Citation: “As long as there’s somebody to love…” (1964, June 3). The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), p. 5. Retrieved September 30, 2017, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article51398533
“As long as there’s somebody to love…”
A star with the courage to be happy tells of her family tragedies
By BETTY BEST, of our London staff
Through the spring-drenched village of Great Missenden, in Buckinghamshire, came a little girl weighed down with a vast bouquet.
“Where are you going with those?” asked a local identity.
“To Mrs. Dahl’s. They’re to congratulate her on having her Oscar.”
“Already! I thought the baby wasn’t due for six weeks yet.”
And so the two beautifully balanced lives of Academy Award winner Patricia Neal had one of their rare meetings.
At 38 Miss Neal must be the most unusual actress ever to have won an Oscar.
Although she has been a star on Broadway and in films for 17 years, she has been so choosy in her parts that many fans regard her as a newcomer.
Actually she made her big impact on world audiences in 1949 as the nurse in the war epic “The Hasty Heart.”
While still a teenager studying drama in New York she won no fewer than five prizes for her first role on Broadway.
Eugene O’Neill and Lillian Hellman wanted her for their new plays as soon as they saw her. But even then the autumn-haired beauty with the beautiful smile and the Kentucky drawl had a practical streak. She had worked as a shop girl, a clothier, and a model while studying, and did not want to go back to any of them.
She played on Broadway, but also signed film contracts in Holywood.
With many glamor roles behind her it is rather ironic that her Oscar, as the year’s best actress, was awarded for the slatternly housekeeper in “Hud.”
It was a moving and subtle performance, but Miss Neal, who has always regarded it as her favorite, was amazed at the award because, she put it, “There were no high moments.”
For me the pathos that came through was explained only when I met her and learned the little-publicised story of her own private life.
It is hard to believe when you see her generous smile and warm, happy approach to life that Patricia Neal is haunted daily by two memories, so vital that she admits they are never far from her mind.
Both came without warning into a life which seemed ideally balanced and full of promise.
Patricia Neal’s eight-year-old marriage to the English writer Roald Dahl was the most important thing in her life. So much so that for at least six months of every year she gave no thought to her acting career but lived quietly with her husband in their pretty Georgian house in Buckinghamshire.
Their greatest joy was their three children. Olivia was seven, Tessa five, and their son, Theo, only four months old.
As the working half of her year came around again Miss Neal accepted a role in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and with her whole family flew off to New York.
Then it happened. While she was at work the nannie took all three children out for a walk. Theo, of course, was in his pram. As they crossed Madison Avenue a taxi crushed the pram between its bonnet and a bus. The baby was rushed to the nearest hospital, not expected to live more than a few hours. His skull was crushed.
Thc two daughters who had seen the accident were suffering from shock.
Miss Neal was supposed to go on working.
The days wore on, and for weeks Theo was on the critical list.
Then the operations began. In the past three years he has had eight. For most of that time he had an internal tube to drain off fluid that his tiny body could not dispose of by itself.
For a long time his parents feared that he would be both mentally and physically incapacitated.
Even now they are warned that at any time in his life the brain damage may suddenly strike him down. Doctors say there is no way of telling if and when this will happen.
Both Patricia and her husband have had to learn how to live with this fear and yet hide it from their extremely sensitive son.
Just two years after Theo’s accident Miss Neal was rehearsing a full-length, single-handed television play when Olivia went down with measles one afternoon. She died that same night.
Patricia had to go on working until the play was finished a fortnight later.
“Do you think that this helped you to stand up under the strain?”
“No. Nothing helps. In fact, at the time, if anything, it made it worse. I just felt trapped in work when all I wanted to do was be with my family. It was the cruellest possible discipline.”
“But, on the whole, has your career helped you? Do you advise mothers who lose their children to work to help them get over it?”
“It would be nice to say yes, but I can’t. If you happen to be working you have to go on because otherwise you will let other people down.
“But I can’t give anyone else false hopes of a panacea. There isn’t one.
“What I do think is that we have built-in protections which come into operation quite automatically without any outside influence.
“For instance, when Theo had his accident I was so stunned and shocked that I actually came up with party manners I never have at any other time.
“I can remember being in that strange hospital and meeting a strange doctor, who told us the extent of his injuries. Even today I can hear myself actually saying to him, ‘Yes, it is unfortunate.’
“Unfortunate! Can you imagine anything more ridiculous than that polite word? It seemed as if I was trying to make HIM feel better.
“You just don’t react as you think you would, and that is because you are so numb.
