“I may be a dumb blonde, but I’m not that blonde.” -Patrica Neal
When I think of actresses who have overcome a great deal, I am often reminded of Patricia Neal. When she won an Oscar for Best Actress in 1964, she had already endured the death of her first child and a life-altering injury to her infant son, who was brain-damaged after an accident. One year after winning the Oscar, she survived three strokes and a three-week-long coma. Although semi-paralyzed and unable to speak, she learned to walk and talk again with the help of her husband, writer Roald Dahl.
Patsy Louise Neal was born in the mining town of Packard, Kentucky, to William and Eura Neal. In addition to her, she had two siblings. Her family soon moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where she graduated from Knoxville High School. She later studied drama at Northwestern University, where she was crowned Syllabus Queen in a campus-wide beauty pageant.
Neal gained her first job in New York as an understudy in the Broadway production of the The Voice of the Turtle. Next she appeared in Another Part of the Forest (1946) and won the 1947 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play, in the first presentation of the Tony awards. She made her film debut in John Loves Mary (1949).
While shooting The Fountainhead (1949), Neal began an affair with her married co-star, Gary Cooper, whom she had met in 1947 when she was 21 and he was 46. At one point in their relationship, Cooper slapped Neal in the face after he caught Kirk Douglas trying to seduce her.A few months later, Neal hoped that tempers would cool while she went to London, England, to film The Hasty Heart (1949).She would work with Gary again in Bright Leaf (1950).
Patricia Neal made her film debut in John Loves Mary, followed by a role with Ronald Reagan in The Hasty Heart (1949). Reagan was unhappy over his breakup with Jane Wyman, adding to what would be a depressing shoot for Neal.
Neal also starred in The Breaking Point (1950), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and in Operation Pacific (1951). She suffered a nervous breakdown around this time, following the end of her relationship with Cooper, and left Hollywood for New York.
Neal met British writer Roald Dahl at a dinner party hosted by Lillian Hellman in 1951. They married on July 2, 1953, at Trinity Church in New York. They had five children: Olivia Twenty ; Chantal Sophia “Tessa”; Theo Matthew; Ophelia Magdalena; and Lucy Neal. Neal and Dahl’s marriage ended in divorce in 1983.
In the early 1960s, the couple suffered through grievous injury to one child and the death of another. On December 5, 1960, their son Theo, four months old, suffered brain damage when his baby carriage was struck by a taxicab in New York City. In May 1961, the family returned to Gipsy House in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, where Theo continued his rehabilitation. Neal would later describe the two years of family life during Theo’s recovery as one of the most beautiful periods of her life. However, on November 17, 1962, their daughter, Olivia, died at age 7 from measles encephalitis.
While in New York, Neal became a member of the Actors Studio. Based on connections with other members, she subsequently co-starred in the film A Face in the Crowd (1957), the play The Miracle Worker (1959), the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and the film Hud (1963), which starred Paul Newman. Neal won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in Hud.
While pregnant in 1965, Neal suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms, and was in a coma for three weeks. One newspaper even ran an obituary but she pulled through and Dahl directed her rehabilitation. She subsequently relearned to walk and talk (“I think I’m just stubborn, that’s all”) and on August 4, 1965, she gave birth to a healthy daughter, Lucy. By 1968 her recovery was so apparently complete that her performance in The Subject Was Roses led to an Oscar nomination the following year.
Neal also made several television appearances including a role as Olivia Walton in the television movie The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (1971). This was a Hallmark television holiday special that inspired the long-running television series The Waltons. Neal also played a dying widowed mother trying to find a home for her three children in a 1975 episode of NBC’s Little House on the Prairie.
Having won a Tony Award in their inaugural year (1947) and eventually becoming the last surviving winner from that first ceremony, Neal often appeared as a presenter in later years. Her original Tony was lost, so she was given a surprise replacement by Bill Irwin when they were about to present the 2006 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play to Cynthia Nixon.
In April 2009, Neal received a lifetime achievement award from WorldFest Houston on the occasion of the debut of her film, Flying By. Neal was a long-term actress with Philip Langner’s Theatre at Sea/Sail With the Stars productions with the Theatre Guild. In her final years she appeared in a number of health-care videos.
Neal died at her home in Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts on August 8, 2010, from lung cancer at the age of 84. She had converted to Catholicism four months before her death and was buried in the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut,where her friend the early 1960s actress Dolores Hart had become a nun and ultimately prioress. Neal had been a longtime supporter of the abbey’s open-air theatre and arts program.
While not many of the homes and places Patricia would have frequented in her youth remain, a handful of places that link to her legacy still stand.
Patricia’s birthplace no longer exists, as Packard, Kentucky is now a ghost town. Since it was a mining town, its success as a town lasted until the 1940s, when the coal resources ran out. The highest population the town ever had was just over 400 people. It has since been abandoned.
Patricia’s childhood home at 1415 Kenesaw Ave. in Knoxville no longer exists. The site now houses an apartment complex.
The Knoxville High School building still exists, but was surplussed to the county in June of 2013. The building is located at 101 E. 5th Ave. An article published upon Patricia’s passing details that she maintained her Knoxville ties throughout her life.
In 1978, Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center in Knoxville dedicated the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in her honor. The center provides intense treatment for stroke, spinal cord, and brain injury patients. It serves as part of Neal’s advocacy for paralysis victims. She regularly visited the center in Knoxville, providing encouragement to its patients and staff. Neal appeared as the center’s spokeswoman in advertisements until her death.
Patricia Neal’s alma mater, Northwestern University, is still a prestigious school located in Evanston, Illinois. Their archive houses Patricia Neal’s papers, which were displayed in 2013.
Although her items are no longer on display, they may still be accessed by visitors. Since I am currently working as an intern at Northwestern’s archives, I am happy to share some of the highlights of the collection.
Among her papers are two immense scrapbooks, which house information about her early years and career.
Additionally, one of the scrapbooks celebrates one of Patricia’s successes at Northwestern, where she was crowned Campus Queen.
She was also a member of the Pi Beta Phi sorority when enrolled at Northwestern.
Among her papers, one will find many correspondences between Neal and various Hollywood luminaries, such as sporadic notes from Jimmy Stewart and Ann Bancroft. However, there are certain people from her Hollywood days with whom Patricia would correspond throughout her life, such as Reverend Mother Dolores Hart.
Here is a set of letters from Paul Newman, her co-star in Hud.
Neal also co-starred with Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd. They remained friends until the end of Patricia’s life.
Neal’s former co-star-turned-president, Ronald Reagan, would also correspond with her throughout his life.
One will also find several letters from Roald Dahl. Most of them surround their divorce.
To me, the most interesting item in the collection deals with Patricia Neal’s romantic relationship with Gary Cooper. Many of his affectionate letters to her are featured among her papers. Some of these letters were written to Chloe Carter and Jean Valentino, with whom Patricia lived during her love affair with Gary. They would act as go-betweens for Patricia and Gary’s correspondence while apart. Neal described to her biographer that Cooper would sign his letters as “Reg” in an attempt to protect himself from a potential public scandal.
Among her papers, one will find my favorite item in the collection–Cooper’s dressing room key from when he was under contract with Paramount Pictures.
While buildings come and go, fortunately, archives are excellent repositories for Hollywood history. Though her hometown may be abandoned, her legacy remains in the town in which she grew up, as well as at her alma mater.