The Other Side of Roald Dahl - Part Two
Created | Updated Jul 28, 2016
Part Three - Cruelest Fate and Truest Love
Philanthropy, Marriage, Death and Despair
The first part of this biography of the other side of Roald Dahl told of his youth and his first steps towards becoming an author. We continue the tale here.
The English Village Idyll
Roald's mother Sofie had moved from Kent to Buckinghamshire, firstly to Grendon Underwood, then to Grange Farm, Great Missenden and then to Amersham. Roald settled in at his mother's Grendon home determined to continue as an author. As she moved, Roald moved with her. At the Amersham address and as restless as ever for other interests, he took up greyhound breeding with the local butcher Claud Taylor. This friendship led to other pastimes such as tickling trout and poaching pheasant. The contrast with Hollywood couldn't have been greater and brought Dahl into the Buckinghamshire village idyll he was to adore for the rest of this life. Sometimes he pretended not to enjoy it because that always got a reaction and he thrived on reaction. As he increased his output of short stories for adults and developed broadcasting contacts with the BBC, he was relentless searching for a niche he couldn't quite identify. He also still suffered back pain from his flying accident which would always remain with him.
While the author blossomed, there was another passion inside Dahl. Together with an equally passionate, influential, multi-millionaire friend from his Washington days, Charles Marsh, a newspaper and oil tycoon, he created a charitable trust in 1949 called the Public Welfare Foundation. This philanthropic work was originally targeted at 200 needy families in Limehouse, London, to assist the acquisition of education and medical care. Philanthropy continues to flourish in his name under the Roald Dahl Foundation based in Great Missenden, and aimed at the whole of the UK, and nowadays focussing on grants for literacy, and the medical areas of haematology and neurology. The original Public Welfare Foundation, however, was quite an amazing achievement and a tribute to Dahl's caring nature – a trait not often enough realised as it could be swamped by his penetrating, jagged humour and satirical wit. For example, rejecting his friend Marsh's offer of vitamins to give to the poor, Roald is claimed to have said that the poor, 'do not give a **** for vitamins and do not understand them, they wouldn't eat them even if they were told they were aphrodisiacs.'
Love and Marriage
At 35, Dahl found himself back in America 'house-sitting' for Charles Marsh and writing hard. His thoughts turned to Buckinghamshire as he wrote a series of local stories under the titles, 'The Ratcatcher' and 'Rummins'. He was, however, receiving his fair share of publishers' rejection letters which displeased him. What did boost his ego and turn his head was his meeting with Hollywood actress Patricia Neal. It was at a party hosted by Lillian Hellman and she provocatively seated them together. If she had a plan, it worked and they became inseparable and married at Trinity Church, New York in July 1953.
Great Missenden visits followed to meet the Dahl family (Roald's sister Else and her husband John lived nearby) but New York soon claimed them back. Patricia's career was not only based in the States but her fairly substantial income put her as the main wage-earner. Roald was writing but not earning a great deal from his efforts. News of Pat's pregnancy in the summer of 1954 brought them back to Great Missenden where they bought 'Little Whitefield', now famous as Gipsy House. This was to become the life-long base of that other author waiting to emerge – Roald Dahl, children's author.
Meanwhile, as a short-story writer, Dahl was doing exceptionally well, his macabre adult humour scoring a record publishing run for Someone Like You. The New York Times compared him to Saki and O Henry, Maupassant and Maugham. To his satisfaction it won a Mystery Writers of America Award. On 20 April, 1955, Olivia Dahl was born in a Boston Hospital. Roald was elated, his friends impressed by his rapid transformation into a doting father figure. This was to be a hectic period of trans-Atlantic crossings between Great Missenden and New York, while Roald continued writing and Pat got back into acting.
At Little Whitefield, Dahl looked after Olivia, and, with his practical nature at the fore, built his now famous writing hut in the substantial garden of this lovely Georgian house. This was his writer's 'womb' as he termed it. It was a place to disappear from one world to create another.
He also added the equally famous Gipsy Caravan as a restoration project. While Dahl's practical side flourished, the creative juices were not delivering at the same pace and depth – he sensed that another direction awaited him but he could not tie it down. Pat was busy in America and Roald was completely absorbed in establishing their Great Missenden home, and in particular, a vegetable garden. Onions became his passion. Indeed, vegetables and fruit were one day to be transformed into all kinds of new varieties in children's fictional worlds yet to emerge – quite literally, the seeds were being sown for that moment when snozzcumbers and flying giant peaches would be known the world over.
Dahl the Dad
In April 1957, Tessa Dahl was born in an Oxford Hospital. The Dahls were a close family, particularly as Roald's mother Sofie, now in her seventies, was also living nearby in Great Missenden with Roald's sister Else and her husband John at a house called 'Whitefields'. Pat continued to be frantically busy making films and working in live theatre. Elstree to Broadway to Missenden to Hollywood became familiar routes and then once more she was pregnant. By the summer of 1960, baby Theo joined his two sisters.
