The captivating life of Roald Dahl

By Carmela Ciuraru
Globe Correspondent / October 16, 2010

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Roald Dahl was one of the 20th century’s most beloved and successful authors of children’s literature, but he was no saint. That his adult fiction was so often gruesome and misanthropic was no surprise.

“Daddy was a mean drunk,’’ recalled his daughter Tessa after his death. His first wife, the actress Patricia Neal, once noted, “Success did not mellow my husband. Quite the contrary, it only enforced his conviction that although life was a two-lane street, he had the right of way.’’ One night in 1980, as he lay sleeping, she whispered in his ear that she wished he were dead.

In “Storyteller,’’ released to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Dahl’s death in 1990, biographer Donald Sturrock offers an exhaustive account of the writer’s life. By any measure, “Storyteller’’ is a towering achievement. (It’s even more comprehensive than Jeremy Treglown’s excellent 1994 biography.) Although Sturrock clearly admires Dahl — who gave his blessing to the project, as did the family — he doesn’t shy away from pointing out bad behavior, and there was plenty of it.

Dahl’s life was transformed in the fall of 1952, at a dinner party hosted by Lillian Hellman. He was 36 when he met Neal, who was 10 years younger. She was still reeling from her breakup with Gary Cooper, who had insisted that she abort their child and then returned to his wife.

Having spent the evening arguing with Leonard Bernstein, Dahl made a poor first impression on Neal — but the 6-foot-5 charmer asked her on a date two days later, and they were married the following summer. (Bernstein told her that she was “making the biggest mistake of her life.’’) She and Dahl would have five children: Olivia, Tessa, Theo, Ophelia, and Lucy; Olivia died at age 7, a loss that Dahl could not overcome. (He never spoke of her.)

He had known suffering early on: Born in 1916 in Cardiff, Wales, to Norwegian parents, Dahl’s sister died of appendicitis when he was 3 years old, and his father died a few weeks later.

As a young man, Dahl worked for an oil company in Tanzania and enlisted in the Royal Air Force in World War II. On his first day as a combat pilot, he crashed his plane, resulting in spinal damage that would lead to multiple operations and recurring back pain for the rest of his life. He had a stint as a wartime intelligence agent and later as a diplomat for the British embassy in Washington, D.C., but he was already a writer, too, publishing his first short story in 1942.

Following his marriage to Neal brought his best and worst years: In 1960, Theo, then 4 months old, was hit by a taxi in New York while in his pram. His skull was shattered, but he survived. Amazingly, Dahl helped invent a valve that drained fluid from Theo’s brain, a device that would be used on thousands of other patients. “James and the Giant Peach’’ was published in 1961, the first of his great contributions to children’s literature.

A few years later came “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’’ but it wasn’t long before tragedy struck again. Neal, just 39 and pregnant with Lucy, suffered a stroke and fell into a coma for weeks. When she emerged, Dahl devoted himself to her rehabilitation, though some found his methods abusive. He remained with Neal until 1983, when he divorced her to marry his longtime mistress.

Anyone in love with Dahl’s books — including “Fantastic Mr. Fox’’ and “Matilda’’— cannot read “Storyteller’’ without struggling to accept the intensely difficult man who wrote them.

“In many instances his books are a kind of imaginative survival manual for children about how to deal with the adult world around them,’’ writes Sturrock. Dahl struggled to deal with adults until his death in 1990 at 74. Although he could be spiteful, his nasty eruptions were often followed by acts of kindness. .

“My body may be rusting to pieces,’’ Dahl once admitted, “but my mind is something absolutely separate and is as young as ever. I believe that I am a sort of overgrown child, a giggler, a lover of childish jokes and knock-knocks, a chocolate-and-sweet eater, a person with one half of him that has failed completely to grow up.’’

Carmela Ciuraru, the editor of several anthologies, lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and can be reached at

STORYTELLER: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl By Donald Sturrock

Simon & Schuster, 655 pp., $30