From a young age, Patricia Neal was a southern belle who captured the hearts of all those who saw her on stage or on screen. However, most fans didn’t hear about the twisted web of her unbelievable messy love life (trust me, if social media existed, she’d permanently have her relationship status set to “it’s complicated”). Read on to untangle the crazy life and career of Patricia Neal.
1. She Was A Small Town Girl
On January 20, 1926, Patricia Neal—née Patsy Louise Neal—was born in Packard, Kentucky. Neal’s childhood home is now little more than a ghost town, but its economy was booming back in the day. The townsfolk loved her father, a local farmer, and her mother, the daughter of the town doctor, but that love didn’t keep the Neal family in Packard for long.
2. She Had A Nose For Trouble
By the time Neal turned three years old, her family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where her mother hoped that she and her two siblings would receive a good education. Unfortunately, moving to the big city was hard on little Patricia. Unlike Packard, where everyone knew each other, everyone in Knoxville was a stranger. The lack of warmth and connection increased Neal’s feelings of insecurity. It wasn’t long before she began looking for trouble.
3. She Loved Danger
At a very young age, Neal’s cousin introduced her to a habit that would later haunt her for years: the “joys” of being a smoker. One day, the two precocious kids snuck out with one of her aunt’s boxes of smokes and spent the afternoon puffing away. Her aunt caught them both, of course, but it was too late: Neal was hooked. Luckily, not all of Neal’s childhood influences were bad ones.
4. She Found Her Calling Early On
One of the more positive influences on little Neal came in the form of her teacher and neighbor, Cornelia Avaniti. Avaniti was a powerful and influential speaker who gave dramatic readings throughout Knoxville. After listening to one of Avaniti’s monologues, Neal knew what she wanted to do when she grew up: She would get into drama. Just before Christmas 1936, Neal asked “Santa” for drama lessons.
Santa granted her wish, and Neal’s future was set—though eventually, she’d likely wish she’d chosen a less dramatic path.
5. She Was A Natural Actress
Neal began her training under the tutelage of Emily Mahan, a rich but strict drama teacher. Mahan nurtured Neal’s natural talent for acting, and soon, everyone else began taking notice of Neal’s onstage presence too. It wasn’t long before various social clubs throughout Knoxville were calling on Neal to do dramatic readings. The attention and acclaim gave Neal a new sense of confidence, but it wasn’t what eventually convinced her to become an actress.
6. She Had A Love Of Drama (In More Ways Than One)
What convinced Patricia Neal to become an actress had less to do with her drive for success and more to do with her teenage hormones. A local theatre group called the Tennessee Valley Players were putting on a romantic comedy, and let’s just say that the leading man was very, very…compelling. Determined to woo him for herself, Neal auditioned for, and received, the part of the female lead.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as she planned…
7. She Stumbled Onto Acting
Neal hoped that their on-stage chemistry would translate to an off-stage romance, but as soon as she showed up for rehearsal, she realized that her beloved already had a girlfriend. But don’t worry, life had something better in store for her. An important theater critic named Malcolm Miller noticed Neal’s talent and began giving her positive reviews.
Eventually, Miller offered to push Neal’s career to the next level, and Neal accepted. Patricia Neal’s road to stardom was about to begin.
8. She Fell In Love With Theater
With Miller’s help, Neal became an apprentice at the Barter Theatre, one of the best-known theater groups in show biz. For the summer of 1942, Neal moved props, was an assistant stage manager, and acted in several productions. By the end of her apprenticeship, Neal knew that she wanted to become an actress for real, and enrolled in Northwestern University’s speech program.
Unfortunately, tragic events in her life meant that Neal didn’t study there for long.
9. Tragedy Struck Her Family
On April 16, 1944, Neal received a call from her mother, who had terrible news. Her father had a heart attack, and didn’t make it to the hospital in time. Neal was devastated—but even more bad news was to come. Soon after her father’s passing, Patricia Neal learned that both her cousin and an old flame had lost their lives while fighting in WWII.
Unsurprisingly, Neal lost any desire to go back to school. Instead, Neal got a train ticket and left for the Big Apple.
