September 13th – Roald Dahl

“You must have stamina. In other words, you must be able to stick to what you are doing and never give up, for hour after hour, day after day, week after week and month after month.”

Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl was born September 13, 1916, in Wales. His parents were affluent Norwegian immigrants, and he spent most of his life in England. In 1920 his seven-year old sister Astri died from appendicitis, and his father died several weeks later of pneumonia. Dahl was just three, and their mother decided to stay in England to make sure the children were educated at British schools as his father had wished. Although the elder Dahl had died relatively young, at fifty-six, he left behind a fortune worth millions from his shipbuilding business.

Dahl’s school experiences were unpleasant, to say the least. He was caned as punishment for a prank when he was eight at The Cathedral School in Llandaff. After that he was transferred to boarding school at which he was very homesick. The Repton School which he attended after the age of thirteen was rife with cruelty and hazing. Many of these experiences informed his late books, and were included in his autobiography Boy: Tales of Childhood.

In July 1934 Dahl joined the Shell Petroleum Company, and after he received his training he lived in luxury working for the company in Kenya and Dar-es-Salaam (Tanzania). At the outset of WWII in 1939 he joined the Royal Air Force  and was commissioned as a pilot officer in August 1940. Just a month later, because of little training and bad directions, he crashed in the desert, fractured his nose and becoming temporarily blind. He fully healed and in February 1941 was deemed fit to fly again, but soon began suffering from reoccurring headaches and blackouts that sent him back to Britain to recover. In late March 1942 he was assigned to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. While there, he met British novelist C.S. Forester, who was working for the British Ministry of Information writing propaganda for the Allied Cause. Forester asked Dahl to tell him stories about his flying experiences so he could write them into a story for The Saturday Evening Post. Dahl wrote down some anecdotes, and Forester decided to publish it as it as “Shot Down Over Libya.” The Post paid Dahl $1000 for the work and wanted more. Thus began Dahl’s writing career. 

His first children’s book was The Gremlins (1943), was about mischievous little creatures that were part of RAF folklore. The book was commissioned by Walt Disney for a film that was never made. Dahl went on to create some of the best-loved children’s stories of the 20th century, such as James and The Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970), The BFG (1982), The Witches(1983), and Matilda (1988).

On July 2nd, 1953 Dahl married actress Patricia Neal on July 2, 1953 at Trinity Church in New York. 

Although Dahl is best known for his children’s stories, he also wrote over 60 short stories, many originally written for  American magazines such as Ladies Home Journal, Harper’s, Playboy, and The New Yorker. 

For a brief period in the 1960s Dahl wrote screenplays to make money. Two of his screenplays— the James Bond film You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang—were adaptations of novels by Ian Fleming, and he adapted his own work into Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). Most of his other children’s books have also been adapted to film including THE BFG, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, Matilda, and Fantastic Mr. Fox

Dahl never backed down from a challenge. Early in his marriage his family experienced multiple tragedies. In 1960 his fourth-month-old Theo was injured when a cab struck his baby carriage. Dahl became involved in his recovering, helping to develop the “Wade-Dahl-Till” valve to alleviate his discomfort. In 1962 his seven year old daughter Olivia died from measles encephalitis. Then in 1965 while pregnant with their fifth child Patricia suffered from three burst cerebral aneurysms leaving her unable to walk or talk. Dahl took control of her rehab, and although it was relentless she was eventually recovered and able to return to acting. 

In 1972 Dahl met Felicity d’Abreu Crosland, a set designer on a shoot that his wife Patricia was working. They began an 11 year affair, and in 1983 Dahl divorced Patricia Neal after thirty years of marriage, and married Felicity. Felicity gave up her job and moved into Gispy House, which had been Dahl’s home since 1954. Memories with Food at Gipsy House, written with his wife Felicity and published posthumously in 1991, was a mixture of recipes, family reminiscences and Dahl’s musings on favourite subjects such as chocolate, onions and claret.

The last book to be published in his lifetime was Esio Trot (1990), is a children’s novel that centers around an aged, lonely man trying to connect with a woman (his widowed neighbor) from afar. It was published just 2 months before his death.

He died November 12 1990, at the age of 74, from a rare cancer of the blood. 

Lesson from Dahl:

Dahl was an imposing character, a towering six foot five, He lived an adventurous life and loved to dazzle with stories, believing fiction was always more interesting than real life. When his injuries from flying caused him to be sent home from the RAF, he turned his attention to weaving adventures and a big life of words from a little hut in his backyard. 

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