Funny that Patricia Neal attributes much of her success as an actress to the lucky breaks she got early in her career. The woman revealed in an unusual Monday Night Special event for the Vineyard Playhouse — held on Sunday — seemed largely shaped by those decidedly unlucky events for which she’s become known. In As I Am, Ms. Neal offered a crowded theatre a personal glimpse into the life story — from her early years in Knoxville, Tenn., through the debilitating stroke she suffered at the height of her career, and on to the laborious recovery and aftermath.
Clad in a bright fuchsia shirt and jacket combo with lipstick to match, Ms. Neal’s appearance matched her dazzling, larger-than-life persona. She recalled the time, at age 11, when she watched a “glorious lady giving monologues,” and found her calling. “The more I watched, the more spellbound I became,” she said. “That’s what I’m going to be,” she remembered thinking to herself.
Ms. Neal made the move to New York city in her late teens, without a job or a network of support. “The big city was frightening but wonderful,” she said. To pay for food, she took a job in a Greenwich Village cafe during the lunch hour, using her free time to carry out the “seemingly endless search for a part in a play.” She shortly got the first of her two big breaks, as an understudy for a principal role in a traveling performance. She recalled walking around the city, saying to herself, “I’m an actress.”
Her second break came one New Year’s Eve when the main actress in the production suffered a nervous breakdown just before the performance, leaving the role open for Ms. Neal. “I got my foot in the door and wasn’t about to take it out again in a hurry,” she said. While performing in Westport, Conn., a haven for the wealthy and well-connected, she caught the attention of composer Richard Rogers, and playwrights Eugene O’Neill and Lillian Hellman, all of whom sent messages to their producers on her behalf. Her subsequent role in Ms. Hellman’s play Another Part of the Forest caught attention outside of the Broadway scene. “After that, the Hollywood boys came . . . with all kinds of crazy offers,” said Ms. Neal.
She decided to sign with Warner Brothers, but in hindsight admitted that she went to Hollywood sooner than she should have. Broadway, she explained, was where one really learned how to act, in front of a live audience. Instead, she took the dive into the big screen, scoring a coveted role alongside Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead. Ms. Neal then boldly spoke of the resulting affair with Mr. Cooper, with whom she fell deeply in love, despite the fact that he was married. “The situation was intolerable,” she said. She was shunned socially, and Mr. Cooper refused to leave his wife. “After all, why should he?” said Ms. Neal. The four-year affair ended when she fled Hollywood to return to New York. Almost immediately, she was offered a role in the revival of Ms. Hellman’s The Children’s Hour.
On the heels of a doomed romance, she met the handsome and charming author Roald Dahl at a party. She was immediately taken with him, but turned down his first offer of a date because he had taken little notice of her at the party. He was persistent in his pursuit, however, and she finally agreed to go out with him. They were married a short time later, and began to divide their time between his beloved home country of England, and New York city, where she continued to act through the winter months.
“Acting for me is the most marvelous and exciting and joyful thing that I know. It is my life,” she said. Her dedication led her to star opposite Paul Newman in Hud, the role for which she won the Academy Award. “I must confess that I was thrilled to win,” she said. It was a time in her life when everything seemed to fall magically into place. She had a happy marriage, three beloved children, and a thriving career as an actress.
It was then that the first of many life-changing tragedies struck. Her infant son, Theo, was in an accident in which his baby carriage was struck by a car. He survived, but the incident left him with permanent brain injuries. A year later, Ms. Neal’s eldest daughter, Olivia, came down with the measles. She shortly contracted encephalitis and died within days.
Ms. Neal threw herself back into acting to overcome her grief. Then, while renting a home in Hollywood with her family, she felt a throbbing pain in her head. Through their experience with son Theo’s injuries, Ms. Neal and Mr. Dahl had been in contact with several neurosurgeons, and Mr. Dahl immediately put in a call to a doctor for his wife, who was at the time pregnant with their fifth child.
At 39 years old, Ms. Neal underwent eight hours of surgery for a cerebral aneurysm. She remained in a coma for 21 days following surgery, and awoke unable to walk, talk or even think. She suffered from double vision, noting with a hint of humor when she finally returned home, she returned to six children, instead of three. “My soul had awakened in a body I could not command,” said Ms. Neal. “Everything is there, but nothing works,” she said, explaining the aftermath of a stroke. How ironic, she added, that she had spent her life in a business where every gesture and every whisper counted.
The recovery process was slow and frustrating, but Ms. Neal found solace in her son. “The person who was my great inspiration during this time was my son Theo,” she said. Despite his injuries, he had made extraordinary physical and psychological progress, which demonstrated to Ms. Neal the wonders of the human brain. Theo and others helped her to make slow but definite progress with speech and word recognition.
A breakthrough occurred when Ms. Neal returned to her home in England with her family. They arrived to find a bottle of champagne waiting for them, and she helped herself to a large glass. She immediately looked up to find that her double vision had vanished. “Medical experts in the audience may wish to make a note of this prescription,” she said, teasingly addressing the playhouse crowd.
Ms. Neal’s spirit and determination, and a dedicated group of friends, doctors and therapists helped to pull her through the nightmarish postsurgery months. Six months later, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Lucy. “It just goes to show, it don’t take a brain to make a baby,” she said, as the crowd roared with laughter. She re-entered the acting world at the encouragement of Mr. Dahl, starring in the film The Subject Was Roses.
When she suffered another personal blow in 1983 — her husband left her to marry a friend — “Faith and my many good friends sustained me,” she said. It also helped her to make peace with her ex-husband shortly before he died in 1990. Asked how she has persevered through so much tragedy and still finds the strength to tell her story, she replied, matter-of-factly, “I’m a show-off.”
Ms. Neal’s Island connection began with a 10-day visit, during which she fell in love with the Vineyard. She returned yearly, renting different houses before purchasing property in Edgartown. She now divides her time between the Island and her home in New York city.
Feb. 17 of this year marked 44 years since she suffered the stroke that changed her life. “Forty-four years of living with this terrific disability,” she said, could not stop her from pursuing her passion. “I will continue to be an actress for as long as I can stand up. And when I can’t, I will take roles sitting and lying down.”