10. She Was A Starving Actress
When Patricia Neal arrived in New York, she had $300 in her pocket and a dream in her heart. She quickly found roommates to bunk with at a cheap apartment on the West Side and got to work. Neal made the rounds through New York, connecting with people in the industry, taking acting classes, and seeing every play she could. Soon, an unexpected event gave Neal a chance at acting on stage once again.
11. Her Fortunes Began To Turn
During one of Neal’s rounds, she helped a young actor out with his screen test. Six weeks after the screen test, she received a surprise call from that young actor’s agent, a man named Maynard Morris. Morris believed that Neal had the right stuff to become an actress, and offered to get her into a major Broadway show, The Voice of the Turtle. Neal jumped at the chance, and became an understudy for both female leads. There was just one small problem…
12. She Accidentally Found Romance
Neal was accompanying a friend of hers to the doctor’s office when she laid eyes on one of the interns who worked there. The attraction between the two was instant; soon after their first meeting, they began dating. As their romance bloomed, Neal began thinking about marriage. She had no idea how to balance her career with her marriage, but she was so in love that she just didn’t care.
Unfortunately, Neal should’ve looked a bit harder at their budding relationship.
13. She Was Vengeful
A few days before Neal left for her role in The Voice of the Turtle, her new beau dropped a bombshell: He married his childhood friend a week ago. Neal was understandably shocked, angry, and humiliated. In an act of vengeance, Neal slept with her newly-married ex-boyfriend one last time, marking his new relationship with an act of betrayal.
With that deed completed, Neal left for her new career, and she never turned back.
14. She Hit Her Acting Stride
After a successful run of The Voice of the Turtle in New York, Neal toured with the group in Chicago and Cincinnati. Although she was only an understudy, Neal managed to get parts in subsequent plays, like Bigger Than Barnum’s and Devil Take a Whittler. The parts weren’t glamorous, but they got her name out there. Soon, Neal’s fortunes began to turn, and two famous playwrights took notice of the talented, unknown actress.
15. She Got The Chance Of A Lifetime
Both Richard Rodgers and Lillian Hellman invited Patricia Neal to take part in their newest plays. Neal couldn’t believe it. To go from being an understudy taking on roles in obscure plays to having two of the greatest playwrights of the day knocking on her door was completely mind-blowing for her. She eventually decided to work with Hellman in his play Another Part of the Forest, as she thought the part would be more dramatic.
However, the drama Neal experienced wasn’t just restricted to the stage.
16. She Nearly Gave Up
Up until opening night, Patricia Neal worked herself to the bone. She rushed between rehearsals, interviews, and finding ways to entertain her mother, who arrived in New York shortly before Neal’s big day. She frequently stayed up until two o’clock in the morning rehearsing with the cast, and by the day of the opening, she was having a complete mental breakdown.
Suddenly, becoming an actress seemed like a terrible idea. How was she going to make it through the show?
17. They Recognized Her Talent
As it turns out, Neal had nothing to worry about. Opening night went smoothly for her and the entire cast. The reviews for Neal were absolutely glowing, and soon, she was inundated by Hollywood people trying to gain her favor. Life, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and other major magazines fell over themselves to interview her. To top it all off, Neal won several awards for her performance.
All in all, her newfound fame kept her busy…but not busy enough.
18. She Always Wanted More
Whether it was in her career or her personal life, Neal was always on the lookout for something newer, bigger, and better. That’s why no one was surprised when Neal began having an affair with an actor named Victor Jory, who was 25 years older than her. Their affair remained an open secret for six months, but Neal grew bored with him.
Soon, another handsome actor caught Neal’s eye, and just like that, Neal was ready for her next conquest. Unfortunately, her taste in men was absolutely dreadful…
19. She Found Another Love
When Neal began messing around with actor Peter Cookson, he was actually in the middle of reconciling with his wife. Thanks to Neal’s meddling, all hope for Cookson’s marriage was quickly thrown out the window. Neal couldn’t care less though—she was caught up in the excitement of her new, dangerous love. Soon, Neal found their relationship getting a little too heated.
20. She Didn’t Love Him
Neal’s new beau would’ve made anyone swoon, but Neal was indifferent, and maybe feeling just a bit guilty for completely wrecking the poor man’s marriage. At the same time, Neal started to think that maybe she and Cookson weren’t going to last. She found him moody, a little clingy, and to top it all off, he was completely broke. It was only thanks to an extremely lucky turn of events that she managed to shake him off.
