At the start of Boy, Roald Dahl’s first volume of memoirs, he explained the genre: “An autobiography is a book a person writes about his own life and it is usually full of all sorts of boring details.” Full of boring details was never a description that could have been used to describe the lives of Dahl and his wife, the Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal, who died this week at the age of 84. Nor could it be applied to the sprawling family of writers, activists, and artists that sprang from this unlikely mix of Hollywood stardom and a literary master from Norway via Wales whose charisma, womanizing, and work for MI5 invites speculation that he might have partly inspired 007, the creation of his friend Ian Fleming.
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These two entertainment titans produced a brood of characters worthy of their dad’s imagination. There are Theo Dahl, 50; Lucy, 45, a screenwriter who penned Wild Child, about a Malibu princess shipped off to the kind of English boarding school her dad endured; Tessa, 53, the writer, and mother of model Sophie Dahl; and Ophelia, 46. It was Ophelia who, tasked with the job of writing her father’s biography, entrusted it to family friend Donald Sturrock, who describes the clan as made of “lots of artistic talents in their own right.”
When Neal and Dahl met at a dinner party thrown by Children’s Hour playwright Lillian Hellman, Neal, a household name for roles in films like The Fountainhead, was in the wake of a three-year affair with Gary Cooper, which ended with Neal aborting their child on his advice. “Frequently my life has been likened to a Greek tragedy and the actress in me cannot deny the comparison,” she wrote in her 1988 autobiography. Both, says Sturrock, were “at the right point in their lives to make a match, although both had reservations about whether they were making the right one.”
When they married in 1953, Neal and Dahl were keen to have children, with their first of five born in 1955. It was family, and later tragedy, that “bound them together.” In a freak accident, their baby son, Theo, was hit in his stroller by a New York taxi, and their eldest daughter, Olivia, died of complications from measles at the age of 7. For all the doubts, “after that, there was a sense that they were an inseparable team,” says Sturrock. When the family moved back to London in 1961, Dahl collaborated with surgeons to invent a kind of valve that it was thought could help Theo. It was the children, too, who were responsible for Dahl concentrating his energies on writing for children. The BFG’s Big Friendly Giant was, for instance, him: the six foot six dad telling his children a bedtime story.
From witches that terrorize children to greedy little boys that vanish into giant vats of chocolate and poachers that get their bottoms peppered with bullets, Roald Dahl’s fictive universe needs no introduction to the millions of children (and children now grown up) who still read his work.
For all the elements of Greek tragedy, which took its darkest turn when she suffered a debilitating stroke in her 30s, her friends recall Neal, too, as enormously good fun. Like Dahl, says Sturrock, Neal was “very blunt, very open, very honest and very ready to talk about things, without any bullshit.” Jeremy Treglown, professor of comparative literature at Warwick University, and former editor of the TLS, got to know her in the '90s, when he worked on an unauthorized biography of Dahl. “She was full of life,” he says, “a great gossip with a tough Southern sense of humor,” who could raise eyebrows with her disinclination to follow the rules. “Part of the fun was that since the brain hemorrhage she couldn't remember names, so would tell me impossibly tantalizing gossip along the lines of 'She had a disgraceful affair with ... the sweet guy who got an Oscar in what was it called?...”
The stroke, says Sturrock, was “the straw that broke the camel's back in the marriage." Told she would never walk or talk again, Dahl refused to accept the doctor’s prognosis and his desperately strident recovery program for her is now akin to modern treatment of strokes. At the time, it was harshly unorthodox, for instance, insisting that she use the right word if she mixed them up.
“I think that if there’s a defining family trait, it has something to do with not being frightened to say the thought that’s in your head,” says Donald Sturrock.
Neal’s death, at a miraculous 84, considering her near-miss some 50 years before, coincided with the long-awaited publication of the first authorized biography of Dahl, Storyteller by Sturrock, who as a BBC producer in his 20s befriended Dahl when he was sent to make a documentary about him. Despite the 40-year age gap, the two were close for four years until Dahl’s death, and Sturrock was even permitted to film inside Dahl’s writing hut at the bottom of his garden in Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire.
In Boy, Dahl described how his eccentric father would make his mother go on walks in sublime landscapes in the final months of pregnancy, convinced that this would create an addiction to beauty in the unborn child. His own children had the benefit of a father Ophelia termed “magical,” and beyond this, for all he and Neal’s difficulties and ill-health, it would be pop psychology to try to guess at the effects of the pits and troughs of their marriage on their children. Ophelia commented once, “Our family life has been rather like a fairy story. Dark beginnings and a final reconciliation.” Despite enormous pain at the time, even Neal and Dahl’s second wife, Felicity "Liccy" Crosland, her friend for whom he left her, were eventually reconciled. Tessa, a writer and contributing editor to Tatler, suffered bouts of depression and alcoholism. Her daughter Sophie Dahl joked of her hippie-ish childhood, moving 17 times by the time she was 19: “All I wanted was a stable life, but whenever I told Mum that she used to say, ‘All right then, we’ll get you a stable.’”
It’s the now the stuff of fashion legend that the late Isabella Blow “discovered” the then-teenage Sophie Dahl on the King’s Road in London crying in a doorway after a row with her mother. With her curves intact, she was signed to Storm and was for a moment a poster girl for models the opposite of the prevailing heroin chic. Minus the curves, she had a successful modeling career in New York and there was a well-documented spell as Mick Jagger’s girlfriend. Now married to the jazz singer Jamie Cullum, she also campaigns for the Soil Association and a had recent cooking series that drew favorable comparisons with national treasure Nigella Lawson. Known for her blunt style in social settings, Dahl has cut a swath through London’s literary and fashion worlds.
Twenty years after her death, The BFG was dedicated to Olivia, to whom Dahl had first told his children’s stories. It was Sophie, too, who inspired the small bespectacled blond heroine. Like her mother, Tessa, she now writes, including a novel, The Man With the Dancing Eyes. The couple’s son Theo, who recovered from that terrible accident, and daughter Lucy, whom Neal was pregnant with when she had her stroke, work as screenwriters. For her part, Ophelia handed over the task of biographer to Sturrock, and is a prominent social justice and health-care advocate. As the director of Partners in Health, she works with Dr. Paul Farmer in his efforts to improve health care and provide medical services to people in Haiti, Rwanda, and all over the world. She was prominently featured in Tracy Kidder’s account, Mountains Beyond Mountains, of their remarkable work.
“In Pat and in what I learned about Roald Dahl," says Treglown, "a certainty that life is what you make it and that the only way to deal with problems is to deal with them.
“I don’t know if I can communicate but I think that if there’s a defining family trait, it has something to do with not being frightened to say the thought that’s in your head. There’s little impulse to edit,” says Sturrock. A gift, you could say, to a biographer, his readers, and not least to fans of Patricia Neal and Dahls everywhere.
Correction: This story has been revised to correct which daughter Neal was pregnant with when she had a stroke; who her youngest child is; and the years of when she met Dahl, when they married, and when their first child was born.
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Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View, was published this fall.