Star of the Month: Patricia Neal

January 3, 2020     Updated September 9, 2021

Patricia Neal Wins an Oscar, Loves Gary Cooper, Marries Roald Dahl, Overcomes a Debilitating Stroke, and Is Basically Superwoman.

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Are you familiar with Patricia Neal?

Neal was in some pretty amazing classic films, such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and Hud (1963), for which Patricia won the Best Actress Oscar.

Patricia in her Oscar winning role of Alma Brown in Hud (1963). The film paired her with Paul Newman.

Despite these classic movies and accolades, Patricia Neal’s film and stage work is often overshadowed by her well-known, long-term affair with Gary Cooper, and her marriage to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author, Roald Dahl.

If there was one word I would use to describe Patricia Neal, it would be “survivor.”  Ok, I’d like to use two words: inspirational survivor. 

Patricia with Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead (1949). Neal considered Coop the great love of her life.

What else can you call a woman who couldn’t marry the man she loved, did marry a man who was often emotionally abusive and manipulative, witnessed the infliction of brain damage on one of her children and the death of another, AND survived a stroke at age 39 WHILE PREGNANT?

 If that’s not the description of an inspirational survivor, I don’t know what is!  If you want the full story of this incredible woman’s life, be sure to read Patricia’s autobiography, As I Am.  You can get your copy on Amazon [aff. link].

Here are a few things about Patricia Neal you didn’t know:

Patricia with Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). Patricia made a fun observation about this picture: "I love Audrey Hepburn looking at George Peppard looking at me."

She’s From the South

Patsy Lou Neal was born in Packard, Kentucky. She grew up in Knoxville Tennessee, where the acting bug bit her at a young age.  Young Pat excelled at dramatic readings, which she did around the state, even winning the Tennessee State Award for dramatic reading.

 Patricia attributes her trademark deep, husky voice to a childhood incident from her years in Knoxville: a neighborhood girl, thinking Pat was responsible for a prank,

“…began to throttle me.  I set up such a howl.  I screamed my lungs out until my mother separated us and sent my attacker on her way.  Mother still insists that that is why I have such a deep voice.”

Whether the incident caused Pat’s deep voice or not, it’s a fascinating origin story!

Patricia out dancing with Ronald Reagan in 1949. The two were good friends during Pat's early Hollywood days. Even then, Pat saw facets of Reagan that hinted at his future presidency.

She Went to Northwestern

After high school, Patricia was accepted to Northwestern University.  Small world moment: Jean Hagen, best known as Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), was a Northwestern student at the same time as Pat, and the two were often told they looked like sisters!  As struggling actresses in NYC, the two became roommates and great friends on their respective roads to success. (Jean even named her first daughter, Christine Patricia, after Pat!)

Patricia with George Peppard on the set of Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). The two became friends taking classes at the Actors Studio prior to the film.

She was a Founding Member of the Actors Studio

Patricia was successful on Broadway rather quickly, and became a reputable actress in NYC.  So much so, that when Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, and Robert Lewis founded the prestigious Actors Studio in 1947, they invited Patricia to be one of the first members.  Talk about a compliment!  Pat remembers having classes over the years with such soon-to-be stars as Paul Newman and George Peppard.

The Fountainhead
Patricia with Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead (1949). This was Pat's favorite picture of them together.

Gary Cooper was Her Great Love

With her success on Broadway, it wasn’t long before Hollywood courted Patricia to the West Coast.

She signed with Warner Bros., and was cast in the coveted role of Dominique in The Fountainhead (1949), opposite the handsome Gary Cooper.  When Pat first met Coop at a Warner Bros. luncheon, it was merely a brief exchange of hellos:

“He did not even look my way again. But, for me, there was no one else in that room.”

The married Cooper soon felt the same way about Patricia, and the two began an affair during filming.  According to her autobiography [aff. link],  Pat felt immense guilt, but couldn’t resist the relationship.  It was a love that would not last for many reasons. For one, as Patricia states in her autobiography, after years of hiding her relationship with Cooper (which ultimately became an open “Hollywood secret”),

“It was becoming very hard to contain my longings for a family of my own with a man who would love only me.”

