Patricia Neal, who died a year ago this August, was one of the 20th century’s most gifted actresses of stage and screen. But soaring achievement was met with heart-rending tragedy, including three strokes that nearly ended her life at age 39.
Through it all — in a plan that only God could have written — she secured her greatest achievement of all: a surpassing quality of love, guided, after she hit rock bottom, by the richness of Catholicism.
It was a most unexpected development, making her remarkable life even more so.
Patricia Neal — christened “Patsy Louise” — was born on Jan. 20, 1926, in the small town of Packard, Ky., a close-knit community in the heart of coal country, where neighbor looked after neighbor and life’s pleasures were simple.
“Life in Packard,” she wrote in her critically acclaimed autobiography As I Am, “was very good.” The hub of activity was the church — “of course, Baptist” — and general store.
Her larger-than-life father William Burdette “Coot” Neal was from southern Virginia, where his family owned a tobacco plantation near Danville; and her earnest, warm-hearted mother, Eura Mildred Petrey, was from Packard, where her father, “Pappy,” was the town doctor.
“Remember what the Psalmist says,” Pappy would remind her. “‘He changes desert into pools of water.’”
At age 11, now living in Knoxville, Tenn., “I saw a glorious lady giving monologues, and that’s all I wanted to do …” she told Turner Classic Movies’ host Robert Osborne in a 2004 Private Screenings interview. Her father’s boss’ daughter, just back from New York, was giving drama lessons, which her parents green-lighted Christmas 1937. “My monologues,” she wrote, “graduated from the front yard to Aunt Maude’s drawing room, and my audiences were growing. I got great notices the first play I did, so I knew I wanted to be an actress.”
During her first year at Northwestern University, her “daddy” — “the rock upon which anything good about me has been built” — died of a heart attack. Though eager to get to New York, she studied another year at Northwestern, at her family’s request, where drama teacher Alvina Krause was starting a summer theater and brought her along. From there she headed for New York, where she quickly landed an understudy role in The Voice of the Turtle and acquired her new name —”Patricia” — which the producer, Alfred de Liagre, thought matched her regal manner.
“Applause,” she wrote, “was love. It was approval by everybody. And I bathed in it.”
She also wanted the real thing. In New York, at age 19, when her first “boyfriend,” the son of an abortionist, told her he loved her more than anyone else, she traded in her virginity for “love.” When he dumped her for his virginal high-school sweetheart, she was deeply wounded.
Trusting her well-formed, sensitive theatrical instincts, she soon made her theatrical mark, landing a starring role in Another Part of the Forest (1946), for which she won a Tony in the first such awards ceremony; while, at the same time, hardened in “love,” she pursued romance without conscience and wrecked two marriages.
The offers started pouring in from Hollywood, and she landed a contract with Warner Bros. and the starring role in John Loves Mary opposite Ronald Reagan, whom she met on New Year’s Eve 1947 when she first arrived in Hollywood.
A year later, director King Vidor introduced her to Gary Cooper when she was testing for The Fountainhead, and, after filming wrapped, she began a legendary affair with her married co-star.
“When the young doctor took my virginity and made me a bad woman,” she wrote in As I Am, “I made up my mind I would never get hurt like that again. … Gary touched my heart as no one else had done before. I was really in love, and it was like I was innocent again.”
Predictably, the affair brought great turmoil to the lives of all involved — Patricia suffered a nervous breakdown when it came to an end, as it had to, by Christmas 1951; and Gary’s young daughter Maria famously spit on Patricia in public, according to Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life by Stephen Michael Shearer. “Gary adored her,” she wrote in As I Am. And, as she told Osborne, “He loved Rocky (his wife).” In 1959, during a chance encounter from afar in New York, Maria glowered at her, evidencing how raw the wound still was.
After Warner Bros. failed to renew her contract, she returned to New York and the stage she loved so much, this time starring in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour and soon met and fell and love with renowned writer Roald Dahl, whom she married on July 2, 1953.
The marriage had some initial bumps — Roald asking for a divorce the first year — but, crisis averted, their children began making their grand entrances: Olivia Twenty, born on April 20, 1955; Chantal Tessa Sophia, born on April 11, 1957; Theo Matthew Dahl, born on July 30, 1960.
Then tragedy struck on Dec. 5, 1960, when their son Theo — her “beautiful boy,” just 4 months old — was struck by a taxi as the family au pair was strolling him along a New York City street. He suffered brain damage, occasioning many surgeries and the family’s move back to England.
