Patricia Neal and Home Folks Take Each Other in Stride

Personal Appearance in Spring Garden…

Copyright © 1951 Frances Hallam Hurt. Posted by permission.

Patricia Neal and Allen Davis

Patricia Neal, Hollywood star, meets RFD man Allen Davis and swaps greetings for a handful of fan mail.

Patricia Neal and Maude Neal Mahan

The actress and her aunt, Mrs. Neal Mahan, catch up on the family gossip.

Patricia Neal and Henry Hurt

At a holiday party for the neighbors, some of the boys attended in informal attire; nothing happened except a good time for all.

Patricia Neal and Walter Owen

Walter Owen, who keeps store at Spring Garden, seldom sells jeans to Hollywood movie stars, but he was able to deliver his goods and to guarantee them against rips, tears, and ravels.

Photos are by Don Bloomquist.

Now that public relations is as big a business as public utilities, it is a rare thing to find a movie star perched on a nail keg by a pot-bellied stove in a country store without suspecting a press agent in the coal scuttle. But last week there wasn't one. Patricia Neal was simply visiting her aunt, Mrs. Will Mahan, who lives in Spring Garden, down Pittsylvania County way. She just went to the store to look at Levis.

She pops in at Spring Garden as often as she can, takes off her shoes and takes on a cup of coffee, while she and Aunt Maude converse. It's one of her favorite pastimes, conversing. Last February, when the star was visiting, they broke it up long enough for Mrs. Mahan to hold open house for Patricia. This was an open house as was an open house. Mrs. Mahan just spread the word around that everybody was invited. Everybody came. Without the inspiration of a single flash bulb, Patricia hugged her cousins, of whom there appear to about two per acre; kissed the babies and remembered the names of her childhood friends. If an election had been held the next day, she could have whipped the socks off Harry.

The family relationship of the Bob Cratchits couldn't be warmer than the Neals. Patricia, her mother and her aunt giggle and gossip like schoolgirls. When a caller remarked,“Miss Neal, you look like your aunt,” Mrs. Mahan prompted the actress, “Say ‘Thank You,’ Patricia.” And Patricia did.

Career With No Detours

It has occasioned some surprise in non-Virginian circles that this country hamlet lays such firm claim to Miss Neal, whose official birthplace is Packard, Kentucky, and whose official home is listed as Knoxville, Tennessee. Spring Garden, however, “or more particularly Shockoe,” has been raising Neals along with tobacco for generations and can't think why Coot (W.B.) Neal's daughter isn't at least partially theirs. She returned each summer to visit her grandparents, W.D. and Lucy Fitzerald Neal, until their deaths.

You might expect a crossroads community to be dazzled by such worldly success as that of a Hollywood actress, but the attitude seems to be more one of satisfaction. After all, why not, when you consider the reputation of even a Virginia ham?

Miss Neal could never be said to have come up in the school of hard knocks. She more nearly came up in the school of hard pushes, all of them in the right direction. The story of her success is thoroughly peculiar, without a miscue, misstep or misfortune. She seems to be the kind of person for whom other people knock themselves out. Even Eugene O'Neill once demanded that she be allowed to read for a part.

To begin with, back when Pat was 16 and appearing in high school plays, there was a drama critic on the Knoxville Journal, one Malcolm Miller, who was bound and determined that Bob Porterfield should have this treasure in his Barter Theater [in Abingdon, Virginia]. After a series of letters, Porterfield gave the impression of having been offered treasures before. Miller was so sure of his judgment that he delivered the treasure in person. Porterfield acceded, and Pat spent that summer with Barter.

After this there were two years at Northwestern, to which her devoted aunt staked her. Far from being a college long-hair, steeped in the drahma, she was a Pi Beta Phi, a campus queen, and elected the best-dressed coed. She seems to have a raging talent for bring out the boost in people.

