By Andrea Chambers
May 09, 1988 12:00 PM

A woman in her third month of pregnancy is bathing her 7-year-old daughter, taking quiet pleasure in this routine yet treasured moment of motherhood. Suddenly a searing pain shoots through her head, signaling the first of three successive strokes that leave her paralyzed on her right side. It is a moment frozen in time for actress Patricia Neal. Nearly a quarter of a century later, she can still remember the sound of her heart beating and her final thought before slipping into a coma: “I have children to care for. I can not die.”

Neal is a fighter, a woman known as much for her spirit as for her acting triumphs and awards. The illness that felled her at age 39 was the third of a series of Job-like tragedies that kept crashing in on Neal’s happiness, turning a life of early success and glamour into one of horror. First, her infant son suffered severe brain damage in an accident on a Manhattan street. Then, two years later, her 7-year-old daughter died of measles encephalitis.

Five years ago, Neal decided to sort through her life, reliving not only the sorrows but also the sweeping highs, such as her early stardom in The Fountainhead in 1949 and her 1963 Academy Award for Hud. With the help of a California writer, Richard DeNeut, she completed a 371-page autobiography, Patricia Neal, As I Am. In this wrenching, honest journal, published last month, the actress discusses the intimate details of her affair with the married Gary Cooper and discloses the fact that she aborted his child. She also gives a bitter portrait of her marriage and tells how Roald Dahl threw her over for her close friend in 1979.

Sitting in her Manhattan apartment on the eve of publication, Neal, now 62, is apprehensive about how the book will be received, but is relieved to have finally told her story. “To have something inside destroys me,” she says. Surrounded by symbols of her former success—plaques and awards and original artworks by Matisse, Picasso and Winston Churchill—she is happy to be in the spotlight again. She has not performed in four years. “I can learn lines, but it’s hard,” says Neal, who has memory lapses as a result of her strokes. She walks with a cane and has little vision in her right eye. “I think people don’t want to bother with me,” she says. “It’s too bad. I’m a good, divine actress. Try to get me a part, would you?”

Neal remains very much an actress. The face is still beautiful, with its chiseled cheeks and haunting hazel eyes. The hands flutter and sweep upward. The famous molasses voice, full and throaty, makes the simplest utterance sound urgent.

As her book relates, Neal’s love of acting was as much a part of her youth as the coalfields of Packard, Ky., where she was born. Headstrong Patsy Lou Neal wrote to Santa at age 10: “What I want for Christmas is to study dramatics.” Her mother and her father, a manager for a coal company, supported Patsy’s passion for delivering monologues to the neighborhood kids. Yet they urged her to go to college instead of becoming an actress and she complied, attending Northwestern University.

But after two years, Neal headed to New York, where she landed a job as an understudy in the road company of The Voice of the Turtle. Within a year she was playing the lead in Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest, which won her a Tony award in 1947. Neal was 21 years old.

She left for Hollywood the same year, under contract to Warner Bros., to co-star with the young actor Ronald Reagan in John Loves Mary. “He was distraught in those days,” says Neal. “Jane Wyman had broken up with him, and he loved her.”

Neal’s next leading man was the worldly Gary Cooper, who began a heated affair with her after they finished filming The Fountainhead. A possessive lover, in Neal’s telling, he once hit her when he found her dating Kirk Douglas. When Neal became pregnant by Cooper in 1950, she had an agonizing back-room abortion while Cooper, anxious and soaked with sweat, waited in his car. “I’ve wept and wept over that,” she says. “That abortion is my greatest regret, but I wasn’t as gutsy as Ingrid Bergman [who scandalized Hollywood that year when she gave birth out of wedlock to Italian film director Roberto Rossellini’s son]. That I, this little Southern girl, should have had the guts to do that…nevah, nevah.”

After two years, Cooper’s wife learned of the romance and told their 12-year-old daughter, Maria. The affair continued for two more years, and though Gary and his wife separated, he would not commit himself to marry Neal. “Why go on?” Patricia kept asking herself, and finally told Gary it was over. She then suffered what she now says must have been a nervous breakdown. “Oh, how I loved him. I was in another world when it ended,” she says. “I couldn’t talk. I lost 25 pounds. I felt life was over, but I didn’t have the courage to kill myself.”

