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5.1.09

The Fantastic Mrs. Fox

An interview in three acts with Patricia Neal.

The Oscar-winning actress and part-time Vineyard resident spoke candidly to Island artist Rebekah Blu over several conversations. In order to capture the real Patricia Neal and pay tribute to her love of theater, Rebekah wrote the transcripts into the form of a play.

Cast of characters:

Patricia Neal: The subject of the interview is a well-respected and accomplished Hollywood actress in her eighties, with a passion for living and a social calendar of someone half her age. She is the former wife of children’s book author Roald Dahl, with whom she had five children. She has homes in both New York City and Edgartown.

Rebekah Blu: The interviewer is a photographer and writer who splits her time between the Vineyard, where she owns Midnight Mermaid gallery in Edgartown, and New York City.

Act one: Becoming a star

Setting: Late afternoon during a glorious Indian summer, inside the old whaling captain’s home that Patricia owns in Edgartown. Patricia is sitting at the head of a rectangular dining table with Rebekah to her left. An assortment of framed photos of loved ones are displayed behind the actress, where a row of windows overlooks a garden.

Rebekah: What first attracted you to Martha’s Vineyard? I understand you first visited thirty years ago.

Patricia: Well, when I was young I read a book of Katharine Cornell’s. She mentioned the Vineyard, that she had a home there. And how delicious it was. I always wanted to come. It took me some years to get here. Mildred Dunnock, who played my darling mother [on stage] in Another Part of the Forest, she had a house here. Lillian Hellman bought a house here. A lot of my friends bought a house here. My first time seeing the Vineyard, I loved it, loved it, loved it!

Rebekah: What’s a typical Vineyard summer’s day for you now?

Patricia: I like to do a lot. I like the Vineyard Playhouse [in Vineyard Haven], and I like to see the dancers perform outside [at The Yard in Chilmark]. And I’ve been involved with the Possible Dreams Auction for many years. I’m happy to donate my time for such a good Island cause. I’ve got all kinds of friends and family here and people that come visit.

Rebekah: We both divide our time between Manhattan and Martha’s Vineyard. Each inspires me in opposite ways and affords me a unique perspective that I feel has a positive effect on my artwork. How do they each affect you as an artist?

Patricia: In New York City, I love the stage; I love seeing all the plays. I wanted to be a stage actress, you see. And here, I was just up and down the streets of Edgartown. I love being around the artists who paint the pictures. And I love the artists who write the books. But I’m just not like that. I think I’m a good actress, that’s about all. [Looks matter of fact.]

Rebekah: Everyone has childhood dreams about what they hope to be when they grow up. I read that you knew from a young age growing up in Tennessee that your calling was in theater. What drew you to the stage?

Patricia: My family was Baptist, but I joined the Methodist Church, which was just across the street from us. I was in the church one night and I heard a glorious lady giving monologues. That’s what I wanted to do. [Her face lights up, animated.] Give monologues! And my daddy – his name was Coot – said [continues in a lower voice], “Well you know Emily, Emily Mahan, she’s just come back from New York. I think Emily teaches drama.” Then they gave it to me for Christmas that I could study with Emily. Oh, I loved it. So I started lessons, and I studied with her always until I went to [Northwestern] University.

Rebekah: What is one of your fondest early memories on the stage?

Patricia: The Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia. It started during the Depression when nobody had any money and people would barter for their tickets by bringing food to the show. The performers would get paid in food. It really is a good one. So I was studying at the Barter Theater. Went with suitcase in hand and was there for, oh God, maybe two months. Didn’t even sleep at night. So excited, so thrilled. I was in two plays or three plays. Oh, I loved the theater. I didn’t know how much till I was in a play, you know? I wanted to become an actress, an actress of the stage. [Seems pleasantly lost in memories for a moment.]

Rebekah: What were some of the first jobs you had upon moving to New York City in the early 1940s?

Patricia: Well I was looking for a job in theater all the time. And I had a job cutting pie and scooping ice cream during lunch hour. After being the understudy in The Voice of the Turtle, I was offered the part of Mary in John Loves Mary. I was thrilled and couldn’t wait to sign for it. But then this agent approached me and said, “Would you like to come read for Lillian Hellman tomorrow?” I read for it and I got the part immediately. So I had to choose which play I wanted. I went on to do Another Part of the Forest with Lillian Hellman, and I met so many incredible people there.

