Actress Patricia Neal died Sunday at 84


Fun, tears, laughter, music, unrestrained affection for the star of the occasion, and even a standing ovation she would have adored — all this marked a service yesterday celebrating the life of the actress and Edgartown resident, Patricia Neal.

At the Federated Church in Edgartown, around the corner from her South Water Street home, there was also astonishment at the stories of her unrelenting love of life and devotion to friends and family, despite the immense physical and emotional hurdles her years imposed.

Ms. Neal, the Oscar-winning actress whose life story mixed brilliant achievement, drama, and tragedy worthy of stage and screen, died Sunday at her home in Edgartown. She was 84.

A vigorous, generous force in Island life over the last three decades, Ms. Neal died of lung cancer at her home on South Water Street. Her three daughters were with her when she died.

“She had a beautiful death with her daughters,” Warren Langton, a longtime friend, sometimes assistant, and frequent traveling companion of the actress, told The Martha’s Vineyard Times.

The New York Times, in an obituary published Monday, described Ms. Neal as “the molasses-voiced actress who won an Academy Award and a Tony, but whose life alternated surreally between triumph and tragedy.”

Friends in the theater were uniformly unstinting in their affection for Ms. Neal.

“I truly loved her,” the Emmy and Tony award-winning actress Cherry Jones wrote to a Vineyard friend Monday. “I feel so lucky to have had the time with her she so graciously gave me, from lunches to cruises to a drop-in she made one Sunday afternoon on Horatio Street, when she happened to be visiting another friend on our street. You can’t imagine what it was like to answer our buzzer and hear her voice coming through the intercom. She was the most fun of anyone.”

Ms. Jones, whose distinguished career, like Ms. Neal’s, has embraced stage, screen, and television, added, “I’ve begun rehearsals for ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’ for the Roundabout, a role Pat Neal would have been phenomenal in.”

Ms. Neal was born in Packard, Kentucky, in 1926. She grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., where she attended high school. She studied drama at Northwestern University for two years before heading to New York.

The start of her acting career was meteoric. Her Broadway debut, at age 21, was in Lillian Hellman’s “Another Part of the Forest,” for which she won a Tony and a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. She appeared on the cover of Life magazine on February 3, 1947.

Ms. Neal soon signed a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers and headed for Hollywood. She made 13 movies in the next five years, but several of the films flopped, and her career slowed almost to a stop. Ms. Hellman, who had a second home in Vineyard Haven until she died in 1984, came to the rescue, casting Ms. Neal as the star in the Broadway revival of “The Children’s Hour” in 1952.

Ms. Hellman also introduced Ms. Neal to Roald Dahl in 1951. They married in 1953 and had five children over the next ten years. The marriage ended in divorce in 1983.

Her film career blossomed again during the late 1950s and early 60s, culminating in an Academy Award for her role in “Hud” opposite Paul Newman.

In 1965 she suffered three strokes, which left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Hectored back to health by Mr. Dahl, she went before the cameras again in 1968, playing the lead in “The Subject Was Roses,” for which she was nominated for an Academy Award.

On the Vineyard, Ms. Neal used her enduring celebrity, grand style, and imposing, good-humored personality in vigorous support of many Island causes after purchasing a house in Edgartown in 1979. She had been intrigued by the Island since reading 30 years earlier that Katharine Cornell summered here.

She was a fixture at the annual Possible Dreams auction, the August fundraiser for Martha’s Vineyard Community Services’ wide range of social services, by auctioning off unique opportunities not otherwise available.

In August 2006, she included her sunshine yellow hat in her “dream” donation of cocktails at her Edgartown home and dinner at Lola’s Restaurant. The winning bid was $6,000.

“Here on the Vineyard we were fortunate that we didn’t know her so much as the actress, but as our neighbor who participated and gave back,” said Jim Pringle of Vineyard Haven, a long-time member of the Possible Dreams Auction Committee who built a friendship with Ms. Neal. “You’d see her everywhere, doing things. I saw her scooping ice cream at a benefit up at the Catholic church, elbows deep in a tub of ice cream. She loved people.”

In October 2005, Ms. Neal decided she needed to “de-clutter” after redoing the downstairs floor of her home at 80 South Water Street. She hosted a “one and only” yard sale and donated the proceeds to Vineyard House, which provides safe, sober, supportive group home environments for men and women of Martha’s Vineyard who are in the early stages of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. “Everything will be priced reasonably,” she vowed, adding, “I want a lot of people to come.”

“She was a long-time supporter of Vineyard House,” said board president Mark Jenkins, “not just a financial supporter, but she was also an advocate for us. Despite her wealth and station, she was able to empathize with people who were less fortunate than her who were struggling with substance abuse. And she was community-oriented: the yard sale, for example, benefited something which is really grassroots, like us.”

The Reverend doctor Jerry Fritz, Ms. Neal’s neighbor and the pastor of the Federated Church in Edgartown, told The Times, “I just was always intrigued by her. She was a fascinating woman who was totally unassuming about who she was. I always thought that her stardom and her stature were really not that important to her. She loved people, and she loved to sit on her patio and talk to people as they walked by. She was just a great, great lady.”

Further afield, Ms. Neal focused her energy on the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville. In a comment posted Monday on the M.V. Times website, Dr. Fred A. Hurst wrote: “Having had the opportunity to visit with her on several occasions, I was amazed by her genuine warmth, sincere interest, and humility even in the presence of her innate genius and regal spirit. Pat shared a commonness of humanity and empathy with everyone she encountered. She will always be loved and revered by those who needed and greatly benefited from the renowned Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, as well as we countless physicians whose patients have been served so very well by its staff. May God bless the life and memory of Patricia Neal, a Knoxvillian whose talents are forever shared with the world.”

Ms. Neal, who became a Catholic late in her life, will be interred in The Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. “It is where she had peace and collected her thoughts,” Mr. Langton said.

She is survived by her four children, Tessa, Ophelia, Theo and Lucy. A fifth child, Olivia, died in 1962 at age 7. She also leaves a brother, Pete Neal; a sister, Margaret Ann VandeNoord; 10 grandchildren and step grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations in her memory be sent to Partners in Health, P.O. Box 845578, Boston, MA (617-998-8922), or the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center, 1901 Clinch Ave.,
Knoxville, TN 37916 (1-800-PAT-NEAL).