Patricia Neal’s Children Were Her ‘Greatest’ Joy Despite Family Heartbreak and Strokes
Every summer, Oscar-winner Patricia Neal would open up her home on Martha’s Vineyard to her extended family. “It amazes me that she was able to put up with so many rowdy children, teenagers and all our friends,” the actress’ granddaughter Clover Fiandaca tells Closer. “She welcomed strangers with open arms and would bewitch all our friends with her stories.”
And what stories! Patricia, whose career lasted over five decades and rewarded her with a Tony and an Oscar, lived a life filled with triumph but also hardship and sorrow. She endured a soul-searing affair with Gary Cooper, a difficult marriage to British author Roald Dahl, the death of one child and the serious injury of another and, finally, a series of strokes that forced her to relearn everything. “Stubbornness gets you through the bad times,” Patricia said. “You don’t give in.”
Although born in a Kentucky coal-mining town, Patricia found her calling at an early age. “She always loved being the center of attention,” says Stephen Michael Shearer, author of Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life. She arrived in New York as a teenager and became the understudy for Vivian Vance in Voice of the Turtle. “I was very lucky in the beginning — don’t ask me what’s happened since,” joked Patricia, who won a Tony at 21.
Signed by Warner Brothers, she became Hollywood’s It girl and fell hard for Gary Cooper, her costar in 1949’s The Fountainhead. “Of course, I fell in love with Gary,” she said. “I mean, one look at him …” Though Gary left his family for Patricia for a period, their three-year romance ended when he persuaded her to end a pregnancy.
A desire to be a mother led to Patricia’s 1953 marriage to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author, Roald Dahl, who would father her five children. But fate never allowed them to be happy. In 1960, their 4-month-old son Theo was left brain-damaged after his stroller was crushed by a taxi in New York. Two years later, their eldest daughter, Olivia, died from complications of the measles. “Pat worked through her daughter’s death by talking about it. Roald wouldn’t. He never really recovered,” says Shearer.
Yet, Roald rose to the occasion after Patricia suffered a series of severe strokes in 1965. “She had to relearn everything, even her children’s names,” says Shearer. Her husband badgered her to walk, arranged for physical and speech therapy, and insisted she make a speech at a charity event for brain-damaged children barely two years later. “Roald the Rotten, as I had called him more than once, had thrown me back into the deep water,” she said. “Where I belonged.”
Their marriage wouldn’t last — Patricia eventually discovered Roald had been having a long affair with one of her best friends — but her career rebounded. She received an Oscar nomination for The Subject Was Roses and would continue to work in movies and TV until her death in 2010 at age 84.
In 1979, Patricia bought the summer home on Martha’s Vineyard, where she surrounded herself with loved ones. “She adored her career as an actress, and was proud of every award she won,” says Clover. “But I think her greatest joy was her children and her grandchildren.”