Rebekah: Sounds like your career took off immediately and you didn’t have to work at that pastry shop long.

Patricia: Oh, I worked for it, baby! But yes, I was lucky. I met so many incredible people too, along the way. And now everybody in all these things are dead, except me.

Rebekah: How did you make the transition from theater to film?

Patricia: I got this lovely part on Broadway and when I was on Broadway, everyone wanted to sign me for films. But I wanted to go on the road. So I went on the road with Another Part of the Forest. It did not last long, so I had to get a job. I had all kinds of film offers. All major studios wanted me, but I signed with Warner Brothers. And that’s when I made my first film: John Loves Mary with Ronald Reagan. Then I did The Fountainhead with Gary Cooper. Then I worked with Ronald Reagan again.

We were sent to London and the war was just over. It was terrible, the food that is. My first time in London. We had rooms side by side, Ronnie Reagan and I. He was just divorced from his wife. He was heartbroken. [Voice softens.] It was really sad.

He wanted to go home so badly. I love the fact that then he became president of the United States. [Laughs.] He could hardly wait to catch the plane home. And I traveled by ship, ’cause I was so frightened of planes in those days. Now I just think how crazy I was. ’Cause I love planes! Anyway, so I
went back to Hollywood again.

Rebekah: What was your experience of Ronald Reagan professionally?

Patricia: Oh, he was a lovely man. He would tell people off! [Chuckles.] No, I don’t really mean that. He just didn’t want it to go on so long. We began shooting at nine, I guess, and about 10:30 we’d stop for tea. And then we’d stop for lunch. Then we’d start again, and then we’d stop for afternoon tea. He was driven crazy because he wanted to finish the goddamned film, you know. And we finally did.

Rebekah: When you look back at your career, which roles do you feel are some of your finest performances?

Patricia: Well, I’ve done about four or five that I liked myself in. I liked myself in The Fountainhead, but nobody else did. I love what I did on stage in London. What was it, the Tennessee Williams thing? [Suddenly, Last Summer.] I thought that was a gorgeous thing I did. And I liked the Three Secrets. And then there’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. Now that’s a film that’s very successful, so I’m very grateful to be in that one. I loved A Face in the Crowd. That was a beauty. I think that’s probably the best film I ever did.

Rebekah: If you could have been a man, what actor’s career would you have liked to have experienced?

Patricia: Well, I don’t know because we actors are not the happiest people. I’m happy, but some actors live such terrible lives. [Takes time to really think it through.] But I’ll tell you who: I saw him first at the Actors Studio, and I looked up and saw this man one row away from me and I couldn’t stop looking at him. He was gorgeous! [Voice gets quieter.] Paul Newman. This was before we were cast in Hud together. I didn’t even know him then. He’s a beautiful man. I liked him very much.

Rebekah: Speaking of male co-stars, what was your best screen kiss?

Patricia: Well, of course I was in love with Gary Cooper. But you don’t kiss like that on screen – a real kiss wouldn’t look good on screen. [Makes a funny face.] I pretty much liked working with all my male co-stars, with the exception of the one [George Peppard] in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He had gotten so conceited [puts her nose in the air] and was afraid I’d upstage him.

Rebekah: Of all the characters that you’ve played, which one would you most want to befriend, if you could bring that character to life?

Patricia: I’d say the one in Hud. I liked her very much. She was originally written for a black woman, but they didn’t think America was ready for that yet. I guess they weren’t. They didn’t think audiences would want to see Paul Newman with a black woman.

Rebekah: Well, you were perfect for the part and have an Oscar to prove it. Kind of a clich├ęd question, but where does your Oscar live?

Patricia: In New York. I’ve got a lot of shelves and a lot of awards and so the Oscar is there. It’s fantastic. I used to love to show it to people, ’cause you’d shake it and it would make a noise. A fantastic noise.

Act two: The importance of family

Setting: A week later in Patricia’s sitting room at the front of the house; the cozy space with nautical and Asian furnishings has a distant water view. The only light is natural, coming through the windows.

