Farewell to My Fantasy Mother, Patricia Neal

I woke up at two this morning, and after tossing and turning for what seemed like hours, I finally accepted that I just wasn't going to fall back asleep. And how could I? I soon discovered that my mother, Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal, had died a few hours earlier at the age of 84. Okay, fine. Patricia Neal was NOT my mother -- but for a turbulent period in the early 1970s, I wanted to believe that I was the long-lost child of Neal and her husband, writer Roald Dahl. 

In 1971, my parents' marriage was deteriorating into a full crash and burn. Ugly, screaming fights became the norm and my poor young parents were so caught up in the pain of their imploding marriage that they weren't able to reign in their emotions. My brother and sister had their own ways of coping, but as I wrote in 2005, my escape came via my faithful friend, the small black-and-white television perched on my bedroom dresser. The more my parents fought, the more I raised the volume on the fantasy family I could pretend was mine.

Long before I was familiar with Patricia Neal's brilliant work in films, I was transfixed by her performance as Olivia Walton in The Homecoming, the original movie about the Walton family of Virginia that spawned the TV series. All of the "real" Walton kids were present in the movie, but Miss Michael Learned had not yet donned Olivia Walton's apron. The part of the mother was played by a stoic but loving Patricia Neal, the real-life wife of author Roald Dahl.

At the time, my two favorite books were Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. At first glance they seemed to be fun, colorful children's stories, but the books were actually dark, macabre studies of human fallibility. While Charlie and James exhibited a carefree innocence that belied their bleak, poverty-stricken lives, they were surrounded by a coterie of unsavory, mean-spirited, and even sadistic characters. I don't think any so-called children's author in history understood the dark side of childhood as well as Roald Dahl. I had never thought of writing to a famous person before, but that spring, holed up alone in my room with my books and portable TV, I longed to communicate with the creator of these sinister tales.

The few words that Roald Dahl wrote back to me on a postcard from Norway are implanted in my brain and I can recite them without taking a breath: "My dear Danny -- Your splendid letter has followed me here. Thank you so much for writing. With love from Roald Dahl." I used to study the Rand McNally globe in my bedroom and imagine the journey my splendid letter took as it traveled from Dahl's estate in Buckinghamshire, England all the way to his vacation resort in Spitsbergen, Norway. And there, at his side, possibly reading my letter over her dear husband's shoulder and wiping tears from her eyes at the poignancy of my words, was the original Olivia Walton, Patricia Neal.

Dahl and Neal perfectly filled the role of replacement parents. I gobbled up the story of Patricia Neal's debilitating strokes -- she suffered three aneurysms on February 17, 1965. Newspapers around the world blared the headline: "Film Actress Patricia Neal Dies from Stroke at 39." The year before Neal had won a Best Actress Oscar for her magnificent performance as Alma, the earthy housekeeper in "Hud." No one expected her to survive the strokes or the three-week coma that followed. When she finally emerged, the pregnant actress was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak or understand conversations. It was her husband Roald Dahl who was largely credited for bringing his wife back to life through sheer stubbornness, love, and his tireless work helping to create a new kind of shunt that would drain the cerebrospinal fluid from his wife's damaged brain. Patricia Neal was obviously as stubborn as her husband, and defied all of the doctors' prognoses. "We Tennessee hillbillies don't conk out that easy," she later said. What an incredible love story, I thought. Why were the Dahls able to triumph through adversity while my own family collapsed like a house of cards?

Shortly after getting the postcard from Roald Dahl, I went to see the just-opened movie "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." I reveled in the dismal depictions of childhood dysfunction. Whether it was the gluttony of Augustus Gloop, the spoiled excess of Veruca Salt, the nasty gum-chewing habits of Violet Beauregard, or the brain-killing media obsession of Mike Teavee, it was obvious that these vices were the by-products of their toxic families. As the Oompa Loompas sang:

Oompa Loompa doompadee doo

I've got another puzzle for you

Oompa Loompa doompadah dee

If you are wise you will listen to me

Who do you blame when your kid is a brat

Pampered and spoiled like a Siamese cat?