As Theo recovered, aided by Roald’s development of a successful therapeutic intervention, both career and family thrived: Patricia played Mrs. Failenson in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and they continued settling into a marvelous life in their white cottage with plush gardens at Great Missenden, not far from London, as, charmingly, Roald began testing his stories out on his children and writing some hit children’s books.
However, tragedy again struck the following year when Olivia, not qualifying for a scarce measles vaccine, contracted and died of the disease on Nov. 17, 1962.
Roald was utterly devastated. But, as they gradually picked up the pieces, Patricia landed the role of Alma Brown in Hud (1963), for which she won a Best Actress Oscar. The director Martin Ritt kindly scheduled filming in segments so she could take care of her most cherished role: that of mother and wife. A year later, Ophelia Magdalena was born on May 12, 1964.
As if the brain-damaging accident and death of Theo and Olivia, respectively, were not enough, on Feb. 17, 1965, while bathing Tessa, she suffered three near-fatal burst cerebral aneurysms and was in a coma for three weeks.
She had only that week begun filming John Ford’s Seven Women and was pregnant — a fact known only to her and Roald.
Just 39 years old, her life had changed inexorably.
As she worked to recover, she was guided by the strong, firm hand of Roald — sometimes seemingly too much so.
Then, one day she received a letter that would change her life — spiritually and emotionally.
It was from Maria Cooper, and while Roald later burned it, she will never forget the letter’s three key words: “I forgive you.”
“The grace of God in Maria,” according to Benedictine Mother Dolores Hart, a former Paramount actress, is what prompted this amazing gesture, as she stated in a 2010 The World Over interview. “Maria knew that ‘forgiveness demands an action,’ and I think that is one of the deepest realities of Christian love.”
On Aug. 4, 1965, having survived her stroke, Lucy Neal was born. As her precious baby grew, Patricia continued to heal physically, making her return speech in 1966 at The Waldorf Astoria in New York. It was a signal achievement for someone who had had to learn how to walk and speak again. As she noted in her speech — for which she had prepped and practiced to a wearying degree, “Tennessee hillbillies don’t conk out that easy.”
When she finished, she wrote, “I knew my life had been given back to me for one reason,” though she was unsure what that was.
Later she recognized, among other purposes, her stroke brought attention to this all-too-common, debilitating medical emergency, serving as a catalyst for the building of many hospitals, including the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville.
She credited “Roald the Rotten” for throwing her back in the deep water “where I belonged.” Indeed, by 1967, she was cast to play the leading role in The Subject Was Roses (1968). While it was difficult to learn lines, she quipped in her book, “I was a hit … just for being alive.”
However, when she won the starring role in the television pilot of The Waltons (1971), she was not asked to play the role in the TV series because executives worried her health would not bear up under the pressure.
Nor did her marriage bear up under the pressure; in 1972 Roald secretly began an affair with Catholic divorcee Felicity Crosland, the London-based freelance coordinator for David Ogilvy’s ad agency, who worked with Patricia when she began filming commercials for Maxim coffee.
In 1973, as the Maxim campaign was thriving, Patricia found herself returning every three weeks to New York, and she wrote to Maria Cooper asking to get together. Maria replied, “I very much want to see you.”
Finally, after many attempts, Maria agreed to join Patricia for breakfast in her hotel suite. Upon arriving, Patricia wrote, she “spread her arms open to me. She held me, and the years of emptiness between me and Gary was over.”
“An amazing grace” occurred during that meeting, as she realized for the first time since her stroke, its gift: “Somehow, a memory that once had the power to wound me now passed benignly through my head.”
The memory was also being set right, as Patricia poignantly recounted in As I Am:
“Maria finally asked, ‘Is it true that you were pregnant by my father?’”
“Yes, I am sorry I didn’t have it.”
“It’s my loss, too. I’m the only one.”
Before the meeting ended, Maria asked her to promise to write to her mother, who was now “Mrs. John Converse.”
Five years later, while in Nice, France, in the summer of 1978, she again ran into Maria Cooper, now married to the accomplished pianist Byron Janis. Sensing Patricia’s inner turmoil, Maria asked her about her “faith in God,” and, told she was struggling with it, given all the tragedy in her life, Maria suggested she visit the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn.
In the fall of 1978, Maria said that Patricia, suffering under the weight of her crumbling marriage, called her and asked about that abbey. Maria gave her the contact information for her good friend, Dolores Hart, who had lived at the abbey in consecrated life for 15 years. “Through grace or whatever,” Maria said, “she was the one who picked up the phone and made the appointment and took herself to the abbey.” Her role, she said, was to “give her the opportunity,” but after that “it was Pat’s party.”