21. Hollywood Wanted Her
Thanks to Patricia Neal’s growing fame, several major Hollywood studios were chomping at the bit to get her onto their sets. Eventually, Warner Brothers won her over by offering her the lead role in the film John Loves Mary. Thrilled, Neal packed her bags for the bright, shining lights of Hollywood. She was ready to set the world on fire with her acting.
What she didn’t know was that her road to fame would be paved with many personal sacrifices.
22. Her Career Consumed Her Life
First, Neal knew she needed to end things with Cookson. At this point, the gnawing feeling of guilt had grown too strong, plus her budding career kept her way too busy for the serious kind of romance that Cookson wanted. After breaking up with him through good old-fashioned snail mail, Neal put every ounce of her energy into furthering her Hollywood career.
Neal really wasn’t looking for a new romance, but somehow, romance still managed to find her.
23. She Found Her Romeo
During a private event at Warner Brothers, Neal was busy rubbing elbows with all the major players in Hollywood when she met movie-mega star, Gary Cooper. The normally cool-as-a-cucumber Neal instantly fell head over heels in love with the handsome actor. In typical Neal fashion, she became determined to make that man hers.
Luckily for her, all the stars aligned, and she got the chance to make some sparks fly with Cooper. If she’d known what was coming, she’d have run for the hills the moment she laid eyes on him.
24. She Mixed Business And Pleasure
A few days after the event at Warner Brothers, director King Vidor invited Neal to do a screen test for the film adaptation of The Fountainhead. If successful, Neal would star across none other than Cooper, the man who unknowingly captured her heart. This lit a fire under Neal like nothing else. After some intensive acting lessons, Neal nailed the screen test and got the part. With that, it was time for Neal to work her magic.
25. She Seduced Him
Neal’s romance with Cooper began with small conversations about work, with Neal using any excuse she could to speak with Cooper privately. It then escalated to little touches and long, lingering looks. The tension between them grew and grew, pushed along by the romantic dialogue exchanged between their characters in The Fountainhead. Soon enough, Neal’s reality began to mirror fiction.
26. She Was Happy…At First
After the filming for The Fountainhead ended, Neal and Cooper’s love affair began. Neal couldn’t have been happier. The relationship wasn’t without its problems, of course (Cooper was 25 years older than her, and married), but Neal was content just to snatch little moments of happiness with her new love. This easy-going relationship was perfect for a starlet with a busy schedule…but Neal soon found herself wanting more.
27. Her Love Overwhelmed Her
You know the saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder?” Neal discovered the truth of this in a big way. In late fall of 1948, Warner Brothers sent Neal off to England to shoot a film called The Hasty Heart. Neal desperately missed Cooper the entire time she was in England, and soon, it got her thinking. What if they somehow took their relationship to the next level? Could she find a way to settle down with him and start a family?
Let’s just say that these thoughts got her in a whole world of trouble.
28. She Cheated On Him
Neal knew that Cooper would never agree to settling down. Instead, she began to succumb to the charms of Kirk Douglas, another young, handsome actor who went to the premiere of The Fountainhead with her. Pretty soon, things between them grew heated, with Patricia Neal inviting Kirk back to her apartment for little dates. Neal made sure that Cooper and Kirk never knew about each other—but one day, she slipped up.
29. She Was Caught
After a particularly ardent evening of kisses and drinks between herself and Kirk, Neal heard a knocking on her apartment door. To her astonishment, the man on the other side was none other than Cooper, and he had seen everything through her apartment window. Enraged and jealous, Cooper slapped Neal across the face. After a moment of shock, Neal snapped back, “You don’t do that to me.”
Cooper never hit her again, but it was an indication that their relationship was about to get very complicated.
30. Her Life Took A Weird Turn
Patricia Neal began living a strange double-life. In public, she dated Kirk (who now knew about Cooper, but “dated” her in an act of friendship). In private, she was, as Neal put it, “Gary’s woman.” Still, this wasn’t enough. Although she still acted in films with Cooper (Bright Leaf was their next picture together), she wanted their love to go public, though Cooper had other ideas.
