Neal, Patricia, 1926-2010Alternative names
Award-winning screen and stage actress Patricia Neal was born on January 20, 1926, in Packard, Kentucky, to William Burdette “Coot” Neal (1895-1944) and Eura Petry Neal (1899-2003). She was raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, where her father worked as a manager at the Southern Coal and Coke Company.
Neal developed an interest in the performing arts at a young age. She began drama lessons at age eleven at the Emily Mahan School of Drama, where she performed in annual recitals and theatrical productions. In 1941, Neal became a member of the Tennessee Valley Players, a community theater group. The following year, with the support of Malcolm Miller, the theater critic for the Knoxville Journal, Neal joined the Barter Theater acting colony in Abingdon, Virginia. She spent her final high school summer with the company, training, performing, and traveling across the southeast.
After graduating from high school in 1943, Neal enrolled in Northwestern University’s School of Speech (now School of Communication). The school’s drama department was headed by Alvina Krause, well known and respected for her method of teaching acting. At Northwestern, Neal performed or starred in a number of theatrical productions with the University Theatre and other campus production companies, such as the University Radio Playhouse. She also participated in several campus activities, including the Pi Beta Phi sorority and the Wildcat Council, and modeled for the student humor magazine, the Purple Parrot. In 1946, Neal was crowned Queen of the Syllabus (Northwestern’s yearbook) and the Navy Ball, and was named one of “Chicago’s ten best-dressed women” by the Chicago Fashion Industries.
In her final year at Northwestern, Neal had the opportunity to join Alvina Krause’s summer theater program at the Eagles Mere Playhouse in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. At the season’s end, Neal left to pursue a professional acting career without finishing her degree. She moved to New York City with four other aspiring actresses from Northwestern, including Helen Horton.
Neal won minor roles on and off Broadway, including the position of lead understudy in The Voice of the Turtle, her first paid acting role. Neal traveled with the show and continued to audition, ultimately earning a part in Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest, for which she earned the 1947 Antoinette Perry Memorial Award (now known as the Tony Award) for Debut Performance (Best Supporting Actress).
With Broadway success secured, Neal began a film career, starring first in John Loves Mary opposite Ronald Reagan. Between 1949 and 1952, Neal starred in 13 films, including the film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead with Gary Cooper. On the set, Neal and Cooper, who was married, began an affair. In her autobiography, Neal described Cooper as the love of her life. Though Cooper temporarily separated from his wife, he ultimately stayed with her; he and Neal parted in 1951.
Due in part to the negative press surrounding her public affair with Cooper, Neal left Hollywood to resume her Broadway career. While starring in The Children’s Hour, she met British author Roald Dahl (1916-1990), perhaps best known for his children’s books (including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach ). The couple married on July 2, 1953, and divided their time between “Gipsy House,” their home in Great Missenden, England, where Dahl’s family lived, and New York City, where Neal continued her stage career.
The couple had five children, Olivia Twenty (b.1955), Chantal Sophie, known as “Tessa” (b. 1957), Theo Matthew Roald (b. 1960), Ophelia Magdelena Dahl (b. 1964), and Lucy Neal (b. 1965). On December 5, 1960, Theo suffered cranial fractures when his pram was crushed in a traffic accident. Though initially warned to prepare for their son’s death, the Dahls actively worked towards his recovery; Roald Dahl collaborated on the development and patent of a medical apparatus, the ‘Wade-Dahl-Till Valve,’ designed to draw excessive fluid from head wounds. Though Theo suffered brain damage and had to undergo several additional operations, he survived and was able to return to Gipsy House. Just as the Dahls were recovering from Theo’s near-fatal ordeal, seven-year-old Olivia succumbed to measles and died on November 17, 1962.
Despite these family tragedies, Neal appeared in over two dozen roles onstage, in film, and on television over the course of the 1950s and early 1960s. Notable films from this time period include The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Hud (1963). She received the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance (opposite Paul Newman) in Hud.
On February 17, 1965, while in Los Angeles filming Seven Women, Neal suffered three hemorrhagic strokes. She was pregnant with her daughter Lucy at the time. She was in coma for three-weeks, and when she regained consciousness, she was unable to speak, had double vision, and was paralyzed on her right side. Neal underwent formal physical therapy before returning to Great Missenden and beginning a rehabilitation program designed by Dahl. Aided by neighbor Valerie Eaton Griffith, Dahl scheduled community volunteers in hour-long shifts to help Neal exercise both physically and mentally, with lessons in cooking, speaking, board games, reading, and writing. Griffith continued to act as her coach when Neal returned to work.
Neal’s first role after her stroke was as the mother in The Subject was Roses (1968) . Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Neal appeared in films, television specials, and commercials. She also took an active role in philanthropic efforts to benefit stroke patients. In 1978 the Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, was renamed in her honor as the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center.
In 1983 Neal filed for divorce from Roald Dahl after discovering his long affair with family friend Felicity Crossland. Dahl married Crossland the same year, and Neal returned to the United States permanently. She divided her time between homes in New York City and on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where she eventually retired, although she continued to in movies and on television until 2009.
Neal converted to Catholicism after meeting former actress Mother Dolores Hart of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Mother Hart encouraged Neal to write her autobiography, As I Am (with Richard DeNeut), which was published in 1988.
Neal died of lung cancer on August 8, 2010, and was buried at the Abbey of Regina Laudis.
From the guide to the Patricia Neal (1926-2010) Papers, 1926-2011, (Northwestern University Archives)
- Actresses--United States