In Harm’s Way by
(237 Stories)

Prompted By Fame

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Until her death ten years ago, we lived a few blocks away from Patricia Neal in downtown Edgartown, where she had been been a fixture for years. She often sat on her front porch and was pleased to say “good morning” to all who passed by. But the “Martha’s Vineyard way” was to not impose on the celebrities, no matter how visible they were. They came to the island for rest and respite and we all respected that.

We loved her in all her movies, even heard her speak at Brandeis once, after watching “A Face in the Crowd”. It was late in her life and she freely offered the information that Gary Cooper (though a married man) was the love of her life. She was charming and pulled no punches.

Years earlier, while channel surfing, we had come across the Otto Preminger pot boiler “In Harm’s Way”, a World War II movie starring her and John Wayne. It is very long and we were got so caught up in it, that we postponed going out for pizza for our kids; who’s hungry anyway? Through the years, we watch it over and over again. We even bought the DVD. It is one our guilty pleasures.

So imagine my delight when, perhaps 17 years ago, I ran into Ms. Neal in the local grocery store. She looked every bit the movie star, wearing a smart pant suit, nice white beads and a white turban; not like the rest of us, in shorts and t-shirts on a hot summer day. She was pushing her cart with the help of her companion, necessitated by her declining health from the stroke she had suffered years earlier. I knew it wasn’t proper etiquette to approach her, but I just couldn’t help myself.

“Excuse me, Ms. Neal. I just had to tell you how much my husband and I enjoy your performance in In Harm’s Way. We get caught up in it every time we see it.”

She straightened her posture to “Movie Star” and brightened up. “Yeah, that was a good one. ‘Oh Rock!'” (Rocky was John Wayne’s character, she was quoting from the movie…I loved it!)

She didn’t win her Oscar for that movie, but it didn’t matter, I had offered a moment of appreciation for a long-ago performance and, rather than being put-off, she seemed to really enjoy it. I know I did. A rare moment with one of the greats.



Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    A really nice story, Betsy, particularly knowing how many of the Rich and Famous inhabit/visit Martha’s Vineyard. I think you picked the perfect moment and the perfect comment with which to approach Ms. Neal. And so glad that it was obviously appreciated by her.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Great story, Betsy. I’m sure that, at that stage of her life, you made her day. She was a great actress, and I’m adding that movie to our list for things to watch during a pandemic.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      It seemed like a brief, happy moment, Laurie. I must warn you, “In Harm’s Way” is not a great movie. As I mentioned, it is a real pot-boiler, also starring Kirk Douglas (as the bad guy), Henry Fonda, Brandon deWilde as John Wayne’s estranged son, Tom Tryon and Paula Prentiss (as his wife), Jill Hayworth as the young nurse that Patricia Neal looks out for. Great cast, but sort of trite script by today’s standards. The movie is from 1965, the era of over-stuffed movies, but we do love it.

  3. Marian says:

    Like this story, Betsy, and being introduced to the “Martha’s Vineyard way,” which I think is really cool. It’s understandable that you had to approach Patricia Neal, and obviously your intuition was good. So pleased you had a good conversation. Now that I think about it, there is, or at least was, a modified “San Francisco way” when it comes to sports figures. Years ago I was in an almost empty store in San Francisco at an odd time, 10 AM on a Tuesday (why I can’t remember), and in walked Joe and Jennifer Montana. We made eye contact and I could see a momentary expression of panic on their faces, but I just nodded and smiled, and they were immediately relieved and smiled back. We went on our respective ways.

  4. I once intruded on the privacy of Bode Miller. Something I’ll never stop regretting

  5. Suzy says:

    This is a lovely story, Betsy. Famous people may want their privacy, but in this case a quick admiring comment, especially for someone who is past her prime, was obviously appreciated! Good for you for telling her, even if it wasn’t the “Vineyard Way.”

  6. Lovely story!
    The summer of the Clinton-Lewinsky fiasco we were vacationing in your wonderful Vineyard and got an eyeful of Bill, Hillary and Chelsea.

    We thought that was the height of presidential scandal, little did we know what was to come!

  7. I think it’s all about being sensitive to the nuances, which of course you were. What a nice memory to hold onto…I always admired her. She had a special quality I can’t quite put into words.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks, Barb. I agree; on both counts. I tried not to invade her space for too long, just long enough for our brief encounter, which seemed to please her. And, as I think through the legacy of great films she left (we watched “Fountain Head” not too long ago), she certainly did interesting and varied work. Years ago, when David was still home and we had a video rental store on the island, we rented “Hud” one night. That was powerful, unfussy, just some truth.

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