31. She Found Love Once Again
No matter how much she wanted Gary Cooper to settle down with her, it just wasn’t going to happen. Once their relationship fizzled out, Neal decided to head back to New York to work with Lillian Hellman on a play called The Children’s Hour in 1952. There, Hellman introduced her to a man who changed the course of Patricia Neal’s future: Roald Dahl, a British novelist known for works like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and The BFG. Sparks didn’t exactly fly when the two first met, however.
32. She Didn’t Love Him…At First
While Neal thought that Dahl was tall and handsome (just her type!), she didn’t feel that same, instant connection that she had with Cooper. Still, Neal thought that Dahl was interesting—he seemed to know everyone and everything (and, according to Neal, he really knew how to please a lady in the bedroom). The two grew close, and it wasn’t long before Dahl popped the question.
Neal, unsure if she really loved him, turned him down—at first.
33. She Married Him For All The Wrong Reasons
It took some time for Patricia Neal to warm up to the idea, but slowly, she embraced the thought of marrying Dahl. This wasn’t really an act of love, however; what Neal really wanted was to start a family and have kids, and Dahl was Neal’s one-way ticket to that goal. Not everyone thought this was a good idea, though. Many of her closest friends opposed the idea; one friend even said, “Don’t marry him, Patsy, he’s a horror.” And in many ways, Neal’s friends were right.
34. He Didn’t Respect Her
Despite his good looks and charm, Neal noticed that Dahl was not everyone’s cup of tea. He was arrogant, unapologetic, and had a habit of speaking down to the people around him—that included speaking down to Neal herself. Despite her misgivings, Neal went through with her decision to marry Dahl in 1953. She regretted it almost immediately.
35. She Got What She Wanted
Neal’s relationship with Dahl was rife with problems. Neal’s family hated him (they thought he was incredibly rude), and Dahl’s family looked down on Neal (after all, she was “merely” an actress). Neal continued to stick around despite this, and it wasn’t long before she got what she wanted: She finally became pregnant with Dahl’s child and gave birth to Olivia Dahl in 1955. Another daughter, Tessa Dahl, followed in 1957. For Neal, things were beginning to look up.
36. She Had The Perfect Life
For the next few years, Neal lived a relatively peaceful life. She worked on a variety of television plays, and films (which included a part in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where she met and became friends with Audrey Hepburn). Neal even had another child in 1960, a little boy by the name of Theo Matthew. Her happiness was absolute—until a tragic incident nearly took everything from her.
37. An Accident Changed It All
On December 5, 1960, Neal’s newborn son suffered a horrific accident. While under the care of a babysitter, a cab struck Theo’s stroller while they were crossing the street, sending the baby boy flying into the side of a bus. The result of the accident was horrific; paramedics rushed Neal’s son to the hospital, where they discovered that the impact had completely shattered his skull. Some of the worst days of Neal’s life began.
38. She Became A Loving Housewife
While Neal’s son survived the accident, he needed extensive and intensive treatment to keep him alive. To make things simpler, Neal and her entire family moved to England, Dahl’s country of birth, to manage Theo’s care. Neal quietly entered early retirement, only taking on small roles that didn’t keep her away from her son for long. Theo slowly recovered under her love and care…but her family struggles were only beginning.
39. She Kept Moving Forward
While her home life was in turmoil, the world didn’t stop for Neal; she knew she had to keep supporting her family financially. In 1963, Neal agreed to act in a film called Hud, and it turned out to be a much-needed win for the beleaguered actress. The filming of the movie went perfectly, and she even found a friend in co-star Paul Newman.
Experience taught Neal not to get her hopes up too high about the movie’s success; let’s just say she was in for a big surprise.
40. She Blew Them All Away
Neal’s performance in Hud not only captured the hearts of critics, but it captured the hearts of audiences as well. The movie did well financially, and it got Neal a load of awards and future roles. On top of that, Neal had another child in 1964, a daughter named Ophelia. Shortly after, Neal got pregnant again, much to her joy. Between her frantic filming schedule and taking care of the kids, Neal led a hectic life, but she managed.