For most of their relationship, Pat was convinced it was only a matter of time before Gary would leave his wife for her. But eventually Patricia realized that as special as she was in Coop’s life, nothing and no one was more important to him than his sweet daughter, Maria:

“I might even have guessed that in a showdown, he would choose her over anything—or anyone—in his life… In Maria I was fighting the angels.”

Patricia also came to understand Gary’s love for his beautiful wife, Veronica “Rocky” Copper:

Gary Cooper with his lovely daughter, Maria. Patricia and Maria became friends in later years.

“Rocky gave her husband more than a life style with a classic profile.  It would be many years and a marriage of my own before I would value her gift—a quality of caring.”

And so Patricia and Gary Cooper ended their affair in the early 1950s.  (My math puts the end at late 1951.)  To escape the heartbreak, Patricia went back to New York and Broadway, where she would meet her soon-to-be husband.  But to her dying day, Patricia insisted that Gary Copper was the great love of her life.  You can discover more about the relationship between Pat and Coop in my article on The Fountainhead (1949).

Patricia with her husband, English writer Roald Dahl, on their wedding day, July 2, 1953. The Dahls would base their life in England, and raise their family there.

She Married Roald Dahl

After her return to New York, Patricia starred in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour.  The play was a hit, and rejuvenated Pat’s stage career.  It was at a party at Hellman’s house that Pat met her future husband, Roald Dahl.  The struggling English author had not yet achieved success or notoriety with such classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Pat’s first impression of Dahl was…not good:

“At supper Lillian seated us together…I was absolutely sure that Mr. Dahl would spend the whole supper trying to charm me.  I sat down and waited. But…never once during the entire evening did he look my way.  I tried to join the conversation but he totally ignored me…I had quite made up my mind that I loathed Roald Dahl.”

Patricia and Roald on their honeymoon in Rome, 1953.

Pat must have made a good impression on Roald, however: not long after the dinner party, he called and asked Patricia out…and the rest, as they say, is history!  The two were married July of 1953.  The marriage lasted 30 years, but it was not an easy one. 

Most people found Dahl difficult, or downright didn’t like him.  Patricia often got the brunt of Dahl’s manipulations: Dahl wouldn’t permit Pat to visit her mother, only said “I love you” three times over the course of their entire marriage, had a doctor tie Patricia’s tubes while she was unconscious following her stroke, and ultimately left Patricia so he could marry his long term mistress.   

Pat and Roald.

(And I must add that despite her earlier affair with Gary Cooper, Pat viewed her marriage vows as sacred, and remained faithful to Dahl their entire marriage.)

On the flip side, it was Dahl’s authoritative streak that probably led to Patricia’s physical and mental recovery following her stroke: Dahl was a taskmaster who got Pat working her mind and body as soon as she was home from the hospital, for which she was always grateful.

Happy times with her children. Can you tell Patricia was a sweet mother?

Tragedies with Her Children

Patricia was blessed with five children during her marriage.  Patricia’s first born, Olivia, tragically died from a measles outbreak at her school.  She was seven years old.  For more about Olivia’s tragic death, read my article on Patricia Neal, Her Best Actress Oscar, and Hud (1963).

If that weren’t enough tragedy to befall one family, a few years prior to Olivia’s death, Pat’s son Theo had a near death encounter during one of the Dahl Family’s New York visits: a careless taxi driver hit four month old Theo in his stroller.  The stroller was then hit by a bus before collapsing on little Theo’s head.  Doctors said the infant would not live through the brain surgeries ahead. 

Neal with her daughter Tessa, all grown up. Tessa looks very much like her mother.

But thanks to the endless hope and determination of his parents, Theo did survive the eight operations he would have over the next thirty months.  Patricia’s outlook on this tragic time is truly inspiring:

“As I look back on those months following Theo’s accident, I realize that for all the agonies we felt, it was one of the most beautiful periods of my life.  I will never understand people rejecting a wounded or disabled child. For us Theo was a centering force, not only for Roald and me but for our daughters as well.  Having to give up their preferences because of his needs was a hard but valuable lesson…”

Can you tell Patricia was an awesome mother? Patricia’s great love for her children is a common theme throughout her autobiography [aff. link].

Patricia at home with her family, recovering from her stroke. Pat had to wear a patch over her eye to alleviate the double vision caused by the stroke.

She Had a Stroke. At Age 39. While Pregnant.

