She is one of Hollywood’s legendary movie stars. Her impassioned acting and dark-eyed beauty brought to life some of Hollywood’s most unforgettable roles. From the age of five to forty-three, Natalie Wood made nearly fifty films, earned three Oscar Nominations and won scores of critical acclaim. Yet nothing she did on camera exceeded her own life story in passion, prominence or purpose.
Though Natalie’s life was blessed by fortune, it was cut short by fate, and despite her untimely death in a tragic accident, so much of her lives on in her work and family.
Natalie’s incredible life is our cinematic history. Fame touched her as early as nine in Miracle on 34th Street, by twelve she appeared in fourteen movies and had all but spent her young lifetime making films. Though her acting brought so much joy to others, it sacrificed the simplicity of being a little girl for the hectic pace of a young movie star. The only childhood Natalie had was the one she played in motion pictures.
Natalie grew into a woman of love and power, to live a life most people can only dream. Among her friends and co-stars were some of Hollywood’s sexiest men like Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Tony Curtis, Sean Connery and Frank Sinatra. Within the span of her brief lifetime, Natalie pursued all the grandeur and fame that Hollywood offered: the name in lights, the adoration of millions. It brought her to the heights of stardom and the realisation that the undying love of a husband and family were her greatest joy.
Natalie Wood was born in San Francisco on July 20th, 1938. Her parents, Nicholas and Maria were Russian immigrants. Natalie was the middle child, her baby sister was Lana, and her big sister was Olga.
After Natalie’s fourth birthday, fate was about to hand her a gift. It came the day her mother (or Mud as she was called) brought her to watch Hollywood film director Irving Pichel making a movie in the neighbourhood. Two years later the director sent for her.
Natalie’s real name was Natasha Nikolaevna Zacharenko, and due to her surname constantly being mispronounced, William Getz chose "Natalie", and then he chose "Wood" in honour of his friend Sam Wood. Natalie now had a stage name made to be in lights, and her first big picture Tomorrow is Forever with the great Orson Welles.
It was the beginning of a dream, her mother’s dream! Mud became totally absorbed in Natalie’s acting career and her extraordinary talent. Natalie was more than a child actress; she was a child star. Her timeless talent was first apparent for all to see in Miracle on 34th Street. She was nine.
At home, Natalie’s father, a proud man with an old world attitude, had a hard time accepting his daughter’s success. Though he adored her and she him, Natalie’s career came first in the family and that was threatening.
Hollywood fame had its price. It cost Natalie a normal everyday childhood.
Natalie’s success came with some difficult side effects, like a stage mother who often disregarded her daughter’s emotional state just to get a scene right. Natalie’s mother may have also caused her lifelong fear of water. It began when her mother lied to her about a bridge she had to cross in a movie scene. She said it was safe, but the truth is, it was rigged to collapse.
Natalie’s upbringing made her determined not to raise her children the same way. Natalie’s eldest daughter, Natasha says, "I think it was very hard for my Mom, you know there was a lot of superstition, because they were Russian and I remember her telling me stories about that. You know she would joke about her paranoia’s, if a black cat crossed or don’t walk under a ladder, because those were things that my grandma gave to her that she didn’t want to be part of our life at all."
Before Natalie started high school she had appeared in seventeen movies, often with stars like Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis. Even then her adolescent acting was in passion, but becoming an adult star was going to be a challenge. In 1955, Life magazine called Natalie Wood "The Most Beautiful Teenager in America", but neither her extraordinary looks, experience, nor ambition would make her a leading lady. She needed the right part and found it in Rebel Without a Cause.
But no matter what Natalie wanted, her destiny was still in someone else’s hands. The once wholesome child actress had to convince director Nick Ray that she was bad enough to play James Dean’s girlfriend. Natalie had another formidable obstacle, her parents. When they found out she wanted to do Rebel they were aghast. Natalie more than got the part, her performance made Rebel Without a Cause one of the most sensational movies of its time. And Rebel made her the romantic ideal of every teenage boy, and when James Dean kissed her, the envy of every teenage girl.
Rebel Without a Cause earned Natalie her first Academy Award Nomination. It was also and apt metaphor for the new chapter in her life. Onscreen, she was no longer a malleable child actress, she was now a bonified star. Offscreen, she was young, beautiful, sexy and even daring enough to fall in love with the films 44-year-old director. Natalie was growing up fast, her love affairs and stardom strained the ties that bound her to her family, the stage mother no longer had a grip on the movie star she had helped to create.
Natalie was so charismatic; it seemed as though every man she met fell under her spell. There was her co-star Raymond Burr (the future Perry Mason) who later said he would have given up his most famous TV role, just to be with her. She even enchanted a King, Elvis Presley in 1956.
