Roald Dahl: a life filled with tales of the unexpected
Roald Dahl was born 100 years ago in September and lived a life scarred by tragedy and marred by his own difficult personality. But his magical characters are more alive than ever
Roald Dahl was born 100 years ago, on September 13, to Norwegian parents in Cardiff. He died 26 years ago, yet his books, specifically his children's books, are still bought in huge numbers (over 200 million worldwide) and regularly adapted for film, TV and stage. Matilda has been playing on Broadway since 2013 and, of course, The BFG has just been released in a new, big-screen version directed by Spielberg. Roald also created a dynasty and established Dahl as a surname that manages to be both thoroughly establishment and fascinatingly bohemian.
His remarkable imagination - exuberant, vengeful, often nauseating - and ability to create characters, usually orphans, filled with a pathos that makes us burn with indignation, are what have kept Dahl's books alive, but the whiff of sulphur that always hung around the man hasn't gone away either. Because as much as he is acknowledged a wonderful writer, with a rare understanding of children's psychology, he was also a difficult, often cruel man, with a heap of unpalatable views.
Most recently, as Spielberg prepared for the release of The BFG, he was ambushed by allegations of Dahl's anti-Semitism, specifically a quote Dahl gave to The New Statesman: "There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it's a kind of lack of generosity towards non-Jews . . . even a stinker like Hitler didn't just pick on them for no reason."
Spielberg, himself Jewish, of course, and visibly horrified, was forced to try and defend Dahl, and by extension himself, saying he had "no excuse" for not researching Dahl's public statements, but adding: "Later, when I began asking questions of people who knew Dahl, they told me he liked to say things he didn't mean just to get a reaction. And all his comments . . . he would say for effect, even if they were horrible things."
It is difficult to judge and condemn the products of a previous era by our own much-changed standards. But even so, Spielberg's defence seems weak and Dahl's words far less the act of a provocateur than the musings of a bigot.
Probably the best defence - if one is to be admitted - is Dahl's own life; the many tragedies he faced, the strange mixture of courage and cruelty he displayed. Bad things happen in Roald Dahl books - James's parents die, Mr Fox gets his tail shot off, the child (never named) from The Witches spends his life as a mouse - and they are full of disgusting, terrible people, such as James's aunts, Matilda's father, George's grandmother. These people and events are faithfully rendered, with no glossing-over or soothing euphemisms, and the reason for it becomes very obvious with even a passing knowledge of Dahl's life.
He may have been dashing, handsome, brilliant - his second wife, Felicity Crosland, described him as the "sexiest seducer in Washington" - but Dahl was also known as 'Roald The Rotten'; domineering, inconsistent and driven by his memories of tragedy. Granddaughter Sophie described him as "a very difficult man - very strong, very dominant".
The little girl with the big eyes in The BFG is based on Sophie, but the book is dedicated to Olivia, Dahl's eldest daughter, who he adored and who died of measles encephalitis when she was just seven. It was a terrible loss, one that had heart-breaking echoes of the death from appendicitis, also at the age of seven, of Roald's elder sister, Astri.
A month after her death, Roald's father, who never recovered from the blow, died of pneumonia.
Roald was just three at the time. From the age of eight, he was sent off to a series of boarding schools, where he was mostly miserable and homesick. That may have been the experience of most small boys dispatched in that particularly English tradition; the difference with Roald is that he never forgot. Nor, perhaps, did he ever recover.
Reviewer Kathryn Hughes once said: "No matter how you spin it, Roald Dahl was an absolute sod. Crashing through life like a big, bad child, he managed to alienate pretty much everyone he ever met."
His nickname when young was 'Apple' because he was his mother's favourite. He wrote to her every day from boarding school, but never confessed the depths of his loneliness and misery. Instead, he put a brave face on the regular bouts of violence and ritual humiliation that were so much part of the boarding-school experience then and this daily exercise in glossing over the wretched truth may very well have been the early training in storytelling he needed.