With the help of her sister’s family doctor, Neal recovered and in 1952 returned to Broadway to star in Hell-man’s The Children’s Hour. At a dinner party at the playwright’s house one night, Neal was introduced to a 6’6″ Welsh writer of Norwegian extraction. Though Roald Dahl’s arrogant manner offended Neal at first, she eventually convinced herself that he would make a good husband and father. “What was I holding out for? A great love?” she asks in the book. “That would never come again.” So, in 1953, Neal married Dahl and settled in New York, where she continued her career. She had three children, Olivia, Tessa and Theo. One day in 1960, Theo’s nanny was wheeling his baby carriage across a Manhattan street when a taxi jumped a green light and hit the pram. The doctors said the child would die. He survived, but needed eight operations to reduce the swelling in his brain.

Theo’s accident convinced Roald and Patricia that the family would be safer in England, so they bought an old farmhouse in a small town 30 miles north of London. A year after they moved in a measles epidemic swept through their village. Gamma globulin inoculations were rare in Britain and primarily reserved for expectant mothers who had measles. Olivia, spotted and listless one morning, slipped into a coma and died by evening. Roald went crazy when she died,” reports Neal. “But I knew, knew, knew we had to have other children. Life had to go on.”

Neal gave birth to Ophelia the next year and then was pregnant with Lucy when a congenital weakness in one of her blood vessels caused the devastating series of strokes. Though Dahl has often been credited with selflessly devoting himself to Neal’s recovery, her book tells quite a different story. Neal portrays her husband as a brutish drill sergeant. When she gave birth by cesarean to Lucy (who was miraculously unaffected by her mother’s illness), Dahl instructed a doctor to tie his wife’s tubes, and he complied. “He did so because of my condition, assuming I would not have argued the point,” Neal writes. “He was right, I wouldn’t have. Not then. Only years later did I feel the outrage.”

Throughout Neal’s illness, her children recoiled from a mother who could barely speak or reach out to them. And Roald, she says, took pleasure in the situation: “He began to run things, and he liked it. I remember Tessa saying, ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,’ all the time, and I’d silently scream, Talk to me! I didn’t make this happen to me. It wasn’t my fault.’ I felt terrible anger.”

Eventually, Neal recovered sufficiently to star in The Subject Was Roses in 1968 and other movie and TV projects, as well as to re-establish her role as a mother. In 1972 she struck up a close friendship with a fashion coordinator named Felicity Crossland. Before long, Crossland began an affair with Dahl. When Neal finally found out about it, in 1974, Dahl promised to end the romance. The marriage lasted five more years, until Neal’s daughter Ophelia told her mother that Dahl was still seeing Crossland.

At the urging of her children, Neal moved to New York. “I wanted to kill Roald,” she remembers. “It was the most horrible, horrendous thing. I was so revolting to be around. I ranted and raved and called him ‘that bastard’ to the kids and everyone else. My poor children. They went through hell. I’m sorry about it. But I probably would do it again.”

The Dahls divorced in 1983, and Roald married Crossland shortly thereafter. Neal stayed in New York, settling into a Manhattan apartment overlooking the East River. Lonely and depressed, she received solace from an unexpected source—Gary Cooper’s daughter, Maria, who had first reached out to Patricia after her strokes. A devout Catholic, Cooper suggested Neal visit an abbey in Bethlehem, Conn., and she did so. Though Neal had been a Baptist, a Methodist and a member of the Church of England over the years, Catholicism gave her a new understanding, and she began going on frequent retreats. One day, at the suggestion of the abbess, Neal began taping her memoirs in a little room overlooking the sheep meadow.

The result is hardly a gentle look back. “Roald is not going to be very happy with the book,” she says. She is far more concerned about her children, with whom she claims to have a close relationship. “I hope they won’t be furious. They love their father, and I don’t want to turn them against him. But they’ll have to like it or not like it.”

It is twilight now in Neal’s apartment, and outside the window, lights twinkle on the barges and tugboats plying the East River. Neal studies the scene for a moment. “I’ve tried to put the bitterness behind me,” she says cautiously. “I love life, though I know death is around the corner. But two fortunetellers have told me I’ll live until I’m 95. Don’t you suppose if two tell you the same thing, that that means something?” she asks, tapping her cane for emphasis. “I don’t know what’s around the corner for me, but I hope it will be gorgeous.”