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Exhibit honors work and life of Patricia Neal

PatriciNeal | Phocourtesy Northwestern University Library

Patricia Neal | Photo courtesy Northwestern University Library

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‘On Her Own Terms:
Patricia Neal’s Life and Legacy’

◆ Northwestern University Library, 1970 Campus Drive, Evanston

◆ 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 8:30 a.m.-noon, Saturday, through March 22

◆ Admission is free and open to the public

◆ “Hud” will be screened 7 p.m. Feb. 15 at Northwestern’s Block Museum, 40 Arts Circle Drive, admission $6; Lucy and Ophelia Dahl will attend.

◆ (847) 467-5918 or

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‘I am a very stylish lady,” Patricia Neal’s character remarks to Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

That in itself would be a provocative epitaph for the Tony and Academy Award-winning actress, but it would not begin to sum up her prodigious gifts and indefatigable spirit as evidenced in a new exhibition on display at the Northwestern University Library on the Evanston campus.

“On Her Own Terms: Patricia Neal’s Life and Legacy,” which runs through March 22, is drawn from a treasure trove of personal papers, artifacts and archival treasures that were donated by her daughters, Lucy and Ophelia Dahl, to the university, which she attended from 1943 to 1945,

Neal died in 2010 of lung cancer at the age of 84. She is perhaps best known for her smoldering performance in “Hud,” for which she won the Academy Award for best actress, as well as the sci-fi classic, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” in which she speaks three iconic words that are embedded in popular culture: “Klaatu Barada Nikto.” TV trivia buffs will know that she originated the role of Olivia Walton in the pilot movie that launched the series “The Waltons.”

One of her very best performances was in “A Face in the Crowd,” a prescient drama about the rise and fall of a TV demagogue portrayed by, of all people, Andy Griffith. Neal co-starred as the promoter who creates and betrays him.

Manuscript librarian Benn Joseph curated the exhibit. At first only superficially aware of her ­— “I knew she was in ‘Day the Earth Stood Still,’ he said — he came to more fully appreciate Neal. Not only her talents as an actress, but also her bravery in the face of a series of personal tragedies (one of her children died of measles at the age of 7, and another was left brain-damaged following a grievous traffic accident) and setbacks (a series of debilitating strokes in 1965 that left her paralyzed and with severely limited speech) impressed him.

In a letter Neal wrote to Larry King, who had asked her to contribute to his 2004 book of celebrity epitaphs, “Remember Me When I’m Gone,” Neal indicated that she wanted to be remembered for her acting career, but also as devoted mother, survivor and philanthropist and advocate on behalf of stroke victims after overcoming her own medical issues.

“We have a lot of material relating to all those aspects of her life,” Joseph said. Also represented is Neal’s tumultuous marriage to children’s book author Roald Dahl, whom she married in 1953 and divorced 30 years later.

Among the treasures on display in the exhibit is the 1946 Northwestern yearbook, for which she was named that year’s beauty queen, along with pictures of Neal with her Pi Beta Phi sorority sisters. There is her first acting contract ($100 a week) for her role in the Broadway play “The Voice of the Turtle,” for which she won the first Tony Award for best featured performance by an actress.

Visitors will also see correspondence from such A-listers as Newman, Ronald Reagan, Gene Kelly, and even, curiously, Paul “Pee-wee Herman” Reubens. Those who enjoy a good scandal will take some guilty pleasure in letters written to Neal by her “The Fountainhead” co-star Gary Cooper, with whom she had an affair. It was thought, Joseph said, that Roald Dahl had destroyed all those letters.

Joseph said he hopes the exhibit will introduce Neal to current Northwestern students who may only dimly be familiar with her through her films. Hers is a profile in courage. Joseph noted that the epitaph she did supply to King was: “Show me heaven; I’ve seen hell.”

Donald Liebenson is a local free-lance writer.

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