Dahl's short stories were becoming increasingly popular in England and good reviews led to satisfactory sales. Ironically, American reviewers were becoming less kind to him but the adult public on both sides of the Atlantic loved him and his short story collections such as Kiss Kiss flew off the shelves in the early 1960s and began to interest European publishers. Then he put his first step on the bottom rung of what was to be his most successful literary ladder. His early sense that there was another direction, that there was another author inside, now had the necessary catalysts to release the other Roald Dahl.
Olivia and Tessa, now aged five and three, quite literally set their father's imaginative chemistry fizzling and bubbling with joyful, scary stories especially created just for them. What could be more enthralling at a cosy bedtime moment than when Dad recounted the story of orphan James, escaping his cruel aunts by hiding in a magic peach which falls to earth squashing and killing the pursuing aunts. Then by air and by sea the magic peach takes James and his new-found insect friends to America, ending up on top of the Empire State Building. He was to turn this bedtime story into the manuscript for James and the Giant Peach but first, Dahl and his family were about to enter one of four very long and painful episodes – dark tunnels that required all of Roald's undisputed ingenuity to reach for the light at the end.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
It was 5 December, 1960. Roald was in America working on 'The Centipede Song' for James and the Giant Peach when Pat burst into the room with devastating news. Cosy in his pram, four-month-old Theo had been out with his nanny who, tightly clutching Tessa's hand, was on her way to collect Olivia from nursery school while Pat enjoyed some shopping. In a sickening instance of carelessness, a taxi-cab rounded the corner just as the nanny crossed the road pushing the pram ahead of her. Screams and screeching filled the air as the taxi shunted and crushed the pram into the side of a bus. Theo was horrifically injured and rushed to hospital. To make matters worse, a second instance of carelessness occurred when a nurse overdosed this frail and seriously injured baby with an anticonvulsant which had to be pumped back out. Theo hung on to life but developed hydrocephalus, a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid pressure to his brain.
At this stage, understandably, 99.9% of parents would have to watch and wait while the medical experts took charge. Roald represented that point one of a percentage of a parent who could not do that. Although Theo would live, the constant draining of fluid from his brain by a small tube and inefficient shunt valve was not reliable. Any blockages could create blindness and fevers and possibly worse. Dahl reached into his creative practical depths and, like the boy who exhibited such ingenuity with a Meccano set in a fun moment, the adult, in this most serious of times, was determined to re-invent the mechanics of this clumsy technology. As a great organiser, networker and inventor all rolled into one, together with Pat, he worked to raise money for Theo's exorbitant medical bills, delivered the finished manuscript for James and the Giant Peach and then retreated to the relative safety of Great Missenden. Theo rested at home, the inefficient shunt inside his head of great concern to Roald and Pat as it had to be replaced by invasive surgery eight times over a 30-month period.
Tessa was enrolled at the local Gateway nursery school and Olivia went to nearby Godstowe, just outside High Wycombe. In these early days of Theo's recovery, Dahl the inventor re-emerged. He remembered the times that he used to go to Amersham to fly model gliders, making the acquaintance of Stanley Wade, a hydraulic engineer, also a keen model plane flyer. This turned Roald's mind more than ever to the possibility of working with Stanley on improving the valve technology that was so crucial to Theo and many others like him. The Great Ormond Street doctor treating Theo, Kenneth Till, shared Dahl's concerns for better technology. Between Wade, Till and Dahl, sketches and ideas flowed as they sat at the kitchen table at Little Whitefield, or met in Stanley's machine shop near High Wycombe.
Within little more than a year and a half, they had not only patented the Wade-Dahl-Till Valve, and had been featured in the foremost medical journal, The Lancet, but had brought it out as a working product on the medical market at cost price (they all agreed not to take a profit) and it became a world-leader, able to safely relieve conditions such as Theo's. Fortunately, Theo was to get much better over the next few years and no longer needed such a device, but many thousands of other children across the world did.
Charlie is Born, but Death takes its Toll
During the early 1960s, Pat was happily ensconced in their Buckinghamshire home, now renamed Gipsy House, enjoying village life with her newly-minted children's author, and their three children. The book James and the Giant Peach, still available only in the United States, had sold a staggering 6,500 copies – a great success. Roald's Repton days began to invade his writing hut in the smell, texture and fantasy of chocolate and those bubbling laboratory vats he had dreamt of as a teenager.
Charlie's Chocolate Boy, which he had already submitted as a work in progress just prior to Theo's accident in New York, was now retitled and revised as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He was hopeful of even greater success with this new story. But, no sooner out of Theo's tunnel, the family were plunged back again into dark days. An outbreak of measles at Godstowe caught up with Olivia and, despite emergency medical care, she died. It was 17 November, 1962 and the family mourned her deeply as she was laid to rest in Little Missenden.
Dahl withdrew into himself and we can never know what torments he endured in his 'writer's womb' and at Olivia's grave-side. Pat was equally devastated but also concerned about Roald's mental condition. He needed to know that heaven contained dogs for Olivia to be with and not just humans – and sought ecclesiastical advice from the Archbishop of Canterbury, his old Repton headmaster. He was angry not to get the confirmation he sought. Writing children's fiction no longer featured in his thoughts. Pat, on the other hand, needed to be busy to cope with her mental anguish and she threw herself into as many roles as she could land, both television and film. A year later, Pat was pregnant once more.
The story is continued in Part Three.