Part Three - Cruelest Fate and Truest Love
Cruelest Fate and Truest Love
The previous parts of this biography told the story of Roald Dahl's success as an author of adult fiction, the start of his career as a children's author and the tragic loss of his first child Olivia. We conclude the tale in this Entry.
Dahl's third daughter Ophelia was born in May 1964. His son Theo was much better, the shunt which had been given to him to alleviate his hydrocephalus had now been totally removed, and Roald began storytelling again, this time to Tessa and Theo. The world of children's fiction, however, was soon to taste the wonders of Mr Willy Wonka and his mysterious chocolate factory. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in America in September 1964 - the first print run of 10,000 copies sold within four weeks. The second rung of his new ladder had been reached.
The fame of his wife Pat - actress Patricia Neal - had also been growing and her love of their Great Missenden home and being with her family made being away in the States difficult. However, her income was substantial compared to Roald at that time and could not be forfeited. The film Hud, with Paul Newman, had the film critics acclaiming her performance for which she received an Oscar. Hollywood was pulling her back.
Both Pat and Roald were at new beginnings in terms of international fame and recognition yet, to Dahl's considerable annoyance, UK publishers had had to be persuaded to publish James and the Giant Peach, which appeared in 1961, or 1964's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. By February the following year, there were still no takers for the new Roald Dahl, and the family followed Pat to Hollywood for her latest film role with John Wayne called Seven Women. Only Roald and Pat, of course, knew she was pregnant once more but no one could have known about the third, dreadful, dark tunnel ahead.
Only four days into the shoot of Seven Women, Pat was enjoying sharing bathing Tessa with the family nanny when a thunderbolt of a pain tore through her head. Roald did not hesitate for one moment and immediately contacted the neurosurgeon that had dealt with Theo, Charles Carton. Within the space of that phone call, Pat was unconscious, her body convulsing. In hospital, she murmured, 'Who is in this house? What are the names of the people in this house please?' and then she slipped into a coma. Pat was pregnant and close to death; it was a stark reality.
In all, Pat had suffered three strokes and Carton's team worked through the night to remove the haemorrhaged blood threatening her brain. This operation severed the temporal lobe which controls speech and movement. It was a gamble to save her, but, should she survive, her condition would be a serious one. Survive she did, but it took over two agonising weeks before she came round. Amid the family's unbridled joy at her recovery, her transformation was truly startling.
Wearing an eye patch, unable to speak, unable to move her right side, her hair cruelly shaved away, her mouth twisted to a slight curl; it was a difficult image to store in place of the real Patricia Neal, Oscar-winning Hollywood actress and mother to her three surviving children. More important, she was still pregnant. Roald, the ultimate patriarch, came to the fore, and took charge of who could and could not see Pat. He set about organising her recovery, because he could not envisage anything other than a full recovery. He would lead them all back into that light at the end of the tunnel once more and that light would be in Buckinghamshire, not California.
A Village Pulls Together
Great Missenden saw a dejected and depressed Pat. She had lost everything that made her a beautiful Hollywood actress - her looks, her voice and her memory and, as if things couldn't be any worse, her right leg was now encased in a brace.
Roald pushed and prodded her into village walks, conversations and shopping - he was convinced that softly, softly would not work and for some appeared to be over-zealous, even cruel.
Village neighbours were recruited to help Pat learn to read again, but of more immediate importance at that time was the safe delivery of her baby. In surgeon's gown and mask, Roald watched the birth of their daughter Lucy Neal Dahl on 4 August, 1965. Now Lucy was safe and healthy, Roald orchestrated his master plan. He needed to work and to bring in money and to realise his prediction that Pat would make a full recovery. Luckily, work came quickly in the form of an offer to write the screenplay for a James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice. Roald took up the challenge.
Village neighbour, Valerie Eton-Griffiths, who he had learnt had recently recovered from a thyroid complaint, received a phone call 'out of the blue' from Roald asking if she would 'work' with Pat.
Unclear what 'work' meant in this context, Valerie recounts: 'I came down to Gipsy House and there was Pat sitting at the kitchen table staring - the saddest face you've ever seen. I did not know what to do but for some strange reason when Pat saw me walk through the doorway, I knew I was going to help her.'
