Rodgers competed to cast her after watching her perform summer stock. A “lioness” on the stage, Neal became a Broadway star at 20 in Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest, said Variety.com. Promptly signed by Warner Bros. to a seven-year film contract, she appeared with Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead in 1949 and Bright Leaf the next year. During this period she embarked on a three-year love affair with Cooper that brought her “to the verge of a nervous breakdown when Cooper refused to divorce his wife.” Having become pregnant during the affair, according to her autobiography, Neal had an abortion. She said she cried herself to sleep for 30 years thereafter.

In 1953, having returned to Broadway after her film career fizzled, Neal married writer Roald Dahl, with whom she had five children during “a troubled, 30-year marriage that was marred by tragedy,” said The New York Times. The couple’s 4-month-old son, Theo, was left brain-damaged when his baby carriage “was crushed between a taxicab and a bus” in New York in 1960. “Two years later, their eldest daughter, Olivia, who was 7, died of measles encephalitis.”

Yet in 1963, Neal triumphed again, said the Los Angeles Times. Starring with Paul Newman in the film Hud, her portrayal of a “slatternly housekeeper brought her an Academy Award.” The actress was in demand in Hollywood again. Then in February 1965, having just begun filming Seven Women, the 39-year-old Neal suffered a brain hemorrhage while giving her daughter Tessa a bath. Neal had two more strokes in quick succession, and lapsed into a coma, eventually emerging partially blind, paralyzed on the right side, with no memory or ability to speak.

She later credited Dahl, the author of such children’s classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with nagging and bullying her back to health. The marriage ended, however, when Neal discovered that Dahl had been carrying on a lengthy affair with one of her friends. Neal continued acting periodically, winning acclaim for several television roles. Her gritty survivor’s tale was the subject of a 1981 television movie. “I’ve been paralyzed. I’ve fallen down and broken a hip,” she recounted in 1988. “Stubbornness gets you through the bad times. You don’t give in.”

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