The CURSE of Roald Dahl

His loath­some anti- Semitism is mak­ing head­lines again. Now an unf linch­ing bi­og­ra­phy re­veals the ac­claimed author’s MANY other f laws – from sex ob­ses­sion to ap­palling cru­elty to his Hol­ly­wood wife. So was the string of catas­tro­phes that rocked his famil

The Mail on Sunday - - NEWS - by Na­dia Co­hen

NEI­THER Roald Dahl nor his beau­ti­ful wife Pa­tri­cia paid much at­ten­tion amid the din of the down­town traf­fic. Yet the wail of the sirens they heard that De­cem­ber lunchtime in New York would re­main with them for the rest of their lives. A short while ear­lier, a yel­low taxi had ca­reered around the cor­ner from Madi­son Av­enue, nar­rowly avoid­ing a young nanny, Su­san Den­ton, but smash­ing into the pram she was push­ing. The driver had pressed the ac­cel­er­a­tor, not the brake, send­ing pram and baby 40ft through the air.

And as the Dahls would learn to their hor­ror, the am­bu­lance they heard was rush­ing their own son, four-month-old Theo, to hos­pi­tal with a shat­tered skull. Doc­tors di­ag­nosed such se­vere brain dam­age that they were in no doubt he would die.

The catas­tro­phe was a turn­ing point. Mar­ried to a Hol­ly­wood star­let and on the brink of real fame and for­tune as a chil­dren’s writer, Dahl had al­ready led a life not merely im­prob­a­ble, but charmed. He’d sur­vived an hor­rific plane crash in the Libyan desert; braved steep odds as an RAF fighter pi­lot and emerged a hero. In­valided out of ac­tive ser­vice, Dahl was made air at­tache to Wash­ing­ton, where he slept with the wives of the rich and in­flu­en­tial in or­der to ob­tain in­for­ma­tion for the Bri­tish se­cu­rity ser­vices.

Now this run of luck had come to a shat­ter­ing halt – the first in a se­ries of tragedies to be­set his chil­dren and his mar­riage. From this point on­wards, Dahl would come to be­lieve he and his fam­ily were cursed.

THE wed­ding of Roald Dahl and Pa­tri­cia Neil in 1953 had seemed im­pos­si­bly glam­orous – a dash­ing 6ft 6in for­mer fighter pi­lot matched with one of the lead­ing Tin­sel­town beau­ties of the day.

In truth, the re­la­tion­ship was rocky from the start. Even when they were first in­tro­duced at a New York din­ner party in 1952, Pa­tri­cia had thought him in­tol­er­a­bly rude.

Both were at a low ebb. Dahl was find­ing post- war life drab com­pared to the gid­dy­ing suc­cess of his ca­reer in 1940s Amer­ica, feted as a hand­some fly­ing ace and the author of vivid wartime sto­ries.

Pa­tri­cia’s act­ing ca­reer had stalled and she’d re­cently been dumped by her Hol­ly­wood idol lover Gary Cooper, who de­cided to re­turn to his wife.

When Dahl called her to ask for a date, Pa­tri­cia turned him down flat – be­fore re­lent­ing when he asked again a few days later. The same thing hap­pened when he pro­posed in 1953.

As she ex­plained, it was hardly a love match. ‘I did want mar­riage. And a fam­ily,’ she said. ‘ Roald would have beau­ti­ful chil­dren. What was I hold­ing out for? A great love? That would never come again. When was I go­ing to face re­al­ity?’

Her friend, the com­poser Leonard Bern­stein, warned her she was ‘mak­ing the big­gest mis­take of her life,’ but she was des­per­ate to prove she had moved on from Cooper.

In the event, she cried on her wed­ding night, the hon­ey­moon in Rome was dis­as­trous and, by the time the new­ly­weds re­turned to New York, it was be­com­ing ob­vi­ous how lit­tle they had in com­mon.

At Christ­mas 1955, two years into their mar­riage, Dahl told Pa­tri­cia he wanted a di­vorce as they lay in bed one night. He added, non­cha­lantly: ‘Don’t worry about it now, just go to sleep.’

YET they stuck with it and, by 1960, were mak­ing a go of the mar­riage, split­ting their time be­tween Eng­land and Amer­ica with their young chil­dren, Olivia, Tessa and Theo. The call that changed ev­ery­thing came in the early af­ter­noon of De­cem­ber 5 that year. Roald and Pa­tri­cia were sum­moned to hos­pi­tal where Theo was fight­ing for his life.