She couldn't have been more perfect as Pat's saviour. In fact Valerie worked with Pat for five days a week for the next two years, transforming her abilities to speak and enjoy life once more. Valerie's experience with Pat not only led to their deep and continuing friendship, but she went on to pioneer The Chest and Heart Association which became the Volunteer Stroke Service that continues to undertake so much invaluable assistance to stroke patients today. Even the present-day aims of the VSS reflect exactly what Valerie had made possible for Pat during those dark days in the mid 1960s, ie: 'improving quality of life by building confidence and improving morale.' Of Roald, Valerie recalls: 'I thought it was a magnificent effort, the way he worked and managed Pat and the children - he took over the lot.'
In fact, the ever-inventive Roald arranged for Pat and Valerie to go to Hollywood to make an information film called Stroke/Counter Stroke to show the world that recovering from such a severe set-back can be achieved. Roald had firmly but safely negotiated their way out from that dreadful tunnel.
The film You Only Live Twice was a smash hit and Roald could quite rightly bask in his script-writing glory. Thanks to Valerie, Pat was well enough to take on a film role in early 1968, less than three years since her stroke. It was called The Subject Was Roses. Valerie worked with her as script-prompter. Thanks to Pat's talent as an actress and Valerie's sheer hard work on script prompting, Pat was nominated for an Academy Award. In the event her co-star got it, but what an achievement by Pat and Valerie - no award was needed to appreciate that.
Sadly, on 17 November, 1967, the anniversary of Olivia's death, Roald's beloved mother Sofie died aged 82. Roald himself was in extreme pain from his old plane crash injury and it seemed his ever stalwart spirit was fading. Even he could only take so many knocks.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang appeared to come to his rescue: his second venture into film script work. Was he now on another new rung of the ladder? As it turned out, he wasn't. Script disputes between Dahl and director Ken Hughes led to him disowning it.
In fact the next few years were characterised by Dahl pushing to enhance his own film-scripting reputation, but finding working with directors often as volatile as himself, who had the power to alter and criticise his work, a major irritant. Roald regained his stride with the 1970 publication of best-seller, Fantastic Mr Fox, a book he dedicated to the memory of Olivia.
During the 1970s, stormy times started to build. Roald's frustration with UK publishers reluctant to fully launch him in his home country was understandable, given his emerging US successes. They certainly acknowledged and published Dahl, the writer of adult stories, but continued to give the impression they thought he was merely masquerading as a writer for children. Even Dahl himself was confused about how to balance the two genres and continued to attack both. He needed his definitive UK success badly.
Stormy times also began to characterise his marriage to Pat. She had been steadily working to rebuild her career and had now added TV commercials to her repertoire. They bickered, argued, chased their own careers, came back together, bickered and argued - the spiral of a collapsing marriage spun and spun. Perhaps they had been through too much together - too many dark tunnels - and they were plain tired.
Roald was in pain, his back and hips could be agonising and his often abrasive manner not always eliciting the empathy he secretly craved. His stern outer shell was a formidable armour against soft intimacy. Even the children did not see their father as a 'cuddler'. Granddaughter Sophia Dahl was later to recall, 'He was not a big hugger'.
The storms crackled and broke when Roald met Felicity Crosland. Felicity, Liccy to her friends, was responsible for organising Pat's wardrobe for the Maxim coffee television commercials. Emotionally it was both a complex and engaging time as Liccy became a friend of the family at Gipsy House and gradually more than that to a smitten Roald. Liccy found him very romantic, his family found him wanting in his honesty about his feelings for both Pat and Liccy.
Meanwhile, Roald continued pushing his UK publishers and by 1975, Danny the Champion of the World was in the bookshops, followed in 1977 by The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. In the same year, Roald's physical pain was eased somewhat by a hip replacement. His mental anguish, however, about the future of his marriage, and his relationship with Liccy, continued to complicate life. It was now 1979; he retreated to his famous writing hut, sleeping bag around his legs, writing board across his lap, pencils and yellow pad to hand, souvenir hip-bone on his desk, and became the ultimate children's author once more. One year later he had created The Twits, George's Marvellous Medicine and the foundation for what would become Revolting Rhymes. The year 1980 was a watershed in Dahl's future, both personally and professionally.