Rebekah: Your love of the Vineyard inspired you to eventually purchase this place: a home with a rather interesting history. This house was once owned by the captain who is credited as being the inspiration for Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, was it not?

Patricia: Yes. I think he was the first owner. I don’t know if it was built for him or what, but I think he’s the first one who owned it, the captain of the ship. [Looks proud, nodding her head.]

Rebekah: Tell me about your daughters.

Patricia: Tessa, she’s the one who lives here on the Island. Her first daughter is Sophie Dahl: She’s a model you know and she’s written a book; she now lives in England in the same area that Roald and I used to live in. Ophelia: She’s really a grand girl; if we were in London, she’d be a dame [laughs loudly]. And Lucy, she writes film scripts – they’re very good. She lives on the West Coast.

Rebekah: One of the most recent films you did was Cookie’s Fortune, co-starring Liv Tyler. Can you tell me about how you landed the role of Cookie and about working with the film’s director, Robert Altman?

Patricia: I liked him very much. God, I’d known him for years. I remember we met when I had just won an Oscar. I was in Honolulu, shooting In Harm’s Way and I was expecting my daughter Lucy. Years and years and years later, Lucy was in France and he was also in France. They were at a great event. Lucy walked up to him and his wife and said [speaks in a sweet, high-pitched voice], “Hi, I’m Lucy.” He knew immediately who she was. They were so loving to her; it was very good. He told her about the film he was going to do. And Lucy said, “What about my mom?” “That’s a good idea,” he said. They became good friends, so I met him again at a party at Lucy’s house. He decided he wanted me for the film. It was a small part in a sense, but it was a significant role. My character is talked about throughout the film. It was good.

Rebekah: When you played Helen Keller’s mother on stage, did it offer you any helpful perspectives in caring for your own children?

Patricia: Well, I already had two children at the time. I’d had Olivia and I’d had Tessa. But I got pregnant on the opening night. My husband, he screwed me on the opening night. We created a great son. My son, Theo. He’s the only son I have. So, you see, I didn’t stay in the play long ’cause I show very quickly.

Rebekah: If you could play the part of a character from one of Roald’s books, in a film, what character would it be?

Patricia: Well, I don’t know. Though I’m told that I’m the female fox in Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Rebekah: Early in your marriage, Roald used to write short stories for The New Yorker. Do you think becoming a father inspired him to want to write children’s books?

Patricia: I think it did, yeah. James and the Giant Peach is dedicated to our daughters Olivia and Tessa. And then Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is dedicated to our son, Theo.

Rebekah: There is no greater loss than the loss of a child. When your first-born, Olivia, died at age seven of measles, how did you cope?

Patricia: I handled myself beautifully when Olivia died. I held the family together. I did everything I could do. I really did. I would stay up late at night and talk to my friend Sonya and then I would weep and weep and weep. She was touched that I was able to hold myself together during the day for my family and just fall apart at night.

Rebekah: You had your own near-death experience, at a fairly young age, with a stroke. How did this affect your spirituality?

Patricia: I woke up not believing in anything. I really was so angry. I went into it believing in God, and when I woke up I believed in nothing. Nothing! Sorry I shouted at you. [Pats the tape recorder affectionately and playfully.] How did this happen to me? But then I realized there must be something that makes it all happen. I don’t believe in a god. There’s no such thing. He’d be too big. But it’s good to see it in nature. Look at the trees. [Gestures to beauty outside her window.] The leaves come down. Now they begin to fall, then winter’s here and then when it’s spring, there’s birds everywhere. It’s just great. I love it. And I don’t know how long I’m going to live. But I love it.

Rebekah: I understand you do a lot of volunteer work visiting stroke patients, in particular at the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, which was named in honor of you, given your remarkable recovery.

Patricia: When I go visit them, they ask me questions. There’s a lot of people in the hospitals, you know. They desperately want to see me. I get a lot of laughs. They love to see that I have suffered a stroke, but I’m doing good, ’cause I was totally paralyzed on the right side of my body. I still can’t write well or remember names. I answer questions. Anything they want to ask me, I answer honestly.

Rebekah: You endured another difficult chapter in your life, when your marriage to Roald ended.