Typ­i­cally, Dahl sprung into ac­tion, sum­mon­ing the city’s best sur­geons to at­tend the child now lan­guish­ing in an oxy­gen tent. It be­came clear there was a re­cur­ring prob­lem – a build up of fluid on the brain, which re­quired re­peat op­er­a­tions to drain it. Re­al­is­ing that de­fec­tive valves in the med­i­cal equip­ment were caus­ing the prob­lem, Dahl de­ter­mined to fix it him­self.

First, he moved his whole fam­ily back to Bri­tain, putting Theo un­der the care of con­sul­tant Ken­neth Till at Great Or­mond Street Hos­pi­tal. Then he threw him­self into re­search, and con­tacted not a med­i­cal ex­pert but a toy­maker called Stan­ley Wade, from whom he’d bought a minia­ture steam train years ear­lier.

Wade, he knew, em­ployed un­usual skill and in­ge­nu­ity in build­ing the tiny toy en­gines – and the toy­maker agreed to make a valve to the spe­cific re­quire­ments of Dahl and Till. By May 1962, the Dahl-Wade-Till Valve – six mov­ing steel parts con­tained in a de­vice just an inch long – was ready, and it was a tri­umph. The med­i­cal jour­nal The Lancet re­ported it as a ma­jor sur­gi­cal break­through and it was used suc­cess­fully on al­most 3,000 chil­dren around the world.

Theo would make a bet­ter re­cov­ery than any­one had thought pos­si­ble and the shared worry of look­ing af­ter him drew Dahl and Pa­tri­cia closer. She no l onger wanted to ‘ have nice fights and make it up in bed’, as she put it.

They de­cided to live in Eng­land, at Gipsy House in Buck­ing­hamshire. Now, with his ca­reer tak­ing off, Dahl was writ­ing full- time, re­treat­ing to his prim­i­tive ‘writ­ing hut’ at the bot­tom of the gar­den to work. In fact, the Dahls were just start­ing to feel like a nor­mal, happy fam­ily when the head­mistress of Olivia’s new school sent a let­ter to all par­ents warn­ing of an out­break of measles.

In Novem­ber 1962 there was no vac­ci­na­tion read­ily avail­able, though there was a drug, gamma glob­u­lin, which gave pro­tec­tion against en­cephali­tis, a brain in­flam­ma­tion that af­fects one in a thou-

sand measles suf­fer­ers. Fear­ing for Theo, the Dahls gave the only avail­able dose to him.

Olivia broke out in the tell-tale spots, but the worst of her fever sub­sided af­ter three days. Soon she was sit­ting up in bed beat­ing her fa­ther at chess. Then the fol­low­ing day, dis­as­ter struck. At 5pm, Pa­tri­cia found her daugh­ter hav­ing con­vul­sions, be­fore sud­denly go­ing com­pletely still and limp.

Pa­tri­cia ran to a light switch that con­nected to a bulb in Roald’s writ­ing hut, and sent four quick flashes. Two flashes meant an emer­gency, four sent him sprint­ing into the house in a panic.

Olivia was rushed by am­bu­lance to Stoke Man­dev­ille Hos­pi­tal, but the lit­tle girl, just seven, could not be re­sus­ci­tated. She had con­tracted fa­tal en­cephali­tis – and a large dose of gamma glob­u­lin could have pre­vented it. For the rest of his life Roald was un­able to for­give him­self for fail­ing to pro­tect her.

ROALD and Pa­tri­cia poured them­selves into work as the fam­ily slowly got back on their feet. One out­come was the mas­ter­piece that would make Dahl’s rep­u­ta­tion as a gi­ant of chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture – Char­lie And The Choco­late Fac­tory. Pa­tri­cia’s ca­reer, too, reached new heights when she starred along­side Paul New­man in Hud, win­ning the Os­car for best ac­tress in 1963.

In 1964, she fell preg­nant once again and, as Christ­mas ap­proached, Pa­tri­cia asked her fam­ily to join her in Los An­ge­les where she was film­ing. It was lucky she did.

Af­ter she re­turned to their rented man­sion from a day’s film­ing, Roald found her dou­bled over in agony, com­plain­ing of pain in her tem­ple and dou­ble vi­sion.

