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For Love and Money : Celebrity Daughter Tessa Dahl Wrote Her First Novel Because She Needed a Job. She Also Needed the Applause.

March 05, 1989|MONA GABLE | Gable lives in Los Angeles.

It's a warm afternoon in Beverly Hills. Tessa Dahl, 31, is sitting on a big white couch next to a heap of stuffed animals in Andre and Heather Previn's homey living room. She's wearing a maroon sweater embroidered with flowers over a maroon blouse, a bright floral print skirt, black stockings and black flats. Her hair is pinned back with barrettes, highlighting her sculpted cheekbones. Remove the schoolgirl costume though and she looks like her mother, actress Patricia Neal.

The daughter of Neal and writer Roald Dahl, Tessa Dahl is staying with the Previns (they're old family friends) while she's in Los Angeles promoting her first novel, "Working for Love" (Delacorte Press: $16.95).

Her children, Sophie, 11, Clover, 4, and Luke, 2, are back at the country house near London with their nanny. "It's nice to be here with Heather," she says. "But, no, no one's come with me (on the tour), which is probably why I ended up crying with my mummy on the phone."

Being on her own is rare for Dahl. For that matter, so is working. She's never had a "proper" job or had to worry about money. "I wasn't brought up on the work ethic like you were," she says. From Day One, there's been "Daddy" or a husband to take care of her. Now, however, there isn't. So in addition to peddling her novel and writing fiction, she's doing interviews for such British publications as the Daily Mail. The writing is gratifying, the money is not. "The checks never cease to disappoint me. I think it's extraordinarily difficult to earn a living," she says without guile. "Don't you?"

Hefty Sum for Book

But not to worry. Dahl is hardly close to penury. "Working for Love" sold for a hefty sum to a British publisher and was a best seller. She got six figures from her American publisher as well.

Now, Tessa Dahl, onetime British playgirl, divorced mother of three, wants to clarify the difference between her real life and events portrayed in her first novel.

Published last October in Britain and just debuting in the States, the book borrows liberally from her famous family's tragedies. Her mother's devastating stroke. Her sister Olivia's death from measles at age 7. An accident that left her brother, Theo, brain-damaged. Her parents' nasty breakup. Her own troubled marriage and divorce. Her lifelong quest to please her aloof father. In essence, we have a story of a woman trying to carve out an identity by a writer who's trying to do the same. A women-who-loved-too-much tale of the '80s. And though journalists in her native Britain have been impressed--"compelling stuff," according to the Sunday Times in London; "works brilliantly," said Publishing News--so far in America, Dahl says, there's been a lot of flak in the form of a much greater interest in how much of the book is true to life.

"A lot of people have harped on the autobiographical side of it," Dahl says, her bare, pretty face looking wounded. "In my naivete and in making these characters so obviously real, I thought it would be accepted that the rest is fiction. My life is very, very, very, very different to the life of Molly (her browbeaten heroine). Some of the events from my life I've used--and who wouldn't?"

Other than a bit of journalism for the Tattler, Dahl didn't seriously start writing until she was nearly 30. After dropping out of a British boarding school at 15--to act in her first and last film--she tried her hand at modeling (she is 6 feet tall), ran an antique shop, worked in an employment agency, attended drama school in New York. But nothing lasted. In between, she lived in London, having lots of affairs with lots of famous men such as Peter Sellers and Prince Michael of Kent, she says. "I went through a very tempestuous adolescence," she says. "I took a lot of drugs and (knew) a lot of men."

At 20, living with actor Julian Holloway, Dahl gave birth to her daughter, Sophie. Two years later, she left the wild times behind and married James Kelly, a rich, handsome, 45-year-old divorced American she met on a blind date. For the next seven years, her life, like her character Molly's, revolved around babies, decorating and dinner parties. Then came the break-up.

"I'd been married to James, who's very nice--unlike (Molly's husband) Jack in the book--and he left me, which wasn't very nice. I went away on holiday, and my stepmother (Roald Dahl's current wife) said to me very provocatively, 'Why don't you write this book you've been saying you're going to write?' So I brought along five loose-leaf note pads. I didn't know how I was going to fill them.

"The first night I wrote a letter to James. I went to bed and was lying there thinking, 'Oh, woe is me.' Then I thought, the character could start with this letter. So I started writing it. Then I came home to England and I showed it to my father's agent." Dahl thought that would be the end of it. The agent, however, pronounced it "poignant." "She said, 'You could sell that, but you won't finish it.' "

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