Patricia Neal

Patricia Neal (born 1926) is almost as well known for the events of her own life as she is for her career on stage and screen. In 1963, after winning her first Academy Award for Best Actress, Neal suffered three massive strokes. Her struggle to come back was both more dramatic and more triumphant than any of her roles on stage or screen.

Patsy Louise ("Patricia") Neal was born in Packard, Kentucky on January 20, 1926. Her father, William Burdette Neal, was raised on a tobacco plantation in Virgina, and worked at the South Coal and Coke Company. Her mother, Eura Mildred Petrey Neal, was the daughter of Packard's town doctor, Pascal Gennings Petrey. She had an older sister, Margaret Ann, and a younger brother, William Petrey, whom they called "Pete." In 1929, the family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee where William Neal had gotten a new job.

Drama Classes for Christmas

Although Neal was raised as a Baptist, she frequently attended the Methodist church with friends. On one of those occasions, during a Christmas program in 1936, she heard her grammar school teacher, Cornelia Avanti, present a monologue. She was so impressed that she wrote a letter to Santa explaining she wanted to study "dramatics" for her Christmas present. Her Aunt Maude's sister-in-law, Emily Mahan, had just returned from New York and opened her own drama school, so Neal's parents sent her to study with Mahan. Soon, Neal was organizing neighborhood productions, and presenting shows on the Neal family front porch. By high school, she was performing monologues in her Aunt Maude's sitting room. Word of mouth spread, and soon she was in demand for dramatic readings at local groups like the Knoxville Social Club. She won many awards for her readings, including the Tennessee State Award for dramatic reading. She also performed with the Tennessee Valley Players. It was during this time that Neal decided that acting was the career path she would follow.

Neal enrolled in the drama school at Northwestern University in 1943. That following summer, she acted with a fledgling summer theater troupe in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania. By the end of the summer, she had decided to quit school and went to New York with 300 dollars in her pocket. She moved to a West side apartment with three friends and began auditioning. She eventually landed the part of understudy for both lead roles in The Voice of the Turtle, and, at the suggestion of the show's producer, changed her name to "Patricia."

From New York to Hollywood

The next year, Neal won the starring role in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest. The show opened at the Fulton Theater in New York on November 20, 1946. Neal was a critical success and won several awards including the Donaldson Award, the Drama Critics Award and the Antoinette Perry Award.

The silver screen was next. Neal accepted a contract from Warner Brothers, and later worked with MGM and 20th Century Fox. In her first role she played Mary in the 1949 movie version of John Loves Mary. This, as well as her next two films, The Fountainhead (1949) and Bright Leaf (1950), with Gary Cooper, were critical failures. The tide turned, however, in 1950 when she starred alongside Ronald Reagan in The Hasty Heart.

Shortly after arriving in Hollywood, Neal met and fell in love with Gary Cooper, who was married at the time. She and Cooper had an affair that began as the shooting of The Fountainhead ended. The low point of the affair came when Neal discovered she was pregnant. The two decided an abortion was the best solution to that problem. It was a decision she always regretted. The event hastened the end of their relationship in 1951.

Neal returned to New York, taking her own apartment on Park Avenue. She auditioned for Lillian Hellman and Kermit Bloomgarden in The Children's Hour, and was accepted for either of the two leading roles. She chose Martha. Just before rehearsals began for the play, she was introduced to Roald Dahl at a party at Hellman's home. The children's author, now famous for contributions like Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang, Charley and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, had come to the United States in 1942 to work in espionage for the British embassy in Washington. He soon after became a feature writer, contributing to several magazines including The New Yorker. Neal was not particularly interested in Dahl, but he persisted. "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 wrote in her autobiography, As I Am.

Neal wanted to settle down and start a family, so she married Dahl on July 2, 1953, though she would later admit that she didn't love him then. The couple eventually had five children. After the wedding, they purchased a home called Gipsy House, 30 miles from London, in Great Missenden. They would live there in the spring and summer, and in New York the rest of the year while she was acting.

Neal continued to do stage work in both England and the United States throughout the 1950s, performing in A Roomful of Roses, Suddenly Last Summer, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Miracle Worker. She returned to the screen, too, performing in Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd in 1957. In 1961, she played the part of 2E in Truman Capote's Breakfast At Tiffany's, a supporting role to George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn's leads. In 1963, Neal co-starred with Paul Newman in the Elia Kazan film, Hud. She won an Academy Award, the New York Film Critics Award, and the British Motion Picture Award for "best foreign actress."

