Patricia Neal – ‘remember her with smiles and laughter’


Yesterday, the Federated Church in Edgartown was full of family and friends who had come, many of them from far away, to say goodbye to stage and screen actress and familiar Vineyard presence, Patricia Neal. The house was standing-room-only.

It was a funeral. There was no doubt about that. Patricia Neal’s casket rested in front of the altar, covered with a blanket of yellow sunflowers, and from time to time a speaker would lean over the lectern and address its occupant lovingly. In between the invocation and the benediction there were prayers and hymns and readings from scripture. There were some tears. But there was also laughter, especially when speaker after speaker quoted Ms. Neal’s outrageous and often salty comments. It was a dignified church service, yes; but interspersed with the familiar religious elements, the reminiscences of family and friends had the feel of a stage revue, a kind of celebrity roast where the honoree had lived a long life, overcome great hardship, and made many, many friends.

Pastor Jerry Fritz, who officiated along with the Rev. John Schüle, set the stage: “Today we’ll not talk about death, but we’ll talk about and celebrate life. Pat was an incredibly warm and wonderful person. She loved everybody, and everybody loved her.”

Daughter Tessa Dahl opened the remembrances, reading a favorite passage of her mother’s from Kauffman and Hart’s “The Royal Family.” She spoke at length about Ms. Neal’s unconditional love for her children and grandchildren, as did longtime friend Warren Langton. Mr. Langton also spoke of Ms. Neal’s hard work in the theater and of her generosity to other actors, stars and otherwise. “Actors loved her,” he said, “because she always found a way to praise them, no matter how bad their performance had been.” He quoted a favorite saying, “Remember me with smiles and laughter. If you can only remember me with tears, then don’t remember me.”

Actor Eli Wallach, now 94, kept the congregation laughing with tales of Ms. Neal’s exploits in the world of theater and film.

Dr. Paul Farmer, also a longtime friend and family physician, especially remembered Ms. Neal’s loud laugh and favorite Britishisms (“ghastly,” “dahling”) and quoted a contemporary who said, “Every man is in love with two women — his wife and Patricia Neal.” But Dr. Farmer especially noted Ms. Neal’s remarkable recovery from debilitating stroke and coma (her “Lazarus act,”), her work as a patron of the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, and as inspiration to other victims of stroke and brain injury. “She understood what it was to take the fall from the height of one’s power to the depth of helplessness.”

When it became clear that there would be no recovery from lung cancer, she knew there would be no revival of her Lazarus act. Almost her last words to him, Dr. Farmer said, were, “I’ve had a lovely time.”

Linda McQuire described Ms. Neal’s first encounter with Martha’s Vineyard, stressing her love of the mix of people she found here, “old and young, famous and not famous.” Many speakers mentioned Ms. Neal’s “common touch,” her willingness to sit down and talk with anyone she met.

Ms. Neal’s grandchildren came to the pulpit and read “Death is Nothing at All,” by Canon Henry Scott-Holland.

Perhaps the loudest laughs were in response to Father Jim Lisante, a Catholic priest, who described, in uncensored form, his often humorous exchanges with the irrepressible, irreverent, and profane Ms. Neal. “No subject was off the table,” he said, including an embarrassing question about priestly celibacy.

At the end of his talk, Father Lisante asked the audience to stand for the traditional Irish blessing, the one that ends, “. . . and may God hold you in the palm of his hand.” He instructed the congregation that the “amen” be a standing ovation for Ms. Neal. The applause turned to cheers and went on for several minutes.

In addition to the old funeral standby “Amazing Grace,” the music selections included “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” sung by the Federated Church choir. Carly Simon sang “Let the River Run,” and Jamie Cullum sang “Moon River.” After the benediction and daughter Ophelia’s closing words, the final music was a recording of Patricia Neal’s unforgettable and much loved gravelly voice (which would make Willie Nelson’s sound smooth), singing “Send in the Clowns.”

In closing, Ophelia Dahl thanked all in the audience who had supported her mother. Ms. Neal could not walk unaided and always gripped her companions’ hands firmly. “We all thought we were holding her up,” Ms. Dahl said. “But on Sunday when she let go, we realized it was the other way ’round.”