HerKentucky Women's History Month Spotlight: Patricia Neal

HerKentucky is celebrating Women's History Month by profiling a few Kentucky women who've left an impression on us. The famous (or infamous) Kentucky women who've come before us and those known mainly by their friends, families, and communities -- the Bluegrass State has given us many role models, and we'd like to pay tribute to a few. -- HCW

It's the oddest feeling when you watch a childhood favorite film as an adult. You suddenly have an entirely different context through which to view the events. Maybe Scarlett O'Hara made bad decisions rather than encountering lots of bad luck, you think. Suddenly, the whole story seems different. Perhaps the most dramatic example for me is Breakfast at Tiffany's. Of course, I watched the blithe romance between Holly Golightly and Paul Varjak dozens of times when I was younger. Then, one day, I realized that the most interesting character wasn't Holly or Paul or even poor hapless Doc Golightly. The character who knew both what she wanted and how to make it happen was Emily "2-E" Failenson, Paul's "decorator friend." In a story full of lost souls, the wealthy, sophisticated matron Mrs. Failenson speaks her mind and tries to keep her "arrangement" with Paul afloat.

I was surprised to learn that this cosmopolitan character was portrayed by an actress who hailed from a tiny Whitley County coal camp town. Patsy Louise Neal was born in Packard, KY in 1926; the town would later be abandoned, while the actress Patricia Neal would go on to win both a Tony and an Oscar.

Like the characters in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Ms. Neal's personal life didn't lack for drama or tragedy. In her twenties, she was Gary Cooper's mistress. She later married the writer, inventor, and spy Roald Dahl. Ms. Neal suffered unimaginable tragedies in her personal life -- a nervous breakdown, a coma, the loss of a young daughter, and the severe injury of her infant son -- and starred alongside some of the greatest names in Hollywood, including Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, and Paul Newman.

Ms. Neal was known for both her strength and grace. She often came home to the mountains in her later years. She worked tirelessly for brain injury causes in her adopted hometown of Knoxville -- a rehabilitation center there is named in her honor -- and maintained close ties with her Knoxville High classmates. From Packard to Knoxville and on to Northwestern University and the famed Actors Studio, Ms. Neal led a life of big achievements and heartbreaking setbacks. She truly is one of the Bluegrass State's most fascinating and complex native daughters.