Divorce and Marriage: Reaching the Top of the Ladder
Pat and Roald divorced in 1983 and Liccy and Roald were married that same year. Liccy and her three children, Neisha, Charlotte and Lorina, were now firmly part of Roald's life alongside Tessa and Theo, now in their twenties, and teenagers Ophelia and Lucy. Pat was living at Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. Professionally, Roald flourished and from that hut at the end of a pleached lime walk across the garden from Gipsy House emerged the works that would finally place him at the top of the ladder of children's fiction: The BFG, The Witches and Matilda.
It was also the period when the superb illustrations of Quentin Blake, already used in some of Dahl's early work, came into their own, and are now inextricably welded into the Dahl magic.
Also in 1983, Dahl won the Whitbread Prize for The Witches, a book he dedicated to Liccy. He generously donated the £3,000 prize to a children's hospice in Oxford. His philanthropic character would always surface where children were involved, personally ensuring that his donation went to buy equipment for disabled children or into research for neurological disorders and dyslexia. By the late 1980s Roald had the great satisfaction of seeing virtually everything he had so painstakingly created and crafted published all around the world and in many languages.
The international fame he had always sought came in abundance and the family gatherings at Gipsy House were now ones of much more contentment and implicit conciliation. Roald was a familiar figure in the village and much sympathy was elicited when, in 1985, he had two operations for cancer of the bowel which left him debilitated. In fact Roald was becoming ill with leukaemia. A fourth and final tunnel lay ahead. It was 1990, Roald continued writing and any rift that had existed between himself and Pat, or between Liccy and Pat, was now healed as Pat flew over for Theo's 30th birthday. She would never see Roald again.
Tragic events were still to haunt them as Liccy's 26-year-old daughter Lorina died from a brain tumour. Less than eight months later, that autumn, Dahl was in an Oxford hospital very seriously ill and in agonising pain, the family in great distress. Roald Dahl died from a rare blood disorder on 23 November, 1990. He was 74.
Dahl's English Village Legacy and Beyond: A Galaxy of Dreams
In his memory, two major Buckinghamshire-based creations have been constructed, everyone involved somehow conscious of this punctilious world-famous children's author looking over their shoulders to check what they are doing in his name. Liccy has no doubt that he would have loved the Roald Dahl Museum in Aylesbury that opened in 1996. It is constructed for children, not for adults. The latter are certainly not allowed to crawl along Fantastic Mr Fox's tunnel, but can possibly peer into The Giant Peach with their children's permission.
In the village he loved is a very special creation that opened in June 2005. It is the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre - a tribute to his working life and there to promote his favorite cause, literacy and literature for children. It is housed in a cleverly restored old coaching inn, its historical facade now brightened by an image of the BFG looking towards the very orphanage windows into which he blew his dreams and where his adventures with Sophie began.
'If you is really wanting to know what I am doing in your village,' the BFG said, 'I is blowing a dream into the bedroom of those children.'
- The BFG, 19821
Across the world, this remarkable author and children's hero has blown a galaxy of dreams into children's lives and given them literary enjoyment beyond measure.
The sun slowly relinquishes its command over the day, the last flickers of its gaze leaving a warming caress over the circular seat so lovingly inscribed to the children he loved. Carved into the paving slabs that are set around the base of the seat is a very special rhyme that requires the reader to walk around each of the children's dedicated seats starting from Olivia, past Tessa and Theo and on to Ophelia, then Lucy and Neisha, to Charlotte and finally to Lorina.
We have tears in our eyes
As we wave our goodbyes
We so loved being with you we three
So do please now and then
Come and see us again
The Giraffe and Pelly and me
As you ponder the significance of this special family tribute, a last glance down to the polished granite memorial reveals yet another change of scene to the tableaux of affection that continue to move across its surface. Three giant onions nestle next to a butterfly on a stick and a small bag of sand and seashells. Wedged by the bag is a hand-written note covered in children's signatures. It is a note that only children can create, one of great simplicity yet hosting emotions of startling depth and profundity. It reads:
We send you a few grains of sand from the Mediterranean Coast - this blue and hot sea that has always been the origin of such civilisations. If you could put some of that sand on the grave where Roald rests, our memories stay in every one of its grains.
Lots of kisses
6th Level Class
Cami del Mig School
Rest in Peace - Roald Dahl, 1916-1990