Patricia Neal: A House With Many Rooms

One of the first things Patricia Neal ever asked of me is that I not make her out to be a victim. "I'm so tired of that story," she told me. "I've had a marvelous life---for the most part."

I met Miss Neal in January of 2004, when she was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame, where she performed a monologue from the Kaufman/Ferber play The Royal Family. When we were introduced later, she asked me what I thought of her performance: I told her I had liked it. "Do you mean it?" she asked me forcefully, and I told her I did. This was characteristic of Patricia Neal, I would learn: she did not like flattery and she craved the truth.

Marian Seldes had introduced Patricia Neal at the Hall of Fame festivities, and she read from the words Tennessee Williams had spoken to me about his time with Neal, in London, during a production of Garden District, one act of which became known to us as Suddenly, Last Summer. Tenn was ashamed of his behavior during the time he spent with Neal, and she loudly proclaimed "As well he should be!," and then laughed. Patricia Neal did not skirt the truth, but she did not dwell on the past, or slights, or regrets. 

Here are Tenn's words on Neal, and Neal's words on Tenn:

Tenn on Pat: I just thought she was marvelous. I will never forget her in Another Part of the Forest: I thought I was looking at a young Katharine Cornell, but a Katharine Cornell who could really, fearlessly act. Pat Neal was violently talented, ferociously committed to the part. I had a dinner with Lillian Hellman, and congratulated her on the leading lady she had chosen, and I told her that she had discovered a ferocious and hungry talent. Lillian had a habit--not without its odd charm--of nodding in a patient, firm manner; a sort of wise and weary blessing--when you said something that she recognized would soon be appropriated for her own uses. Which is exactly what happened. I would read in magazines or hear from Kermit [Bloomgarden, Hellman's producer] that Pat Neal was ferocious and hungry, per Lillian! Oh, well, if I could be of some small service to a pal from New Orleans!

Lillian Hellman

Pat was promptly and deservedly taken to Hollywood, where she was signed to the utilitarian balefulness that was Warner Bros., and I loved her in The Fountainhead. Is anything as grandly bad as Ayn Rand? Was anyone ever so wise in skirting the stupidity of that novel as King Vidor? God, I loved it. The huge drill? Gary Cooper's phallus driven into granite! And Pat's gorgeous ride in the elevator of that skyscraper, wind blowing her hair up into the heavens! This was a star.

I wanted to work with her, and I could never get her. There was talk of her for Esmeralda in Camino [Real] and as Maggie in Cat [on a Hot Tin Roof], but our schedules never found a merger. Finally, a British producer secured her for a production of Garden District.

I wish more people could have seen Pat in that production: she was transcendent. Actresses are, in a way, houses: beautiful constructions of their own intelligence, talent, will, and dreaming, moving soul. There are successful actresses who operate out of tiny apartments, and within that space, they are quite effective, but their gifts have failed to provide them with theatrical square footage, with rooms. Others have homes that are vast but falling into disrepair; still others never seem to finish the construction, and you step about tools and dangerous spots. The worst are those who have lovely and large homes, but they have failed to turn on the lights, turn down the beds, or set a table for a tired visitor. This is very common.

Patricia Neal's home--her acting home--has many, many rooms, and they are beautifully furnished, warm and inviting. She will sit with you by the bed and laugh and have a drink and tell you a funny story. She will feed you and tell you you're foolish or beautiful or quite insane. She will open every door in that house to you. However, in the right part--and Catherine was the right part--she will also invite you into her beautiful home, make you comfortable, and then lock you into a small space and turn off the lights. This is precisely what she did with Catherine, and I will never forget it.

I told Sam Spiegel and several others that I wanted Pat for a film version. Gore [Vidal] agreed to write the screenplay: I had no desire to do so. Wheels turned, time passed, and my promise to Pat soon turned into a regretful phone call: The powers that be had decided on Elizabeth Taylor.

I did not stand up for Pat Neal, and I regret this. I would have liked to have heard that marvelous voice uttering Catherine's lines, and I would have enjoyed the fear and the awe she would have inspired. I did not behave admirably.

Amazingly, she has held no grudge that I can discern. We meet, we smile, and we laugh. We are, after all, two Southern people dedicated to having a good time and living fulsomely. Hers is a house of many rooms, and a successful navigation would include a visit to it on some future occasion--if she would have me.

Patricia Neal, with Paul Newman, in Hud (1963).

Pat on Tenn:  Of course I remember it! Oh, was I treated well--and then so badly! During the run there were limousines and flowers and Champagne, and then, nothing! These things happen.

I loved talking to Tennessee, even though it didn't happen often. He was unafraid to be sad or uncertain, which I find very endearing and very rare. He also had an ability to gossip and to ask very personal questions that was not offensive, and I told him much too much, but I was never aware of his sharing anything. He felt like a chum, but it didn't happen.

I saw him on occasion, as one does in this business, in these circles. I was always happy to see him, but I always felt he moved away from me, out of guilt perhaps over the play and what later happened. I could never seem to bring myself to tell him that one moves on from these things, or that I had a few larger things on my mind.

Talent? He loved to talk about it, to ask questions about it, but I never had answers for him. I wanted to act and I set out to do it. I was beautifully supported by my family and some friends and some teachers. I was terribly, terribly lucky. I am serious about the job but not so much about myself: I think you must laugh at yourself and at life and be generous with your patience.

I always admired Tennessee's manners: He was such a gentleman. He treated me and others so delicately and kindly, and I never heard him speak badly of anyone, even those who deserved it. I felt safe around him, and I never felt betrayed by him. I wish I were able to tell him that. 

So many people are gone now. You hold on to the memories. It's sometimes enough. It's all we have. Most of mine are good, I promise you.

I only recall giving Tennessee what could be called advice once: I told him that you had to tell the truth, you had to love deeply, and you had to keep facing forward.



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