After school, Dahl travelled the world, working for Shell oil, then joined the RAF when the Second World War broke out. A dashing, daring pilot, he spent much of the war in the US, sleeping with society beauties and passing on whatever bits of intelligence he gleaned from pillow talk. Felicity Crosland described Dahl, 6ft 6ins and a fine sportsman, as "wildly attractive and handsome, in his RAF uniform, speaking English, a fighter pilot - completely seductive. And he was charming and intelligent. A lot of women fell for him."
Dahl, in turn, fell for the actress Patricia Neal, who he met at a dinner party hosted by playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman. Neal's career had started in a blaze of glory - before she was 21, she won a Tony award for her Broadway debut. Then she moved to Hollywood, where she started in the film adaptation of Ayn Rand's best-selling, ground-breaking novel The Fountainhead, and fell passionately in love with Gary Cooper.
The affair lasted three years, during which time Neal got pregnant and had an abortion.
Later, she wrote: "If I had only one thing to do over in my life, I would have that baby" - but Cooper refused ultimately to leave his wife.
The Fountainhead was a disaster, followed by a couple more turkeys, and by the age of 27, Neal was back in New York, heartbroken, barely over a nervous breakdown, with her career in tatters. This was the point at which she met Dahl.
Years later, in her autobiography As I Am, Neal wrote that she knew she didn't love Dahl from the moment they married in 1953 but she wanted to have "beautiful children" with him. And initially, the marriage seemed to be working. Neal's career revived and she won an Oscar for Best Actress in 1963 for Hud. Meantime, the couple were indeed having "beautiful children", five in all: Olivia, Tessa, Theo, Ophelia and Lucy.
Seven years after their marriage, the couple's baby son, Theo, four months old, was crushed between a bus and a taxi while out with a nanny and left brain-damaged. The accident was witnessed by Tessa.
Theo had eight brain operations and Dahl, unhappy with the shunt put in to drain the fluid that clogged his brain, spent two years designing and manufacturing a better version. He decided to move the family back home to England, settling in Gypsy House in the village of Great Missenden. But just a few years later, seven-year-old Olivia, the eldest, died of measles encephalitis, a tragedy that left Dahl "limp with despair".
Patricia Neal did some of her best work in this period, then suffered a series of strokes when she was 39 and pregnant with her fifth child.
After a lengthy operation on her brain, Patricia couldn't talk or walk and was largely paralysed.
Here, Dahl showed himself to be a man of complete determination and a certain vision, but touched with coldness, even sadism.
He essentially forced Patricia to get well. If she wanted something, he held it out of reach until she asked for it. He badgered her to walk, to move, to read and memorize and forced her to do hours of painful physical and speech therapy.
For those watching, there were many pitiful moments, but in the end, Dahl's strange, stubborn insistence came good. Six months after the brain operation Neal gave birth to a healthy daughter, Lucy. Shortly after that, he decided she was ready to give a speech to a charity dinner for brain-damaged children. Although terrified, she did, to thunderous applause. "I knew at that moment that Roald the slave driver, Roald the bastard, with his relentless scourge, Roald the Rotten, as I had called him more than once, had thrown me back into the deep water. Where I belonged," she later said.
He may have forced Neal to get well again, but there didn't seem any way of saving the marriage. Dahl began an affair with one of Neal's best friends, Felicity Crosland, and in 1983 the couple divorced and he remarried. To Patricia's fury, their children mostly knew of and condoned the affair. Ophelia Dahl, who was 14 when her parents divorced, later said: "All of us realised that he had found the love of his life with Liccy (Felicity) and there's always a sense of relief when that happens."
Throughout, Dahl had been writing, finding early and considerable success with Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, published in 1964 and a classic ever since.