While giving her seven-year-old daughter Tessa a bath one night, Patricia suffered a stroke.  And she was three months pregnant:

“The last thing I remember thinking was, I have children to care for.  I have another inside me.  I can NOT die.”

Patricia suffered three strokes altogether that night, one at home, and two in the hospital.  It was a congenital aneurysm:

Patricia reading to her kids. Reading children's books with her kids was good for family bonding time, and for Patricia's stroke recovery.

“My right side was completely paralyzed and I had been left with maddening double vision.  I had no power of speech and my mind just didn’t work.”

After a month in the hospital, Patricia was able to go home.  She was four months pregnant.  The morning after her return home, Roald put her right to work with mental and physical exercises to re-learn how to walk, talk, read, etc.  It was a long, difficult path to recovery, but she did it.  Just about three years after the stroke, Patricia returned to acting, and even earned an Academy Award nomination for The Subject Was Roses (1968). 

For more about Pat’s stroke and inspirational recovery, read my article here.

Patricia at the 1967 Academy Awards, where she presented the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. This was a mere two years after her stroke. It's rumored that the standing ovation Pat received when she walked on stage cost the network thousands of dollars because her peers would not stop applauding.

She Gave Hope to Stroke Victims

Patricia gave speeches around the world about her stroke and recovery, inspiring other stroke victims and their families through her example and sheer presence. 

Thanks to her work and generous sharing of her experiences, there is a Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center at the Fort Sanders Presbyterian Hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee.

After finding Catholicism later in life through her friendship with Maria Cooper, Patricia said:

“I was deeply impressed that God was using my life far beyond any merit of my own making.  The stroke had been a means of allowing me to reach so many who were suffering.  He had not given me the stroke.  He was giving me the strength and love to move with it.”

What an awesome lady.

Patricia with Gary Cooper.

She Became Friends with the Cooper Women

Ok, I think this is so incredibly neat, and speaks to the amazing characters of Patricia and Rocky and Maria Cooper. How easy would it have been for these three women to hate each other?  Instead, they found common ground in their shared love for Gary Cooper. 

Patricia says in her autobiography that one of her most cherished moments was reading a letter from Maria Cooper, sent during Patricia’s recovery from her stroke:

Patricia in her later years with Maria Cooper, daughter of Pat's great love, Gary Cooper. Maria forgave Patricia for the affair with her father. Neal frequently states in her autobiography how much her relationship with Maria meant to her.

“On one particular day, an envelope inscribed with a noble hand caught my attention…I will never forget its three most important words:  I forgive you.  It was from Maria Cooper.”

Maria, Rocky, and Patricia let their love for Coop bring them together in the years following Cooper’s untimely death from cancer in 1960 through chance meetings, letters, and even a scheduled, healing luncheon.

What a classy set of gals.  I admire all three of these amazing women and the extraordinary example they set.

Celebrate Patricia Neal This Month!

And that’s my introduction to our January Star of the Month, Patricia Neal!  Next week I will review The Fountainhead (1949), Patricia’s first of two film pairings with her real life love, Gary Cooper.  Be sure to catch The Fountainhead (1949) when it plays on TCM this Tuesday, then enjoy some behind the scenes facts and pictures in my post next Friday!

Check out the TCM film schedule for showtimes!

What’s your favorite Patricia Neal film?

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Karen

    Hello there,
    I bought her book “As I Am” whilst my husband was in a coma following a dreadful road traffic accident. Eight days after admission to hospital it was found he had had multiple brain infarcts. When faced with coping with what would be left of him this book became my bible. Patricia Neal has been my inspiration and will continue to be.

    One of my favourite films of Patricia Neal’s is “Three Secrets”. I will continue to buy her films having already bought “The Fountainhead” and just find her such a charismatic, earthy person and a wonderful actress.

    My husband is now two years into recovery but he did also suffer a lot of trauma due to multiple skeletal injuries but nonetheless I hold Patricia Neal (also Roald Dahl) in the highest esteem having had to cope with so much and getting beyond it all.

    God bless her.

    Yours truly
    Karen McCarthy

    1. Shannon

      What an amazing recovery story Karen. You and your husband are true survivors. How incredibly neat that Pat’s stroke and recovery process were your inspiration and comfort. I am certain that Pat would be so proud and touched. Here’s to an incredible woman who continues to bless us with her stellar film performances, and her indomitable spirit.

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