It was an average day in the Dahl household as Patricia Neal tended to the duties of running the family’s English countryside home. To Pat’s great relief, her 2-year-old son, Theo, was recovering well from his seventh craniotomy. And just a month before, Pat’s husband, Roald Dahl, had completed his fourth draft of the children’s book the world would soon know as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
It was just an average afternoon as Patricia picked up her daughters, Olivia and Tessa, from school. But then seven-year-old Olivia handed Pat a note from the headmistress
“notifying all parents that measles are in the school.”
As Pat later recalled:
“a strangle feeling crept over me as I crumpled the paper into my pocket.”
Theo’s “vulnerable medical history” ensured his eligibility for gamma globulin, the measles vaccine that, in 1962, was not commonly available in England. Pat and Roald obtained the vaccine for Theo, but their requests that Olivia and Tessa also receive the vaccine were denied: the Dahl girls were not considered at risk.
Measles in the Dahl Home
It wasn’t long before Olivia contracted the disease. After observing her daughter sleep for 24-hours straight, Patricia began to worry. She called the doctor, who assured her that “sleeping sickness” was a normal part of measles recovery. When “the following day saw no improvement,” Pat called the doctor again. Still, he remained unworried.
But on November 17, 1962, Patricia found Olivia in a frightening state:
“From some unknown place, I knew. It was not a premonition. I knew my daughter was dying…I knew that sterling little mind had been corroded by seizure.”
Olivia was rushed to the hospital. Over five hours later, she still had not regained consciousness.
Patricia tore herself away from Olivia’s side to care for her other two children at home. She and Roald would take shifts at the hospital. But only a few hours later, Patricia Neal received the news she dreaded.
Olivia was dead.
“I cried because I wanted to be with Olivia again. I knew there must be someplace where I would see her. My head did not have to believe in heaven. My heart would accept no other choice.”
Was Paul Newman Mean to Patricia Neal? A Chilling Anecdote
In her autobiography [aff. link], Patricia Neal shares a chilling anecdote about Paul Newman. As Pat tells it, Newman was disturbingly insensitive when, during filming of Hud in 1962, Neal shared with him her grief over the death of Olivia:
“It was a rare moment that found Paul and me sitting alone one Sunday by the pool at the Texas motel that housed the [Hud] company. It was early in the location shooting…Suddenly, I found myself not talking about the picture at all. I was telling him about Olivia. I went on about her loveliness and talent and her fragility and how much I loved her….”
Pat shared her heartache over the fact that her sisters-in-law took care of all the funeral arrangements, and kept Olivia’s coffin closed to Pat at the service.
But Newman didn’t answer. He didn’t even look at her.
Patricia continued bearing her soul to him:
“‘I just saw that damned closed coffin. I should have taken a stand at the time, don’t you think? I was her mother. I had a right to see her.’
Paul finally looked at me. For a long moment, he just stared through me with those blue eyes. Then he got up and said quietly, ‘Tough,’ and walked away.
I couldn’t believe it. I had shared the most intimate secret I carried, something that had cut deep, and had been met by almost brutal indifference. I vowed I would never talk to him like that again.”
Was Paul Newman Mean to Patricia Neal?
Paul Newman’s heartless response has led fans to question just what kind of a man he really was. Even Patricia’s rationalization for Newman’s behavior—that he merely responded to her in character as Hud Bannon—is unacceptable:
“I began to realize that although I had poured out my heart to Paul Newman, it was Hud Bannon who had responded.”
Patricia Neal’s anecdote has been accepted as fact since it first appeared in her 1988 autobiography. It’s included in nearly every book that’s since been written about Paul Newman. And, with Newman’s resolve in his later years to avoid involvement in books, honors, or awards dedicated to him, it’s possible he was unaware of the anecdote, and its subsequent retellings.
Searching for Evidence
When I read Patricia’s autobiography in January of 2020, the anecdote didn’t sit well with me. It seemed contrary to everything I’d ever researched, read, or heard about Paul Newman. His appalling response to a friend’s anguish was the antithesis of the nice-guy, philanthropically-minded goodness I’d come to associate with Paul Newman. As Patricia Neal herself points out in her book, with the exception of this one instance:
“I have known only kindness and consideration from Paul…”
I decided to research further, to see if I could find conclusive evidence to support or refute Pat’s memory of events.
I found such evidence.
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Paul Newman Was Not Mean to Patricia Neal
The accuracy of Patricia’s anecdote hinges on a precise timeline of events: in Pat’s autobiography, she recalls that Olivia’s tragic passing occurred before Hud began filming.