At the same time, he was also writing adult fiction, including pornography for Playboy - friend and fellow writer Noel Coward once said of his adult fiction: "The stories are brilliant and the imagination is fabulous. Unfortunately, there is, in all of them, an underlying streak of cruelty and macabre unpleasantness and a curiously adolescent emphasis on sex" - and was often very dismissive of children's literature and his own role within it.
Of course, the streak of "cruelty and macabre unpleasantness" that Coward detected was very much present in his children's books too.
It seemed also to be present in his life. As a father, Dahl was irascible and inconsistent; protective and manipulative, controlling and kind; a tough combination. Tessa, the daughter next to Olivia in age, was frequently compared with the child her father mourned so obviously - "my older sister Olivia had been the love of Daddy's life . . . both of us contracted measles, but she had died" - and always unfavourably.
"In our family, you got attention only if you were brain-damaged or dead or terribly ill. There was no reward for being normal," she once said. And so Tessa gave up on being 'normal', instead becoming wild, precocious and deeply unhappy.
In a piece written in 2012, she talks of being brought to see psychiatrist Anna Freud after Theo's accident. Freud recommended therapy for the whole family, but Dahl had a mistrust of something that he believed had left various friends unable to write because they "had all their nooks and crannies flattened like pancakes", so he insisted on medication instead. Freud refused, so Dahl found another doctor, less scrupulous, to prescribe, and Tessa, from the age of four, was medicated.
By her teenage years, Tessa was given Quaaludes, a sedative, by her father, who brought them home from America, and regularly drank alcohol with him. She had developed, she says "narcissistic character disorders" and was "the problem child who became the scapegoat." But she insists: "My parents did their best."
Tessa, like her mother, was a beauty. By her teenage years, she had become a gossip-column fixture, for dating Peter Sellers and Brian de Palma, among others. Sophie was her first child, from a short affair with actor Julian Holloway when Tessa was 19. Later, she married twice, and had three more children.
She battled drug addiction and crippling depression and began a long search for meaning, visiting ashrams, falling under the spell of various gurus.
She also began to write - articles, children's books and one novel. Dahl, although publicly supportive, was privately competitive: "After I sold my first children's book, he had struggled up to his hut with agonised hips to fetch his royalty statements - to prove to me that I would never make as much money as him, however successful I became."
And yet despite, or more likely because of, Dahl's emotional distance, he was the great focus of Tessa's life.
"I loved him with an undiluted and unmet passion. He was my major motivation as my whole life consisted of proving to him that, although my sister died, I was still worthy of life and love."
Someone once said that all siblings have different parents. Dahl was perhaps a different kind of father to his other children.
Ophelia is a social justice and healthcare advocate, while Lucy, the youngest and a screenwriter in Hollywood - she wrote Wild Child, made into a film with Natasha Richardson - remembers a generous, magical kind of parent.
"He absolutely hated children being bored. He used to say boredom was death," she recalls, and so he bought a Morris Minor for them to drive around a track he had created.
As a grandfather, Dahl seems to have hit his stride. For Tessa's daughter, Sophie, whose young life was spent trailing along on her mother's search for happiness, peace and enlightenment, he was a fixed and stable point.
"Wonderful, really wonderful," is how she describes him.
He had an old gypsy caravan in his garden, which Sophie and her friends used as a playhouse.
"It was brutally uncomfortable and really cold, but I would stay in there with my friends and so we'd have midnight feasts of chocolate in bed. Then, in the morning, we'd appear in the house and he'd make us all breakfast."
Sophie now lives in Gipsy House with her husband, singer-songwriter Jamie Cullum, and their two children.
By the time Dahl died in 1990, aged 74, 4,000 letters a week were arriving to the local post office for him. Last year, 80,000 people visited the museum dedicated to him in Great Missenden.
They don't go despite the core of darkness in his books, but because of it. The enduring magic of Dahl's world is the way it acknowledges the nasty side of life, has irresistible fun with it, then allows good to triumph.
Sunday Indo Living