By now she knew there was just one thing for her. When she was offered a dramatic scholarship with a summer stock outfit in Massachusetts, she headed North. In New York, however, she got the word from some of her more seasoned buddies that the thing was a gyp — the kind of place which charged $10 to rent a mail box, another $10 for a beach towel, etc. So she decided to dig in until her money gave out.

Here bloomed a phase of her career which is the beginning and the end for most stage-struck girls. She dropped anchor at the Genius Club on West Forty-fourth Street, and with the other undiscovered geniuses, pounded the pavement. Nothing came of it except she learned her way around, which, in the end, adds up to a lot in anybody's business.

“I got all the sitting-around-and-talking out of my system that summer,” she said. “The next time I was ready for work.”

The Breaks Arrive

She went home and recouped her finances. When she returned she joined a co-operative Summer stock group in Eaglesmere, Pa., under the direction of a man from Northwestern. Here she worked harder (and cooking and washing dishes, too, which she loathes) and learned more than she has before or since.

It was here the old chain-reaction magic set in. “There simply aren't any rules,” Miss Neal insists. “There are just the breaks. Somebody happens to see you or happens not to, you happen to hear of a part or it happens you don't.”

Anyway, two scouts happened to see her and alerted their New York offices. From these contacts she got her first break — that of understudying the lead in “The Voice of the Turtle.” From this came good parts in two ill-fated plays, “Bigger Than Barnum,” which closed in Boston, and a try-out play, “Devil Take a Whittler.” It so happened that Richard Rodgers, Herman Shumlin, and Lillian Hellman saw her. The plays were turkeys for the authors, but they were trimmings for Pat.

In the space of a few weeks, Patricia Neal — who had never set foot on a New York stage — was offered the leads in three plays. “Ridiculous,” she says now. “Ridiculous, ridiculous.”

It seems to be the one instance of its kind in Broadway history. It's almost as if a horse had won the Belmont without ever having been in a race. It just doesn't happen.

So it was that Miss Neal had her choice. She could play the lead in “John Loves Mary,” or “Another Part of the Forest,” or “Darling, Darling, Darling.” She chose Miss Hellman's [“Another Part of the Forest”] creepy dissection of a greedy Southern family, and was instantly hailed as a young Tallulah.

From Broadway she went to Hollywood, where she made eight pictures in three years for Warner Brothers. That is moving at quite a clip. She has now changed studios, and is hoping for more sympathetic parts from Twentieth Century-Fox. She would especially love to do “The Blue Veil,” but adds with a shrug, “So would everybody.”

Of her movie roles, she likes best those in “Breaking Point” and “Three Secrets.” Her last two pictures are “Raton Pass” with Dennis Morgan and Steve Cochran, and “Operation Pacific,” with John Wayne.

Although Hollywood has been so good to her, she seems still to miss the stage, although she is too courteous to say so. She did say there was deep satisfaction in acting a complete thing, as on the stage, instead of shooting three pages of script a day. She also said there is no substitute for the electricity that crackles between actor and audience when both are right. “Much, much more inspiring,” she said with a wry smile.

Her experience with Eugene O'Neill was enough to wed her to the stage forever. She had been turned down for a part, and was walking away when O'Neill strolled up. They were not even introduced, nor did he hear her read. But the next day Theresa Helburn called her to tell her that, for some reason, Mr. O'Neill insisted she read the part. It was the role of the giantess in “Moon for the Misbegotten.” He agreed, after hearing her, that she was not right. “But,”he said, “there is exactly the right part for you in my next play, ‘Touch of a Poet.’”

This was the beginning of a friendship which the great playwright seemed to find satisfying. They met for tea or lunch, and once in a drugstore for a milkshake, and he talked about his plays. He is a jazz fan. They fed nickels to juke boxes and talked.

Miss Neal is a whole lot of girl (5 feet, 8 inches), with a whole lot of talent and a whole lot of sense. She has the kind of perfect beauty that doesn't hit you all at once, but works on you bit by bit, like a Martini.


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