But this timeline is wrong.
Hud was filmed in Texas and Hollywood from May to August of 1962, as newspaper articles and interviews from the time confirm. Olivia Dahl did not contract measles until November of 1962. And, as her gravestone commemorates, Olivia’s tragic passing did not occur until November 17, 1962.
As the correct timeline proves, Paul Newman was not mean to Patricia Neal because Hud completed filming three months before Olivia’s death.
The shocking conversation Pat recounts in her autobiography never occurred.
Paul Newman was Not Mean to Patricia Neal, but Creators Spread the Rumor
Patricia’s incorrect timeline of events has been accepted as fact since 1988. It’s referred to in prominent Youtube videos. Alicia Malone included it in her January 2020 introduction to Hud on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Most jarringly, this incorrect timeline—complete with a portrayal of a self-centered, insensitive Paul Newman—is at the crux of the 2021 film To Olivia, which claims to tell “the true story of Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal” [aff. link].
Patricia Neal should not be faulted for her memory lapse. Consider Pat’s miraculous recovery from three strokes, brought on by a congenital aneurism, in 1965. Also consider the 26-year gap between the 1988 publication of her autobiography and the 1962 filming of Hud and Olivia’s passing.
Furthermore, many of the sources available to Pat as she wrote her autobiography incorrectly state that the role of Alma Brown in Hud “was offered to her six months after Olivia died.” Patricia didn’t have the internet to verify her memory, or check the accuracy of these sources.
Getting the Facts Wrong
But should the biographers, television hosts, and filmmakers who perpetuate the incorrect timeline and smear on Paul Newman’s character be held accountable?
With every tool at their fingertips, every source available to verify facts and timeline, these creators failed to do their job. Inaccurately presenting the Hud timeline and portraying Paul Newman as a self-indulgent method actor is not a case of creative liberty.
It’s sheer laziness, a case of getting the facts completely wrong.
It begs the question, what else are those privileged with a platform getting wrong?
And are we believing it?
A Challenge: Search for Truth
Studies show that our attention spans are shrinking [aff. link], thanks in large part to the never-ending supply of shallow, snippet-sized content most of us consume every day on social media.
Do we view this mini-content, carefully curated for our consumption, as truth?
I pose this question with a challenge: do the deep dive. Don’t look for truth in an 8 second TikTok video or flashy Instagram reel. It isn’t there. Do your own research. Find reliable sources. Discover the truth yourself.
Searching for truth takes time and effort. It’s hard work. If it were easy, fewer of us would accept a movie as fact, or be satisfied with the brevity of social media content.
No one has the time to research everything our screen-centric world puts before us each day. So let’s choose to consume less digital stimuli: let’s choose to spend less time on, or abstain from, social media.
Research suggests that intermittent fasting is good for the body. Perhaps a social media fast would strengthen our ability to focus, and sharpen our ability to separate fact from fiction.
It may even be good for our souls.
As I Am by Patricia Neal, 1988.
Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity by Gloria Mark, PhD
Farrell, Barry. “The Gallant Fight of Pat Neal,” Life, 22 Oct. 1965.
Keating, John. “The Second Life of Patricia Neal,” Cosmopolitan, May 1964.
LaMotte, Sandee. “Your Attention Span is Shrinking, Studies Say. Here’s How to Stay Focused,” CNN, 11 Jan 2023.
Paul Newman: a Biography by Eric Lax, 1996.
Paul Newman: a Life by Shawn Levy, 2009.
Paul Newman: a Life by Lawrence J. Quirk, 1996.
Paul Newman by Charles Hamblett, 1975.
Paul Newman by Daniel O’Brien, 2004.
Malone, Alicia, Hud (1963) film introduction, TCM, January 2020.
Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life by Stephen Michael Shearer, 2006.
To Olivia (2021)
“Vernal, City of Make-believe,” Claude News, 17 May 1962, Vol. 72, No. 39.
Excellent article, well-written and researched. Thanks for setting the record straight. Yes, the fact that the rumor has persisted all these years is indicative of our society. I watched “To Olivia” and believed it all, I was terribly upset about the Paul Newman scenes and that’s how I found your article. I didn’t want to believe he was a creep in real life, as the movie makes him out to be. Now I know he wasn’t, thank you. TCM and these filmmakers need to do their jobs!
Thanks for reading Howard! I’m so glad you came across my article. It’s frustrating when the facts are not presented, especially when someone’s reputation is on the line. Thanks for commenting!