Patrica Neal, A Life

Time Magazine

Much of what I know of love I learnt from my grandmother. Born Pasty Lou Neal in a Kentucky coal mining camp in 1926, she became the more patrician Patricia when Broadway beckoned in the mid 1940’s, her diction more RSC than southern belle. She would always honour her roots and she could conjure a country twang in a heartbeat; tobacco and whiskey voice wrapping round a Baptist hymn or y’all to entertain us. In her youth she rode horses and could drink a man under the table. A combination of grit, softness and cheekbones endeared her to Gary Cooper with whom she costarred in The Fountainhead in 1949; when they embarked on a love affair that ultimately would devastate them both. She met my grandfather on the rebound from Cooper in 1951, at a dinner party thrown by Lillian Hellman. He totally ignored her, although he sat next to her, but to her surprise he called the next morning to ask her out for dinner. She told him she was busy, but he persisted, and after a while, she said, recalling it for me years later, she simply ran out of excuses. “I thought he was a shit.” She said. “To ignore me like that!”

To me, she was Mor-Mor from babyhood, and when I was older, sometimes she was Patsy.

My grandmother married my grandfather in New York in 1953, and they were to have five children together. In 1960, their baby son Theo was brain injured in New York, when a taxi ran a red light and hit his pram. When he was well enough to be moved, the family came back to a farmhouse in England and the care of Great Ormond Street Hospital. Two years later, their seven -year old daughter Olivia contracted measles encephalitis and died, suddenly.

As life shattered around her, Pat kept working. I imagine that in the mire of her heartbreak, movies offered a practical, tangible life raft, the chance to be another woman. She won an Academy Award for best actress in Hud in 1963, a year after losing her eldest child.

In 1965, in the early days of shooting a film in LA, pregnant with her fifth child, Lucy, Patricia suffered three massive cerebral aneurysms, which left her in a coma for nearly a month. When she came round, she was a bald shell, without language or memory, her right side paralyzed. Her rehabilitation is the stuff of legend, and the courage that she displayed throughout those lonely dark days of recovery, gob smacking She learnt to walk and talk, read and write all over again, with the support of her husband and neighbours, a martini and cigarette never far from reach. She was nominated for another academy award in 1968, for her work in “The Subject was Roses”. Her homecoming speech as it were, brought her peers to their feet in a standing ovation, as those whiskey chords, stumbling at first, tumbled over each other to proclaim simply, “I am so happy to be alive. Alive Alive O.”

Her life was one rich with beauty and horrible injustice. Throughout it all, she retained a stellar sense of humor, faith, and a heart big enough to carry our entire family. She delighted in the simple; the depth of a sunflower, a loud curse word, or filthy story. She loved avocados, peanut butter and she asked everyone one of two things, how much they weighed or how many people they’d slept with, much to our equal horror and joy. In the dearth of her post stroke memory, one was “Darling” “Divine One” or “Beauty”, and anyone who had been so addressed by her would know the gravitas that it carried, in that moment, the most beloved darling that ever was, a hand clutching at yours for emphasis. Mor- Mor was regal in every inch of her being, with her Guerlain red lipstick, drinking cheap white wine and creaming everyone at Scrabble. She was regal too in the face of the cancer that ravaged her. She told my aunt Ophelia that she was “a little offended” she had cancer, and why shouldn’t she be? She had been so close to death in her life, danced neatly away from him, and here he was again, darkening her door, that bastard.

“And I haven’t smoked for years!” She said, roaring at the injustice of it all. “Ah, well, life is life, is it not?”

Mor-Mor died in August 2011, at home, in her bed, surrounded by her kids and grandchildren.

She lives on for each of us, but for me, it’s in the wry arch of my toddler daughter’s brow, my smile when I make guacamole, the towering sunflowers in my garden, reaching for the sky.