Patricia: My God, I was the angriest woman in the world after my divorce. I really was. You’ve got to free yourself in the end. I was so bitter about Roald. I had a little doll with pins – I did it for Roald and Felicity [Roald’s second wife]. But you know, I got over it in time. So I wrote them a letter and they were both so happy. Forgiveness has been freeing. I don’t intend to ever be that way now. I couldn’t possibly be that way now.

Rebekah: How would you like to be remembered by your great-great-grandchildren?

Patricia: A good woman. That’s all I want. I hope someone will remember me. They will certainly know about Roald, because he wrote great children’s stories. Perhaps, that I was once married to him.

Rebekah: Your mother, Eura, died peacefully only a few years ago at 103, correct?

Patricia: 103 and a half. Don’t forget that half.

Rebekah: Given your mother’s longevity, it’s not unrealistic to think you still have a whole lot of living to do.

Patricia: I do not want it. Oh God, please don’t let me live that long. I love my trips and I love my plays, but I don’t want to be alive when I can’t do any of the things I love anymore.

Rebekah: You have been active with the Theatre Guild’s Theatre at Sea for many years now. Where are some of the places you’ve most enjoyed traveling to and what is your role aboard the ship?

Patricia: Oh, I like all the places that we go to. I love going to Alaska. I love the Amazon. I perform, make a speech, and I sing a song. I’ve done readings. It’s very good. We sail usually two times a year. I love it.

Rebekah: Throughout your life, is there something in particular that you wish you had done differently?

Patricia: I am very sorry that I had the abortion. I would’ve liked to have had Gary [Cooper]’s child. But at that time in Hollywood, I really didn’t have a choice, given the circumstances, because he was a married man.

Rebekah: This next question may take some thought. Patricia, is there a moment that stands out as the single most magical moment in your life?

Patricia: Well, it would be difficult to think of just one. I’ve had so many things happen. I do remember there was this moment and I thought I must never forget it. But now I don’t remember. [Laughs at herself, then looks deep in thought.] I don’t know, what was this greatest moment? Ah, [her face lights up] I was riding with Emily, my first drama teacher, to Williamsburg. My aunt lived in Williamsburg. And I was driving with Emily, and I’d never, ever, ever, seen a sunset like it. It went on and on and on. And the sky kept changing colors. [Looks up to the sky as she relives it, slowly gesturing with her hand stretched out before her.] It was the most beautiful thing that I’ve ever seen in my life. I just couldn’t believe it. Every second all the sky would change. It was gorgeous. An October sky. [Looks at Rebekah deeply in the eyes.] I hope one day, if you haven’t already, that you experience something this beautiful.

Act three : Busy as a bee

Setting: Patricia’s dining room the following summer.

Patricia: It’s good to see you again, dear. I must tell you, I don’t have a lot of time today. I’ve got to get ready soon to go to Oak Bluffs. Got a grand invitation to watch the fireworks from the porch of this beautiful house, right on the park. [Points to a picture in a magazine.]

Rebekah: Since I’ve last seen you, did you have a second stroke?

Patricia: It wasn’t a great stroke, like my other one [several decades ago], but I had something. So I had to go to the hospital. Oh, I had a lovely time. I was there five nights. Couldn’t talk at all. And I loved all the doctors. There were four of them. Don’t know which one I loved best. They were all young and handsome. I was having fun flirting with them all and I couldn’t even talk. Crazy I am. [Lets out a playful laugh.] Then I insisted on leaving ’cause I wanted to go to [my granddaughter] Clover’s wedding. So I went and it was very good.

Rebekah: It doesn’t seem to have slowed you down one bit.

Patricia: No. Seems I’m busy all the time. I’m just busy, busy, busy. Busy as a bee. That’s me. I set sail with the Theatre Guild at sea in a few weeks. We’re going to Venice and then we’re going to go to Princess Grace’s place [in Monaco].

Rebekah: Speaking of fireworks, Patricia, what was the most romantic moment of your life?

Patricia: Well, I happened to adore Gary Cooper. Yes, I think when I finally slept with him at the end of The Fountainhead, I was ecstatic. I adored him! Miserable moment though, ’cause I wanted him so badly. But you know, anyway, it all worked out in the end as it’s meant to work out. This is my life as it is.

Rebekah: Thank you, Patricia. This has been wonderful.

Patricia: Thank you, darling.