Patricia Neal Survived Her Near-Fatal Strokes, but Tells Now About the Death of Her Marriage

updated 06/27/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/27/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Her acting credits include a Broadway Tony (for Another Part of the Forest), a 1964 Oscar (for Hud) and enough meaty roles to make any modern starlet wince with envy. Yet for Patricia Neal, 57, it is real life that has provided the most tragic of dramas. Seven years after her 1953 marriage to British writer Roald Dahl ('Kiss, Kiss; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,), the raspy-voiced actress found herself struggling with the rehabilitation of their young son, Theo, who had been hit by a New York taxi. (Theo survived, but with mild brain damage.) The couple later lost a daughter, Olivia, to measles, and in 1965 Neal herself, then pregnant with their fifth child, suffered a series of strokes that left her comatose for two weeks and threatened to destroy permanently her powers of speech. Thanks to Dahl's dogged encouragement, she recovered to give birth to daughter Lucy, now 17, and eventually to resume her career in films and television. Today she has a lucrative contract as the Anacin "Fight pain and win" advocate in commercials, but it was while doing an earlier TV spot that trouble entered her life again. While filming a TV commercial for Maxim coffee, Neal met a wardrobe woman, now in her mid-40s, who soon became a family friend, frequent houseguest and—Neal now laments—a secret rival for Dahl's affection. She refuses to identify the woman publicly even though Dahl is seeking a divorce. Neal, separated from her husband of 30 years, has moved out of the country home they shared in England and into her own Martha's Vineyard retreat. In a strikingly candid conversation with PEOPLE'S Mary Fischer, Neal recounted this latest setback in her life.

So many horrendous things have happened to me, but I think the fact that our marriage has not worked is the most agonizing. I just can't swallow it. It's as if the worst dream I can think of has happened.

During my stroke our relationship was very good. Those were terrible times, but my husband pushed me to get well. He's really the one who did it. He pushed me to go to a military hospital for exercises and swimming, and he pushed me back into acting. I had no confidence at all after the stroke, but my husband insisted. He had married an actress, and he thought it would be good for me. I'm so very glad he did because now it's all I've got.

He met his lady friend nine years ago. She was from a nice home, had been married and had three daughters. It's horrible looking back on how many times we were all together on holiday and I never knew. I took her into my home for a couple of weeks after she had been hospitalized. My eldest daughter, Tessa, was always very fond of her, and my son, Theo, had a crush on one of her daughters. Once she was at my house, and we were having a girl talk. She'd been telling me about her new love, a married man with one son and three daughters. "Oh," I said, "that's just like Roald and me." Being her friend, I wanted happiness for her and asked whether her lover would ever leave his wife for her. "He'd like to," she told me while we sat together in the living room. "He doesn't love her." Of course she was talking about Roald right to my face, and I didn't know it. Oh, it was ghastly.

I didn't know about the affair for a year and a half, and then I found out one night while all three of us were at a London gambling casino. She and I were on our way to the ladies' room when she turned and for 15 seconds gave me a look that said, "I've got him. You've lost him. To hell with you." My heart went to my head and back. When I confronted my husband, he admitted it but let me think the affair was over. I should have known better, but I guess I didn't want to. I'd loved him for many years, and to me, when you get married, you're married forever.

When I think about it now, though, the marriage got worse over the years he was seeing this woman, and I guess I was just crazy to have tried to keep it going. I was an idiot. He's a killer with women, and he wanted to get rid of me years ago. He's the one who encouraged, almost demanded that I buy a house on Martha's Vineyard three years ago. That way I'd be far from him and his lady friend in England.

Two years ago last December I learned the affair was still going on—when my daughter Ophelia told me back in England, in the presence of my husband. He had asked her to tell me. I don't give up easily, but it became a matter of pride and I finally left. At the airport, when my daughter Lucy was saying goodbye to me, my husband was laughing his head off over something. This whole thing has been agonizing to me as a woman, and it's damaged my self-confidence. I blame both my husband and the woman, and I will always be furious with them.

Life can be tough, it really can, and I don't know what tomorrow's going to be like. I do know I never want to be married again, ever. But I don't want to be miserable. I refuse to sit around on Martha's Vineyard and brood about things. I have great friends who have been very kind to me. I love to act, and I would love to have a great film. I'm scouting for work now. I travel, give lectures on how I've overcome the difficulties in my life. I'm very busy. And I just bought a gorgeous apartment in New York that looks out over the East River. I suppose, though, I've found the greatest peace in something I do about four times a year, and that's going on a retreat at a convent in Connecticut. They're very kind there, and it's just beautiful.

Helen Keller once wrote that when one door of happiness closes, another opens. But often we look so long at the closed door that we don't even see the one that has opened for us. We must all find our lives as beautiful as God intended. So now I'm going to begin my life all over again. I just hope it's going to be good.

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