Tragedy Came in Threes

All was not well in Neal's private life. A series of tragedies, beginning in the early 1960s, would put her career on hold for a few years. The first tragedy to hit the Dahl family was an accident. Five-month-old Theo suffered severe brain damage after being struck by a taxi while in his pram. Shortly thereafter, in 1962, the Dahl's oldest child, Olivia, came down with encephalitis and died. She was seven years old.

In 1965, during the filming of Seven Women, Neal suffered three strokes while pregnant with daughter, Lucy. She was 39. After surgery to remove blood clots on her brain, she fell into a 21-day coma. Newspapers prematurely published her obituary, but Neal was still fighting. The strokes left her paralyzed on her right side and greatly diminished her speech. The tragedy brought out Dahl's best and worst traits. As a stroke victim, he knew that Neal had a year or less to re-learn most of her basic skills. When she returned home from the hospital he forced her to ask for things by their proper names or go without them. They worked together for ten months. At the end of that time, the only remaining infirmity was a loss of vision in her right eye.

A Triumphant Return

Neal returned to acting at Dahl's urging. In 1965, she won a British Film Academy Award for best foreign actress for In Harm's Way. In 1968, she was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in The Subject was Roses. In 1971, Neal was nominated for an Emmy Award for her performance in the film The Homecoming: A Christmas Story. It became the pilot for The Waltons television series.

Around this time, Neal met a young widow at the David Ogilvy advertising agency, Felicity Crosland. The two became friends and Crosland was invited to stay at Great Missenden. She eventually betrayed that friendship by becoming Dahl's mistress. When Neal learned of the affair, she was devastated and returned to New York, this time for good. She had come to depend on Dahl, and even love him. The couple divorced in 1983.

Neal eventually converted to Catholicism. On the advice of Gary Cooper's daughter, she entered the Regina Laudis Abbey, a New England Benedictine retreat. The nuns encouraged her to keep a journal of her memories and rediscover herself. The therapy was also intended to improve her memory, which had been affected by the strokes. The journal became the basis for Neal's autobiography, As I Am, which was published in 1988. It helped her to come to terms with the divorce.

Never one to rest on her laurels, Neal has turned the knowledge she gained from being a stroke victim into a way to help others. The Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center was opened in 1978 in Knoxville, Tennessee. The 72-bed facility is nationally recognized for its rehabilitation of patients with stroke, spinal cord, and traumatic brain injuries. Neal and Dahl had created a recovery system that is recognized worldwide. Thirty stroke centers in England now use those methods.

Life On Her Own

In 1981, Anthony Harvey and Larry Schiller directed and produced Gypsy House: The Patricia Neal Story, staring Glenda Jackson and Dirk Bogarde for CBS television. Robert Anderson (Tea and Sympathy) wrote the script, which both Neal and Dahl reviewed and approved before shooting began. Jackson was nominated for an Emmy for her performance.

Neal continued to perform in several made-for-TV movies throughout the 1980s and co-starred with Shelley Winters in the ironically titled, An Unremarkable Life, in 1989. In 1999, Neal played the role of Cookie in the Robert Altman film, Cookie's Fortune, a murder-mystery involving two sisters in a small Mississippi town. Neal also took two cruises with the Theater Guild's Theater-at-Sea programs. She performed in one hour plays, read stories, and related incidents from her life.

Further Reading on Patricia Neal

Neal, Patricia, As I Am, Simon and Schuster, 1988.

Boston Globe, May 1, 1988.

Chicago Tribune, April 3, 1988.

Gannett News Service, April 24, 1988.

Globe and Mail, March 30, 1981.

Guardian, July 27, 1996.

Knoxville News-Sentinel, November 24, 1998.

Los Angeles Daily News, October 26, 1989.

San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday Review, June 26, 1988.

Tennessean, November 15, 1998.

"All About Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center," Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center (March 9, 1999).

"Cookie's Fortune," IMDb (March 9, 1999).

"Patricia Neal: Greatness Through Understanding," WIC Biography March 9, 1999.

"Who Is Patricia Neal?" Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center (March 9, 1999).