Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Tessa Dahl

Tessa is a new friend. We met one night at the Pratt Institute 2004 gala when seated at the same table. She has an astonishing beauty. With some trepidation (since I was a stranger and didn’t presume she knew what my line of work is) I asked her if I could take her picture, and she agreed. The picture was just okay (my fault) although it captured her beauty perfectly. She later saw it on the Diary and called to thank me.

I knew about her vaguely before that evening, especially since she looks so much like her famous mother Patricia Neal who was a Warner Brothers’ star when I was a kid in the 1950s, and her daughter is the currently famous model Sophie Dahl who is now living in Manhattan with Dan Baker Jr., one of the sons of the famous plastic surgeon. The center of fame in the family (and easily the source of much of its psychopathology), however, is her late father, Roald Dahl, the hugely successful and prolific writer of short stories, screenplays and children’s books (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, You Only Live Twice, Charlie and Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, etc.)

The Dahl family is full of drama, well-publicized and not. Family drama, in my experience, is commonplace among us all, and what very often seems personally extraordinary is really ordinary in the annals of modern family life. In the 1950s, before Patricia Neal married Mr. Dahl, when she was an important young star in Hollywood, she had a famously rumored affair with Gary Cooper that almost (but not quite) ended in his divorcing his wife Rocky. In those tabloidal days affairs between married stars were often squelched or kept secret by the then all-powerful studios who held complete sway over their lives as well as the press. The Cooper marriage remained intact (he died only a few years later in 1961 of lung cancer) and Miss Neal married Mr. Dahl in 1953 and moved to England. (Coincidentally, at the October 22nd party at Doubles, also present was Gary Cooper’s daughter Maria Cooper Janis.)

Patricia Neal and Roald Dahl had four daughters and a son. The celebrated life was punctuated with great personal tragedy. The eldest daughter Olivia died of measles when she was eight. Patricia Neal suffered a series of brain hemorrhages when she was thirty-eight. When she was pregnant with her fifth child she had a massive stroke. Incredibly, with the help of her husband she was able to recover to good health (she lives here in Manhattan just a block away from this writer). In 1988, Roald Dahl left her for a woman with whom, unbeknownst to her, he was having a long affair, and whom he later married. Another family drama.

Roald Dahl seemed to dominate the emotional life of the family. His granddaughter Sophie (who was named after his mother) remembers him as “a very difficult man – very strong, very dominant ... not unlike the father of the Mitford sisters sort of roaring round the house with these very loud opinions, banning certain types - foppish boys, you know - from coming round.” When Dahl died, the family gave him a “sort of Viking funeral. He was buried with his snooker cues, some very good burgundy, chocolates, HB pencils and a power saw.”

DPC's pic of Tessa the night they met

Tessa’s own adult life has been both glamorous and at times alarmingly tremulous, marked by battles with hard drugs, an almost successful suicide attempt, passionate love affairs, a brief but noticed acting career and a career as a best-selling writer (Working For Love), all of which has been well-chronicled in her native England, as well as by herself.

Besides her marriages she had a very long affair that began when she was a teen-ager with David Hemmings who died this past year, although they never married.

For several years she’s lived between New York and a house, The Old Forge in Wheatley, Oxfordshire, which she shared with her children, their nanny and a menagerie of cats and dogs.

Here in Manhattan she shares her Upper East Side apartment with four felines, from kittens to cats. She lives not far from her mother and her daughter Sophie. Another daughter, Clover, is living in Los Angeles and pursuing a career like her grandmother’s. Tessa, who is very outgoing, friendly and charming, even fascinating company (as you might imagine), is thoroughly British in her speech, spoken in a sometimes low, sometimes husky, silken voice and that bubbly champagne accent that sounds so upperclass or just plain theatrical to these American ears. She is currently working on a second novel.