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 family
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 longer 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 in 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, his plans, his 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.
Patricia’s resentment was 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 the 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. © Nadia Cohen, 2018
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.
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.