Blaming the kids is a lie and a shame

You know exactly who's to blame:


This 1970s view of parental responsibility suited me just fine. I started planning my summers with my new family in England and Norway. Surely Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal would welcome me into their large clan with open arms. "With love from Roald Dahl," he wrote, not "Sincerely, Mr. Dahl." Did Patricia Neal turn down The Waltons TV series so she'd have more time for us, her real children?

The next children's book that Roald Dahl published was called "Danny the Champion of the World." What was I to think? The author was obviously so inspired by my splendid letter and my pluck and determination that it inspired this new story. I searched in vain for any mention of me in the book's dedication or the interviews he gave about his new work. But nothing could convince me that I wasn't his Danny. Let's see ... how much allowance money did I need to get a one-way ticket to Gipsy House, the sprawling Dahl estate I would soon be calling home?

But like the characters in his books, I eventually realized that life does not provide any trouble-free Golden Tickets. It turned out that Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal had enough pain and misery in their lives to make my family drama look pretty rosey. The pain began even before their marriage. I read about Patricia Neal's tumultuous five-year affair with Gary Cooper. At one point, Neal received a telegram that read, "I HAVE HAD JUST ABOUT ENOUGH OF YOU. YOU HAD BETTER STOP NOW OR YOU WILL BE SORRY. MRS. GARY COOPER." Neal ultimately ended the affair and sent Cooper back to his wife. She had become pregnant during her affair with Gary Cooper and had an abortion, a decision she regretted for the rest of her life. Shortly thereafter, at a party in New York, she met an up-and-coming English author.

Patricia Neal and Roald Dahl were married on July 2, 1953, one month to the day before my Chicago parents walked down the aisle. But the Dahls' married life was hardly the carefree one I fantasized about. The Dahls had five children but their infant son, Theo, was struck by a taxi, and needed years of physical therapy following a debilitating brain injury. (It was because of this injury that Dahl learned so much about the brain and was later able to help develop the shunt that saved his wife's life.) A few years after Theo's accident, the Dahls' eldest daughter, Olivia, contracted a bad case of the measles and died at the age of 7. And in the end, Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal went through their own well publicized divorce that was even more hideous than what my parents put each other through. Neal told all in her autobiography, As I Am, and following Dahl's death in 1990 many people concurred that he could be a ruthless, egotistical bully. 

Patricia Neal was interviewed by Robert Osborne several years ago on Turner Classic Movies. Despite all the pain she suffered in her marriage and the awful things she wrote about her former husband, she admitted that he was the love of her life and that she still loved him with all her heart.  Go figure. It took decades, but my own family recovered from my parents' divorce to such an extent that my father was one of the main speakers at my mother's funeral. Like a good Roald Dahl story, life is so much more complex than lesser authors would have us believe.

Last February, my six-month-old son Charlie had a warm encounter with Patricia Neal. Kendall and Charlie were at Farmers Market when a woman in a wheelchair with a very distinctive gravelly voice started admiring Charlie. The two of them started flirting with each other and Charlie reached out to the elderly woman. When Kendall looked up she realized the woman in the wheelchair was none other than Neal. They talked for a while and Kendall complimented the actress on her magnificent career. Playing with Charlie, Neal never knew that her own tragedies were partly responsible for saving our son's life. 

As a result of his extreme prematurity, my son suffered a Grade IV Intraventricular Hemmorrhage on the left side of his brain at birth, the very same place where Neal had her strokes. Like Neal, Charlie has delays on the right side of his body and he still gets physical therapy to help him compensate for the damage. Also like Neal, Charlie has a shunt in his brain that drains excess fluid into his peritoneal cavity. He'll have the shunt for the rest of his life. I am eternally grateful for the pioneering efforts of so many, including Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal, that made this life-saving device possible. In addition to the amazing film work Neal leaves behind, one of her great legacies is the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in East Tennessee that continues to help all sorts of people with brain injuries rebuild their lives. 

Rest in peace, Grandma!