Over the next few hours she suf­fered three ma­jor brain haem­or­rhages and doc­tors worked through the night, saw­ing into her skull to re­move clots.

Pa­tri­cia re­mained in a coma for three weeks, ly­ing on an ice mat­tress to min­imise swelling. Roald was con­stantly at her side, spend­ing ev­ery wak­ing hour try­ing to get some sort of re­ac­tion.

And then quite un­ex­pect­edly his wife – who he had started to de­scribe as ‘an enor­mous pink cab­bage’ – opened one eye. She was con­fused, an­gry and scared, un­able to move or speak, yet very much alive. More re­mark­ably, the un­born baby had sur­vived as well.

Just as he had swung into ac­tion to save Theo, Dahl was once again a man on a mis­sion, de­ter­mined that he would not fail Pa­tri­cia as he had ‘failed’ his daugh­ter Olivia.

Back home i n Bri­tain, Dahl ban­ished tear­ful visi­tors and threw out flow­ers and cards from well­wish­ers which might have en­cour­aged Pa­tri­cia to feel sorry for her­self. He hired a team of the very best speech and phys­io­ther­a­pists to work with her round the clock. There was no let- up, and doc­tors were as­tounded at the progress – al­though they warned Dahl that he was push­ing so hard it could harm her in the long run.

‘If left alone, she would sit and stare into space and in half an hour a great black cloud of de­pres­sion would en­velop her mind,’ Dahl wrote. ‘Un­less I was pre­pared to have a bad-tem­pered des­per­ately un­happy nitwit in the house, some very dras­tic ac­tion would have to be taken.’

Pa­tri­cia found it deeply hu­mil­i­at­ing to have help with very ba­sic tasks, and the ther­apy ses­sions of­ten ended in tears.

Their daugh­ter Tessa, mother of model So­phie, wrote later: ‘ She would shout and scream. Make up words that we didn’t un­der­stand and then laugh hys­ter­i­cally. Ev­ery day swarms of visi­tors would come and sit with her. On my fa­ther’s in­struc­tions they would make her study, like a kinder­garten child, read­ing, writ­ing and arith­metic.’

PA­TRI­CIA had changed be­yond all recog­ni­tion and she knew it. So far, the cracks in the Dahls’ re­la­tion­ship had been pa­pered over by fam­ily tragedy, but now Pa­tri­cia knew that she was the bur­den. No longer the glam­orous young movie star, she felt de­pen­dent on her hus­band like an­other one of his chil­dren.

His end­less cal­cu­la­tions about her progress were par­tic­u­larly ir­ri­tat­ing: ‘He would tell me I was 42 per cent bet­ter than yes­ter­day and 51 per cent bet­ter than last week,’ she said. ‘God I was so sick of his per­cent­ages, hi s pl ans, hi s pro­grammes, his world. He was a hero and I was hat­ing him.’

In Au­gust 1965, Pa­tri­cia gave birth to the baby, Lucy, who had sur­vived her mother’s stroke and only days later, Dahl gave an up­beat in­ter­view pre­dict­ing that she would soon be ready to make a tri­umphant re­turn to act­ing. As a re­sult of his con­fi­dence, of­fers of movie roles be­gan to trickle in.

P a t r i c i a ’s r e s e n t me n t w a s over­whelm­ing, but she knew that she could not have done it with­out Roald push­ing her ev­ery step of the way. ‘I knew that Roald the slave

driver, Roald the bas­tard, with his re­lent­less courage, Roald t he Rot­ten, as I had called him more than once, had thrown me back into the deep wa­ter. Where I be­longed,’ she wrote.

Once be­witch­ing, now Pa­tri­cia was vin­dic­tive and ob­ses­sive. Still limp­ing and frus­trated by gaps in her mem­ory, she was more like ‘an adorable but rather odd ten-yearold’, ac­cord­ing to one friend.

Pa­tri­cia had al­ways found her hus­band’s ob­ses­sive in­ter­est in sex dis­con­cert­ing (he was brought up in an un­usu­ally per­mis­sive fam­ily – when his sis­ters Alfhild and Else were much younger they had both slept with the same man). Guests at Gipsy House re­called how Roald would some­times re­tire to bed early, leav­ing notes for his wife say­ing, ‘If you want to f***, wake me up.’

Now she com­plained that sex was ‘agony’, and their mar­riage be­gan to col­lapse un­der the strain.

