Storyteller – The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock, Harper Press, 2010 –
Roald Dahl once boasted that children all over the world would invite him into their houses for a cup of tea. With 250 million copies of his books sold, he remains one of the best selling children’s authors in the world. In 2007, seventeen years after his death and despite the Harry Potter phenomena (500 million books sold worldwide), he managed to come first in a poll run by ITV3 to determine the most popular author for 16 – 34 year olds in Britain.
Over the years there have been many short biographies of Dahl, mostly written for the children. There have also been three serious forays into the life of this celebrated and controversial author. Barry Farrell’s ‘Pat and Roald’ focused on the tragedies and tribulations of his first marriage to academy award winning actress Patricia Neal. The second was by Jeremy Treglown, a biography that exploded a number of carefully cultivated self-serving myths that had grown up around Dahl. Treglown’s conclusion was that Dahl was the kind of man about whom anything could be said and it would likely be true.
Treglown’s book didn’t sit well with the Dahl family, who decided to have an authorized biography written by his daughter Ophelia. When she decided she didn’t have time for it, the enterprise was offered to Donald Sturrock, a former BBC producer who had done an earlier documentary film about Dahl.
There was a character played by Shirley MacLaine in the film ‘Steel Magnolias’ who delivered the line: “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, come sit by me.” If you’re that kind of person, I recommend the Treglown biography. The Sturrock book is scrupulously researched, not blind to Dahl’s capacity for egotistical and sometimes outrageous behavior, and still manages a more balanced conclusion, placing some of the dismaying bits into a larger and more compassionate context.
And what a context it was. One might think that such a successful author led a charmed life. His biography could make a case for his living under a curse. Dahl began writing in WWII after being washed out of active duty as a pilot with the RAF. He trained in Africa and was only one of 3 of 18 pilots in his class to survive the war. It’s possible his salvation came from crashing his plane in the Libyan Desert on the way to his first combat assignment. He spent months recovering before being sent to Greece, just as it fell to the German invasion. He fought briefly in the middle-eastern campaign before falling prey to blackouts while flying.
In 1942 he ended up working in Washington D.C. for British Security’s William Stephenson (the man called ‘Intrepid’). America had just entered the war and, after a brief meeting with C.S. Forester (the ‘Hornblower’ series author), was encouraged to write something about his combat experience for an American audience. He wrote a fanciful tale about being ‘shot down’ in Libya instead of losing his way, running out of gas and crashing. It was sold to the Saturday Evening Post and thus started his writing career. His first children’s book ‘The Gremlins’ got him an invitation to the White House where he charmed the Roosevelts into further invitations.
By the end of the war he had a number of his short stories published in American magazines. His first novel (‘Sometime Never’) flopped and his work was largely ignored in England. He eventually married the actress Patricia Neal, a union that only survived its first year thanks to the intervention of Dahl’s friend Charles Marsh. Dahl struggled to build a reputation as an adult author before finding his way to writing children’s books. ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ was his first resounding success and paved the way for the rest of his career.
Along the way, he encountered one personal disaster after another. Dahl lived in chronic pain all his life, with a succession of operations to alleviate problems caused by his wartime crash. A taxi smashed into the pram carrying his baby son. The taxi then pushed the pram until it was pinned against the side of a bus, leaving the boy with life-long health complications. One of his daughters died of a rare complication of measles and his wife, shortly after winning an Academy Award, fell victim to a brain aneurism and nearly died. His stepdaughter ran into health difficulties that were twice misdiagnosed and died.
Dahl left plenty of material for his biographers: war pilot, spy, womanizer, writer, abrasive loud mouth, charmer, iconoclast, philanthropist and more. Treglown may have been right about Dahl being capable of anything, but Sturrock manages to show that that there was a lot a good mixed with the bad.
TL:DR – Although Dahl once dismissed biographies because famous people’s lives were ‘boring’, the same can’t be said of this biography – it should appeal to more than just fans of Roald Dahl.