Natalie’s life was boundless, she could have any part she wanted and any man she wished. For all the lovers she attracted, Natalie had yet to find that one true love, few of the men drawn to her were able to see Natalie for whom she really was. Any chance of a real love could only be with a man who saw through the movie star facade, to the real woman inside. Natalie’s chance came on her eighteenth birthday, when she went out on her first date with the man she’d love for most of her adult life, Robert Wagner.
The story of their love was splashed on front pages from one end of the country to the other. Celebrity watchers wrote of them as the day’s romantic ideal of youth, love and glamour. The paparazzi feasted on one of Hollywood’s most alluring couples. A year later, the story reached a stirring climax in newspapers and magazines from coast to coast when R.J. proposed. She was nineteen; he was twenty-seven.
But nineteen is still quite young, even for one of the most successful and worldly of actresses. Natalie’s life had been devoted to one thing: making movies. When it came time to play the real-life part of a wife she’d find out how different that was from what she knew. A good marriage would require more than the best intentions.
On December 28th, 1957, on of America’s hottest movie stars took time out of a hectic schedule to marry Hollywood heartthrob Robert Wagner. Their wedding was the talk across America. Natalie and R.J. began to live a fairytale, they were the golden couple of the moment, seen everywhere. A kind of Prince and Princess set amid the castle gala, followed by photographers and reporters to movie premieres, glamorous parties and charity balls. It was a thrilling life devoted to making movies, friends and love.
"As I get older, I really respect the way she tried to make her life work, and juggle a career and love and children. She had great friends, she was very loyal to everyone," says Natasha, her eldest daughter.
Natalie may have learned to make her life work, but it didn’t come easily. She had some hard lessons; the first was to figure out who she really was. Natalie’s life was complicated. Realising that she was in over her twenty-one-year-old head, she started going to therapy to help her sort things out. Besides her marriage, Natalie’s career was undergoing a severe test. After Rebel, Natalie wanted to make one kind of movie and the studio wanted to make another. It was a classic creative dispute. Natalie found herself working in forgettable movies like The Girl He Left Behind, Cash McCall and a western entitled The Burning Hills. Then came a role that was so right, so perfect, she decided she had to have it. It was the character of Deenie Loomis in Splendor in the Grass.
Natalie got the part and was cast opposite 23-year-old Warren Beatty; the object of Deenie’s unfulfilled yet explosive love. Splendor was everything Natalie hoped it would be, it earned her a second Academy Award Nomination and was one of the biggest movies that year. But while she was making Splendor, one of the scenes she was in stirred up her deepest fear. "I’ve always been terrified of water, dark water, sea water, and there was this sequence where I had to try to drown and kill myself, and he said ‘Don’t worry it’s not a problem. I couldn’t understand more, I understand all about these things, we’ll get a double’," Natalie had said in 1980 during a television interview. Mart Crowley explains what happened later, "Of course, when it came time, the stunt double couldn’t swim and she had to do it, and she was furious."
Splendor in the Grass became an American film classic. It left audiences in tears over the heart of truth it touched. It also marked the beginning of the prime of her life, and the zenith of her career.
In the next ten years, from the age of twenty-two to thirty-two, Natalie’s drive to be the best left an indelible mark on the movies. It was also an era of tremendous personal growth, filled in part with some very important passages that led her to a sometimes shocking realisation of what she really cherished and wanted most out of life.
Splendor in the Grass was one of the most highly anticipated films of 1960, with hit written all over it. At twenty-two, Natalie Wood was reaching the pinnacle of her career.
The day after Splendor finished shooting she was on a plane to Los Angeles to begin working on a movie that was destined to be a classic, West Side Story. Natalie was sensitive, sensual and strong in the role of Maria, the main character in a contemporary Romeo and Juliet story of forbidden love. The pain and agony of her broken heart made audiences weep from New York to California. What she did was magic!
In real-life, Natalie’s own heart was breaking. The marriage to the man she loved and cherished was coming to an end. She could not handle a marriage and a career, something had to give. After three and a half years of marriage, Natalie and R.J. split.
Robert moved to Europe and reconnected with a former actress he’d known from before, Marion Marshall, they married and a year later, daughter Katie was born. Natalie fell in love with Warren Beatty, her former co-star in Splendor in the Grass.
Natalie and Warren became the talk of the town. They were seen everywhere and attended the biggest night of her professional life, that years Academy Awards. Even though Natalie didn’t win an Oscar for either West Side or Splendor, there was no question about it, 1961 was a year to remember.
