The Inspirational Survivor: Patricia Neal

patricia neal
Patricia Neal Wins an Oscar, Loves Gary Cooper, Marries Roald Dahl, Overcomes a Debilitating Stroke, and Is Basically Superwoman.
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Patricia Neal is one of the screen’s most underappreciated actresses. 

Her performances in such films as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and Hud (1963)—for which Pat won the Best Actress Oscar—stand the test of time.

Despite these timeless performances, 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.

Patricia in her Oscar winning role of Alma Brown in Hud (1963).

But Patricia was so much more than her high-profile relationships, or the characters she so expertly crafted onscreen.

Patricia Neal’s life was nothing short of miraculous. This woman was a survivor; an inspirational survivor.

Patricia with Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead (1949). Pat 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?

patricia neal

As TCM celebrates her films this month, 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). As Pat observed 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 on January 20, 1926.  Patsy grew up in Knoxville Tennessee, where the acting bug bit her at an early 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.  As Pat recalled, 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 neal
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.

Patricia Neal Went to Northwestern. And Was Best Friends with Lina Lamont.

After high school, Patricia attended Northwestern University, where she became good friends with Jean Hagen, best known for her flawless performance as Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

On campus Pat and Jean were often told they looked like sisters.  After finishing school, the two struggling actresses were roommates in New York City as they each tried to find success on Broadway.  Jean and Pat became so close in these years that Jean named her first daughter, Christine Patricia, after Pat.

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

She was a Founding Member of the Actors Studio

Patricia found success on Broadway quickly, and became a reputable New York City actress.  Pat’s talent was so revered that when Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, and Robert Lewis founded the prestigious Actors Studio in 1947, they invited her to be one of the first members.  Over the years, Pat would take classes 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 Francon in The Fountainhead (1949), opposite 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 Pat.  The two began an affair during filming.  According to her autobiography [aff. link],  Pat felt incredible guilt, but couldn’t resist being with Coop. 

But it was a relationship that could not last. 

As Patricia writes 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 believed it was only a matter of time before Gary would leave his wife for her.

But eventually, she realized that no matter how strong Coop’s feelings for her, nothing and no one was more important to him than his 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.”

Later, Pat also came to understand Gary’s unique love for his wife, the beautiful Veronica “Rocky” Copper:

Gary Cooper with his lovely daughter, Maria. Pat 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.”

Pat and Gary Cooper ended their affair in the early 1950s.  (Probably towards the end of 1951.) 

To escape the heartbreak, Patricia went back to New York and Broadway, where she met her soon-to-be husband, Roald Dahl.  But to her dying day, Patricia Neal insisted that Gary Copper was the great love of her life. 

Read more about Pat and Coop in my article on The Fountainhead (1949).

patricia neal roald dahl
Patricia with her husband, English writer Roald Dahl, on their wedding day, July 2, 1953. The Dahls based their life in England, and raise their family there.

Patricia Neal 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 yet to achieve success or fame with such classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Pat’s first impression of Roald 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 neal roald dahl
Patricia and Roald on their honeymoon in Rome, 1953.

Even though Pat was underwhelmed by Roald Dahl at that first dinner, she had impressed him: not long after, he called and asked Pat out.  Pat revised her opinion of Roald over their courtship, and the two married on July 2, 1953.  The marriage lasted 30 years.

But it was not an easy one. 

Most people found Roald Dahl difficult.  Many downright didn’t like him.  Poor 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.

It’s important to note here that, despite her earlier affair with Gary Cooper, Pat viewed her marriage vows as sacred, and remained faithful to Dahl their entire marriage.

However; it was Dahl’s authoritative streak that probably led to Patricia’s physical and mental recovery following her stroke.  Roald was a taskmaster who forced Pat to work her mind and body as soon as she got home from the hospital.  For this, Patricia was always grateful.

patricia neal
Happy times with her children.

Tragedies with Her Children

Patricia was blessed with five children during her marriage.  Pat’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 survive the brain surgeries ahead. 

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

But thanks to the boundless hope and determination of his parents, Theo did survive the eight operations he endured over the thirty months that followed the accident.  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…”

What wise, touching words from a woman who experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows for her children.  Patricia Neal was an amazing mother.

patricia neal stroke
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.

Patricia Neal Had a Stroke. At Age 39. While Pregnant.

While giving her seven-year-old daughter Tessa a bath one night, Patricia Neal suffered a stroke. 

She was three months pregnant.  As Pat later recalled:

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

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

patricia neal stroke
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, Pat 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; all the elements of everyday life we take for granted.  It was a long, difficult path to recovery, but Pat did it. 

Miraculously, three years after the stroke, Patricia returned to acting in 1968’s The Subject Was Roses.  Her touching performance earned her an Academy Award nomination.

Read more about Pat’s stroke and inspirational recovery in my article here.

patricia neal
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.

Patricia Neal Gave Hope to Stroke Victims

Patricia Neal 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 hard work and generous sharing, the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center at Fort Sanders Presbyterian Hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee continues with the work Patricia started.

Patricia Neal felt it was important to use what she learned from her stroke and recovery process to help others. 

After finding Catholicism later in life, Pat shared that:

“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 exceptional lady.

patricia neal gary cooper
Patricia with Gary Cooper.

Patricia Neal Became Friends with the Cooper Women

It speaks volumes of Pat and Rocky and Maria Cooper that they eventually became friends.  These three women chose love and forgiveness over hate.  It’s beyond inspiring.

In her autobiography, Pat shares that one of her most cherished moments was receiving a letter from Maria Cooper during her stroke recovery:

patricia neal maria cooper
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. Pat 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.”

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

Again, these three women are incredible.

More Patricia Neal Next Week

That’s it for my introduction to Patricia Neal.

Join me next week for all about Pat, Gary Cooper, and The Fountainhead (1949).

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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