Truth be told, I had already decided to take a second look at the faith ghosts in the coverage of the death of screen legend Patricia Neal before I read the following from Deacon John M. Bresnahan, a conservative Catholic who is a regular in our comments pages.
In running around the internet looking at obituaries about Patricia Neal it is interesting how some major sites (like LATimes) twisted and contorted to bring up the Cooper affair, but say nothing about the abortion even though they used the same source as the NYTimes (her autobiography). And here's a religious ghost for you. One obit mentions that Patricia Neal will be buried in a nearby Benedictine Monastery. The monastery's prioress, Dolores Hart, was a big Hollywood star at the time Pat Neal was in Hollywood. Dolores Hart left Hollywood to join a strictly cloistered Catholic women's monastery.
While the New York Times obituary of this Academy Award winner included a clear reference her tragic abortion -- the source of her pro-life convictions -- it didn't really follow up on the wider issue of role that faith may have played in her life. The obvious place to look for a comparison was the Los Angeles Times, especially in light of it's role as the mainstream newspaper of record for all things Hollywood.
As the deacon mentions, what readers found there was not terribly edifying. The story emphasizes the tragedies of her life, for sure. But that's that. Here is the first quote and then some context:
"Frequently my life has been likened to a Greek tragedy, and the actress in me cannot deny that comparison," Neal wrote in her 1988 autobiography, "As I Am."
Neal, 84, died of lung cancer Sunday at her home in Edgartown, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard. But in the end, she told family members who had gathered around her the night before: "I've had a lovely time." Neal's daughter Ophelia Dahl said her mother, who was divorced from British writer Roald Dahl and once had an affair with married actor Gary Cooper, "recognized the extraordinary opportunities she had, and she also recognized that she was dealt a bad hand at times."
"The thing about my mother, it would seem she was really able to make the most of when times were good, and she'd find things to be positive about," Dahl told The Times on Monday.
The pain theme continues, of course, as you would expect.
After signing with Warner Bros., Neal made 13 movies in three years, including the 1950 drama "Bright Leaf," her second film with Cooper, and the 1951 war drama "Operation Pacific," opposite John Wayne. But her unhappiness with Hollywood was growing, in part because of her futile romance with Cooper.
"He was married," she pointed out 30 years later, "and declined to leave his wife. And rightly so." Some published accounts suggested that the affair, during which she had an abortion, led her to a nervous breakdown.
In the end, the newspaper does include one fleeting hint that faith played a role in her life, once again with the emphasis on the dark side of the giant questions that loomed over her -- period.
In 1984, Neal confided to a profile writer that she was tired of being told she was brave, courageous and plucky. She was, she said, just someone who had absorbed more than her share of rotten luck. Asked by a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2002 why she thought she survived all that she had in her life, Neal responded: "God knows why. I don't. ..."
Once again, that's that. There are no facts from her life in the story that offer any counter-themes or evidence that her strength may have come, in part, from faith -- a faith that grew out of the pain and, especially, her conviction that her abortion was in fact a tragic mistake.
It is interesting that the Washington Post obituary, near the end, did manage to work in one simple statement about religion. Here is a chunk of that story, which marches through the pain and then ends in a radically different place than the Los Angeles Times story.
In 1988, she wrote a confessional memoir, "As I Am," which described her many youthful affairs with married men ("in those days I had no conscience") and the baby she conceived with Cooper but aborted ("my greatest regret").
In the early 1960s, her son Theo suffered a brain injury after a taxi struck his baby carriage, and her 7-year-old daughter Olivia died from a rare complication from German measles.
These ordeals only worsened her troubled marriage to Dahl, a chronic philanderer. She wrote that he had once ordered a doctor to tie her tubes while she was helpless from a stroke. The couple divorced in 1983. ...
She said she suffered periods of depression and suicidal thoughts before finding peace as a Catholic convert.
That adds a different note, doesn't it? She found peace?
I also thought there was some interesting information at the top of the tribute to Neal that ran in her hometown newspaper, The Knoxville News Sentinel. It starts with the facts and then adds a crucial detail about the writing of the actress' autobiography, a brutally honest volume that played a major role in all of the stories about her life and struggles.
Immediately after the lede there is this:
A memorial service for her will be held on Wednesday in Edgartown, Martha's Vineyard. A celebration of her life and burial is planned for later in the week at the Abby of Regina Ludis, the Benedictine Cloistered Nunnery, in Connecticut, where the actress often spent time in a little house there both for solace and healing after converting to Catholicism.
It was there that she wrote her book, "As I Am."
Neal frequented an abbey and she actually wrote her confessional autobiography there, almost certainly under the guidance of a spiritual director? That strikes me as significant.
And there is one more thing. Note the title of the autobiography -- "As I Am." Now remember that she grew up in Knoxville, in the heart of the Bible Belt and on the opposite side of the Great Smokey Mountains from Billy Graham territory. Do you think that there is any chance that "As I Am" is allusion to the famous Southern hymn "Just As I Am"? You know the one, the confessional hymn that includes these verses?
Just as I am, and waiting not to rid my soul of one dark blot, to thee whose blood can cleanse each spot, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.