“My mother, who lives in the South, cabled me that she wanted to come to New York to be with me. I told her not to, and I know I hurt her very much. But, somehow, I knew that if she came I would break down altogether.
“That is what I mean about built-in protection. Her sympathy would have sapped my strength. I was better able to cope alone, and I knew it.
“You know, it is bad enough to find out that the things you believe only happen to others can also happen to you.
“But it is worse to find out that little children are vulnerable. You are just not prepared, in this day of medicine, for little children to die.
“People kept saying to me, ‘It will get better with the years.’ But it doesn’t. My mother-in-law lost her eldest child when he was seven and she had the strength to tell me that in all these 45 years not a day has passed without her thinking about him.
“I believe her. Not a day passes without my thinking of Olivia. When it happened I couldn’t feel anything for a long time.
“I certainly couldn’t feel anger, or anything like it. And unlike Theo there was just nothing left for us to do.
“With Theo there has always been something which had to be done to help him.
“But when a child dies, and that special love which you felt for her alone has no one to go to, that is the greatest tragedy.
“You have a separate and equally strong love for each of your children. But each one is a different love and cannot be transferred.
“I long to have this next baby of mine. I don’t mind if it is a boy or a girl – I shall have another special love for it. But you don’t have a baby to replace one you’ve lost. That is impossible.”
“So there is no advice you can give to others in the same kind of trouble?”
“Every case must be different, of course. But for me it was and is just a case of getting from day to day until you get used to it. Fortunately I find it very tiring being sorry for myself.
“I have just made up my mind to the fact that once someone has died life is never so good or so happy again. But as my mother-in-law said, ‘You can cope as long as you have just one person left to love.’ And I suppose I’m lucky, because I have three.”
Patricia Neal says that she was a very religious child and always believed in God.
“But I had let it lapse a bit until Olivia died. Then I just had to have something to help me believe that there was some after-life. I couldn’t bear to think that she was nowhere.”
“Do you go to church?” “Yes, we all do now.”
“Do you work for handicapped children?”
“Yes, we do a lot of that locally. I suppose that helps, too. At least I hope it helps them.” ‘
Miss Neal has never thought, “Why did all this have to happen to me — why not to someone else?” Instead she says, “There has always been so much to do for Theo. Besides, why wish it on to somebody else?”
I could see what she meant when photographer Alec Murray and I arrived at the Dahl home.
So often when people we want to interview are having their house decorated they tell us that we must not come until it is finished.
Not so the Dahls. Patricia greeted us at the doorway with, “I don’t know if you’ll find anywhere to sit. We have been in an uproar for months. There’s not a room finished.”
While we were setting up our first picture, Tessa returned from school with two playmates, rushed about organising their activities, showing us her two tortoises, and introducing the King Charles spaniel, Roley.
Surrounded by children, Patricia Neal glowed in spite of the chaos. Then Theo joined us, and was introduced and listened to with appropriate solemnity while he informed his mother that he had “lost his policeman.”
Mr. Dahl, who does his writing at home and was planning to spend his afternoon gardening, was organised in the search for Theo’s toy while we talked.
His wife’s next film, “In Harm’s Way,” is set in the Pacific during World War II. She will play a nurse and will co-star with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas.
“The exciting thing is that we shall all go to Honolulu on location. The new baby will be so young that I just couldn’t stand leaving the family.
“The odd thing is that when terrible things have happened you always want to stay together all the time. It is quite illogical, but there it is.”
Suddenly the house was invaded by three sopping-wet little girls and a very soggy dog. Miss Neal flew into action.
“All go upstairs, get undressed, and get into a hot bath. Then put on some robes and come down here with the hair-dryer.”
With the nanny to help her she set about making a vast tea. Then the decorators wanted a piano moved so the photographer’s help was eagerly accepted.
When three wet mops arrived I took over the hair drying department. It was a noisy scene and for half an hour no one could have believed that sorrow had ever come into the Dahl domain.
To watch the “heavily pregnant” (as she described herself) Mrs. Dahl tucking into the bread and butter with four riotous children at a kitchen table it was a bit difficult to picture her as a Hollywood Academy Award winner.
But then she doesn’t do much picturing of herself in that role, either.
On the day that her Oscar was announced she had to go to London to make a television appearance.
She took a second-class train ticket, carried a raffia handbag, and made the journey unrecognised.
When the train pulled into Marylebone Station the newsreel cameras were waiting for her and the station-master had put on his top hat, usually reserved for royalty, to greet her in.
“Good heavens!” cried the world’s best 1964 film actress. “I feel just like Elizabeth Taylor.” And there was not a trace of sarcasm in her voice.