Every time you look at a house in Los Angeles, the real-estate agent will tell you that someone famous once lived there. It always seemed irrelevant to me: Does a property gain value just because Alfred Hitchcock used to eat breakfast there?
I did feel a tiny thrill, years ago, when an agent showed us the house that Marilyn Monroe had died in, but the fact she'd lived there didn't make the place any less dark and claustrophobic. We passed on it, and our agent then brought us to see a house that had belonged to the movie director Martin Ritt. The list of his movies includes "Hud," "Norma Rae" and "Murphy's Romance"—wonderful movies, all of them, but the house was a squat, unrenovated 1950s box, and a single glance from the car window was enough for me.
"It's too ugly," I told my husband, Rob. "I already know I don't want it."
Of course that was the house we wound up buying. It was well situated on a big lot in a good neighborhood, and the price was decent—those things trumped "ugly."
With the aid of an architect, we made it more appealing and moved in with our two small boys.
A few years and two more babies later, we happened to meet the woman who had grown up in the beautiful, white-pillared colonial across the street from us.
"Oh, you're in the old Ritt house?" she said. "So of course you know that Roald Dahl lived there. It's where his wife, Patricia Neal, had her stroke."
And, much to my own surprise and inconsistency, I got very excited.
I'm a novelist who read a lot as a kid. When you grow up on books and then grow up to write books, famous authors are a lot more meaningful to you than TV and movie stars. And Roald Dahl wrote "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "James and the Giant Peach," "Matilda"—the list of his classic works goes on and on.
Plus, when I was little, my grandmother had told me the saga of Patricia Neal's stroke. I think it had always stuck in her mind as a "the love of a good man conquers all" kind of story, because the way she told it, Dahl had single-handedly rehabilitated his wife by forcing her to walk and talk after the doctors said she never would do those things again.
A Google search confirmed that Patricia Neal, the gorgeous, whiskey-voiced actress who had starred in "Hud," "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and (my favorite) "A Face in the Crowd," had indeed had that massive stroke when she was visiting Los Angeles, but we couldn't find proof that it had happened in our house.
And then, at an estate sale in the home of former Writer's Guild West President Mel Shavelson, I was glancing through some books when I spotted "As I Am: An Autobiography."
By Patricia Neal.
I leafed through it and found this: "We rented Marty Ritt's home, while he and his wife Adele were in Europe…It was not an ostentatious home at all, which pleased us very much."
There was also a photo in the book of Dahl, Neal, two other women (baby sitters? nurses?), three children, and Cary Grant (!) standing on the front step of our house.
After this discovery, I became just like the real-estate agents I had rolled my eyes at, telling people that a famous couple had once lived in our house and been visited by movie stars.
One day my friend Amy called me up to tell me that she had met someone who knew Patricia Neal. "She lived in your house, right? You should let her know. She might want to visit it."
A couple of weeks later, Pat Neal entered our house on her friend's arm. She looked more like a grandmother than a movie star, but the voice was as husky and gorgeous as ever. And those eyes. They were large and luminous and expressive. You could drown in those eyes.
She sat and drank tea and told us stories about her impoverished childhood in mine country, about her marriage to Roald ("Roooo-ehl," she called him, lingering on the vowel sounds caressingly), which did not end well, about her great love for Gary Cooper, about the tragic loss of her child, and about the ways in which the strokes she'd had still affected her. She showed us the rings on her fingers and said one was from Roooo-ehl and was "older than Jesus."
She was funny, wicked, charming, spellbinding. Every one of us fell in love with her that day. We didn't want her to leave and we begged her to come back. She promised to return soon for a night of parlor and board games, which she said she loved.
It was only a week or so later that her friend emailed to say that Pat was in the hospital—nothing too alarming. Shortly after I heard that doctors had found cancer, and when she left the hospital, she went east to spend her last days with her kids.
So the one single golden afternoon stayed one single golden afternoon.
We had boasted that a famous couple once lived in our house, but far sweeter than the unheard echoes of two strangers was the time we spent with a very real woman who, for a few brief hours, enchanted us with stories of her vivid and exciting past.
Our house may not be more valuable to the next buyer because Pat Neal visited us there, but it is infinitely dearer to us.
—Claire LaZebnik has written seven novels, including two for young adults, "Epic Fail" and "The Trouble With Flirting," and is the co-author with Lynn Kern Koegel of "Overcoming Autism."