Her star sta­tus was fad­ing, she was feel­ing less fem­i­nine than ever, yet her tall and hand­some hus­band had re­tained his in­sa­tiable sex­ual ap­petite. She never for­got a re­mark he made when she was preg­nant with Lucy: ‘When you go into hos­pi­tal to have the baby, I think I’ll go into Lon­don and find my­self a girl,’ he had told her. ‘Some­one not quite so fos­silised.’ IN 1972, Pa­tri­cia had agreed to make a tele­vi­sion com­mer­cial for cof­fee and the pro­duc­tion com­pany dis­patched a stylist to Gipsy House to dis­cuss her wardrobe.

The stylist, Felic­ity Crosland, known as Liccy, was 33 and beau­ti­ful, with strik­ing dark hair and a com­plex­ion in­her­ited from her fa­ther, an In­dian doc­tor. Pa­tri­cia was al­ready drink­ing a Bloody Mary at 11am when Liccy ar­rived and the two women cheer­fully dis­cussed dif­fer­ent looks for the shoot un­til Roald ar­rived for lunch an hour later.

Roald was 56 and walk­ing with dif­fi­culty af­ter a se­ries of op­er­a­tions to cor­rect a back in­jury he suf­fered in the wartime plane crash. He felt old and tired of life, but the mo­ment he laid eyes on Liccy ev­ery­thing changed.

A few weeks later, Liccy in­vited both Roald and Pa­tri­cia for din­ner at her flat in Bat­tersea, South Lon­don, and the chem­istry be­tween them was so strong that dur­ing the meal Roald ac­tu­ally leant over and asked his wife for per­mis­sion to have din­ner with their host­ess when she was away.

When, not long af­ter­wards, he and Liccy kissed for the first time, it was the start of an af­fair that would ul­ti­mately de­stroy what was left of his doomed mar­riage.

Pa­tri­cia was hor­ri­fied by the re­la­tion­ship and felt Dahl was at­tempt­ing to pres­sure her into ac­cept­ing his in­fi­delity as a nor­mal part of be­ing mar­ried to such a pas­sion­ate man. She re­fused, but re­alised she was pow­er­less to stop the af­fair and ad­mit­ted later: ‘[Liccy] wanted him and knew how to get him.’ Since her stroke Pa­tri­cia had lost her libido and was deeply hurt by her hus­band seem­ing to take mat­ters into his own hands.

For her part, Liccy, was racked with guilt and told Roald she felt she had no choice but to end it be­tween them.

She wrote to Pa­tri­cia apol­o­gis­ing: ‘I feel very sad at the un­hap­pi­ness which I have caused you, and hope that in the full­ness of time, life will sort it­self out.’

Heart­bro­ken, in 1975 Dahl com­posed a long let­ter ask­ing Pa­tri­cia that he be al­lowed to meet up with Liccy oc­ca­sion­ally. She re­fused.

Un­able to see his mis­tress and, sim­mer­ing with re­sent­ment, Dahl be­gan to write short sto­ries for adults lit­tered with ref­er­ences to sex­ual frus­tra­tion and dys­func­tion, and cre­ated bit­ter char­ac­ters who had fallen prey to ma­nip­u­la­tive fe­male preda­tors.

It wasn’t un­til 1983 that the Dahls were fi­nally di­vorced and Liccy was at last free to move in.

Nei­ther Roald nor Pa­tri­cia was present for the hear­ing, which re­vealed no de­tails about his in­fi­delity or dif­fi­cult be­hav­iour but which brought to a close a mar­riage of quite epic tragedy.

The Real Roald Dahl by Na­dia Co­hen is pub­lished by Pen & Sword His­tory on Novem­ber 30, priced £19.99. Of­fer price £15.99 (20 per cent dis­count, in­clud­ing free p&p) un­til Novem­ber 18. Pre-or­der at mail­shop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. Spend £30 on books and get free premium de­liv­ery.

NEW­LY­WEDS: Dahl and Pa­tri­cia, in Rome, 1953. 53 Ri Right: ht P Pa­tri­cia ti i i in 1965 i in th ther­apy af­ter ft h her stroke t k

FAM­ILY SNAP: Dahl and Pa­tri­cia at their beloved Gypsy House in Buck­ing­hamshire in 1962 with chil­dren, from left, baby Theo, Tessa and Olivia

DEEP PAS­SION: Dahl with his sec­ond wife, ‘Liccy’, in 1987. The cou­ple had mar­ried in 1983.

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