As the date of her scheduled visit neared, she wrote, “I suddenly wondered what the hell I was doing, going to a Catholic nunnery.”
When she arrived at the abbey in May 1979, she wrote, “I was taken to have a parlor with the nun who had written to me. She greeted me from behind a grille and had the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen.” She outlined the plan for the three-day visit, and in response to Patricia’s query about smoking told her, “while it was a ‘prohibiting law,’ the abbess ‘knew from real sin,’ and she was sure a way to indulge my vice could be found.”
During prayers in the monastery chapel, “filled with flowers beautifully arranged … (and) calming strains of Gregorian chant … from behind a large grille …” Patricia wrote, “I remember thinking it was the first time I had felt close to peace in a long time.” And, the meals, she wrote, were wonderful, especially the fresh bread!
On the second day, she wrote, “I worked up courage to talk about the struggle my marriage had become.” The nun — the same one with the beautiful eyes — only listened.
Later when she did a reading of Helen Keller for the abbey, her goal became clear: “At other times,” Keller wrote, “things that I have been taught … and learned … drop away, as the lizard sheds its skin, and I see my soul as God sees it.”
On the third day, when the nun took her to the garden, Patricia “carefully avoided mentioning the affair with Gary …” But, the nun suggested, Patricia wrote, “I would have to go … even further back than the stroke to find the seeds of my discontent” — after which the affair with Gary Cooper spilled out. Patricia lamented “there was no way we could have been together.” The nun “corrected” her by saying “‘But there was’” a way, i.e., spiritually. “I never forgot that conversation,” Patricia wrote.
Before she left, Patricia chose a flower from the greenhouse as a remembrance of Olivia. “That evening at vespers, I saw it had been placed right in front of the altar. I went back to my little room and wept.” Later, as she was packing up, she realized she had forgotten all about “the booze” she had brought to help her endure the three days at the abbey!
A few years later, having benefited from the abbey’s consistent guidance, when Patricia was again in New York for filming on Ghost Story, she happened to see the death notice for Rocky’s second husband, Dr. John Marquis Converse, on Feb. 1, 1981. With that, she finally fulfilled the promise she made to Maria years earlier and wrote to Rocky.
After Rocky received her letter, Maria told Patricia her mother was so moved, that she read it “over and over.” Amazingly, Patricia told Osborne, Rocky wrote her back on April 20, “my Olivia’s birthday.”
“After some time had passed,” Maria said, “she and my mother arranged to meet.” This lovely ending to such a difficult personal trial for all involved was “so good,” Patricia told Osborne — “what life’s made of.”
In 1983, after Roald asked Patricia for a divorce, she was utterly devastated, and, as Mother Dolores recounts, she returned to the States intent on writing a scathing autobiography. But Mother Benedict Duss, the abbess and founder of Regina Laudis, told her writing such a book would be a decidedly bad idea. Instead, she instructed her to calm down and write her autobiography with Mother Dolores, who urged her “to remember it all” — a grueling process that took five long years and 1,200 pages.
At the outset, as she wrote this book and recovered from her “pits” in the wake of her divorce, she lived at the abbey for a few months and followed the routine of a postulant as best she could. Mother Dolores recalled with delight on The World Over with Raymond Arroyo shortly after Patricia’s death, how she cleaned the monastery grille better than anyone ever had. She also went to work cleaning the cobwebs out of her soul, facing, with brutal honesty, what she needed to set right in her life and becoming a willing participant in the process by which the Holy Spirit would “change desert into pools of water,” as her Pappy had counseled some five decades earlier.
She told Mother Dolores she wanted to be buried at the abbey. But Mother Dolores told her she first needed to become a Catholic. “Ooohhh. Well … I’ll work on that,” Mother Dolores said she replied, doing a marvelous imitation of that inimitable voice and style.
As she worked on her conversion, in 1990, shortly before Theo turned 30, she finally decided to call Roald and his now-wife Felicity, and let bygones be bygones. She talked to Roald three more times before his death later that year. Nov. 17 was “the last time I hung up on my love” — coincidentally the anniversary of Olivia’s death, as well as that of his mother.
On March 30, 2010, she was finally admitted to the Church.
Four months later, on Aug. 8, 2010, she died of lung cancer at the age of 84 in her beloved Martha’s Vineyard. She was laid to rest at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn.
Mary Claire Kendall is a Washington-based journalist and screenwriter. This piece serves as a companion to “Gary Cooper’s Authenticity.”