However, disaster had a way of coming for Patricia Neal just as things were going well…
41. Her Life Nearly Ended
Remember way, way back when Neal had her first smoke as a child? Well, Neal remained a heavy smoker all through her life, and it finally led to a devastating event when she was three months pregnant with her latest child. She suffered not one, not two, but three strokes in a row, leaving her in a coma. Everyone thought that Neal had no chance of living, but miraculously, she woke up three months later. This wasn’t exactly good news, however.
42. He Controlled Her
When Neal woke up, she was unable to speak, barely able to move, and had trouble with her memory. Unable to care for herself, Neal relied heavily on her husband, who began to control every aspect of her life, from what she ate, to who she got to see, to her treatment plans. While she began to recover (and even gave birth to a daughter named Lucy in 1965), she found her husband’s control suffocating.
All too soon, things between them reached a breaking point.
43. He Broke Her Heart
In 1972, Neal made a discovery that completely pulled the rug out from under her. Her husband was having an affair with a woman named Felicity Crossland, a set designer who worked with Neal on an advertisement for Maxim coffee. Neal lost her mind with anger, but stayed with her husband, determined to make things work. Sadly, this nightmare union was still doomed.
After 11 years of turmoil, Neal finally ended things in 1983. She returned to the States, far away from her husband. It was time to find happiness elsewhere.
44. He Forced Her To Get An Abortion
While being with Dahl was often miserable, it still had to be better than the days with Gary Cooper. The worst moment in that relationship came when Neal learned she became pregnant with Cooper’s child. She thought that a child would finally make Gary Cooper leave his wife for her—but she was so, terribly wrong. Cooper, horrified by the news, allegedly forced Neal to get a secret abortion. Neal’s dreams of settling down with Cooper were fading by the instant, and just when she thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did.
The press began to suspect Neal and Cooper’s relationship was a little more than professional. Soon, Neal was smack in the middle of a media firestorm.
45. The Press Attacked Her
Neal found herself fending off pointed questions about her relationship with Cooper. The press actually went so far as to follow her to film sets, despite her repeated denials of an affair between herself and Cooper. Of course, Hollywood insiders and her fellow actors knew the truth. Many began to either shun or support her, and the mental toll of it all became all too much for the couple.
46. She Finally Ended It
Things came to a head when Cooper, stressed by the spotlight being put on himself and Neal, developed ulcers and was rushed to the hospital. In a panic, Neal called Cooper’s mother, hoping for a shoulder to cry on. Instead, Cooper’s mother laid into her, accusing Neal of causing Cooper’s illness. Shocked and dismayed, Neal made a decision right then and there to end things with Cooper for good—even if it caused her unbearable pain.
47. She Nearly Lost Her Mind
After breaking up with Cooper, Neal went down a dark path. She couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and even called him once in hysterics, begging for him to choose her over his wife. Thankfully, her friends and family rallied around her. With their help, the painful fog surrounding her began to lift, little by little. She began going out, doing small jobs, and even had a brief fling.
Her life eventually went back to normal, and that’s when she met Dahl—though we all know it was no “happily ever after.”
48. Tragedy Struck Her Once Again
One day, Patricia Neal’s daughters brought back a note from school that read, “This is to notify all parents that measles are in the school.” It seemed like a minor inconvenience at first, but things for Neal quickly took a turn for the worse when her daughter, Olivia, caught the infection. Slowly, Neal’s little girl grew worse and worse. By November 17, 1962, Neal’s seven-year-old daughter closed her eyes one last time. The event nearly tore Neal’s family apart.
49. Everything Began To Fall Apart
For Neal, the only thing that kept her grounded was taking care of her husband and children, and doing her best to pull them through this traumatic family event. Neal found solace in talking about little Olivia, and sharing her grief with her friends. Her husband, on the other hand, absolutely hated talking about their daughter, even once losing his temper when he overheard Neal discussing Olivia.
The family was in turmoil, but Neal, as always, just kept moving forward. If nothing else, her cruel life had taught her that much.
50. She Became An Advocate
Neal spent the final few decades of her life making appearances in television and films; her final film role was Flying By in 2009. As a survivor of stroke, she acted as an advocate for victims of paralysis, and became a spokesperson for the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. Unfortunately, being a smoker caught up to her eventually, and she lost her battle with lung cancer on August 8, 2010, at the age of 84.