After West Side Story Natalie turned in another stellar performance, she thrilled audiences as the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Like Natalie, Gypsy’s story was the tale of an overbearing mother and a struggle to break free. What few knew was that Natalie’s acting mirrored her real-life mother/daughter relationship. It tapped into a well of real-life drama and emotion. During Gypsy, Natalie and Warren Beatty lived together. He was for a time, the love of her life, but any plans she had for a future with him ended in less than a year. Warren wasn’t the marrying type.
After the heartache of her break-up with Warren, Natalie harnessed herself to work and her desire to be the best. Natalie made cinematic history again, two years after Gypsy, at the age of twenty-five, she earned her third Oscar Nomination. It was for a movie with Steve McQueen called Love With the Proper Stranger. Her acting was inspired.
Natalie’s contribution to cinema went beyond acting; she also helped launch Robert Redford’s extraordinary Hollywood career. The movie was Inside Daisy Clover. Unfortunately Daisy Clover was a box-office dud, and earned her a tongue-in-cheek Worst Actress Award from the Harvard Drama Society. Ever an original, Natalie did something no one else had done before. She went to Harvard to accept in person.
By the age of twenty-eight, Natalie Wood was an established star. She had earned three Oscar Nominations and made thirty movies, some of them classics. Natalie was the first actress considered for nearly every major part. But as she approached her thirtieth birthday, her own incessant drive to improve herself turned her attention to other parts of her life. She sought a more enduring sense of fulfilment than what a career alone offered.
`Natalie loved to act and made it her life. Years after her mother helped make her a child actress; it was Natalie’s decision and determination that made her an adult star. As long as Natalie had a script to act from she had a sense of acceptance, love and comfort. But despite all that, Natalie had reached a dangerously unhappy period in her personal life. Beyond her career she was alone and her life felt empty.
In one brief moment of despair, she tried to kill herself with an overdose of sleeping pills. Natalie returned home from the hospital in a few days. There was never anything fundamentally self-destructive about her. She had always believed life was precious and loved it, but her unhappiness, anger and fear got the best of her.
Natalie started to live more in the real world and less in the glamour and illusion of a Hollywood Star. She immersed herself in therapy, as she had done years before, after her marriage and career put her 21-year-old head in a spin. After her suicide attempt, Natalie finished the movie she was making. It was The Great Race with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk.
Then a new Natalie did something she’d never done before. Always relying on work as a comfort zone, she took a break. All her life she had acted in someone else’s script, this time she’d star in her own life. She took courses, pursued the things she loved, and got to know herself better. One of the things she discovered was how much she wanted to have a family.
Natalie thought she’d found the man of her dreams when she met British Producer, Richard Gregson. They fell in love and married three years later. It was May 1969, only weeks before Natalie’s thirty-first birthday. That same year, Natalie starred in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Ever possessing the power to draw at the box office, Natalie earned the largest sum of her career, two million dollars.
But Natalie’s greatest fortune arrived sixteen months after her nuptials. It was the birth of her first child, in September 1970, a daughter she named Natasha. Natalie was an ideal mother, every measure of caring and love poured through her to Natasha. Her approach to parenting was radically unlike the style of her mother. "I always felt really safe with my mom. She was a very comforting person, and so I miss that, because I think a lot of children with their mothers they instil that in them, that safety. She instilled that in me, and you know, I yearn for that," Natasha recalls. Natasha was Natalie’s everlasting love. She raised her like a mother determined to make up for everything she had missed.
Natalie fulfilled a dream when she married Richard Gregson and gave birth to her first child Natasha. It was one of the happiest moments in her life. But life for Natalie was often unpredictable; it was full of drama and intensity, onscreen and in real-life. Eleven months after Natasha was born, her marriage to Richard took a turn for the worst. For the second time in her life, a marriage she loved and believed in was coming apart. This time she wasn’t alone, she had the blessing of a child to love and care for.
But Natalie’s happy marriage to Richard Gregson unexpectantly fell apart. After discovering her husband having an indiscreet telephone conversation with her secretary, Natalie filed for divorce.
Natalie was determined not to let her second divorce upset her to distraction and worked hard on putting the past behind her and getting on with life. But first she had to work through the pain and abandonment she felt. Natalie decided to get away from all the press attention her second divorce was receiving and booked passage to Europe with Natasha. After a few weeks abroad, Natalie and her dear friend, Mart Crowley, returned home. She was intent on raising Natasha and making movies again, the last thing she expected was to fall in love again or marry, until Robert Wagner came back into her life!
But love was better the second time around, and on July 16th, 1972, (just four days before Natalie’s thirty-fourth birthday) she and Robert Wagner retied the knot. Natasha was then two and Katie was eight, they were the flower girls.
The career that once consumed her life now took a back seat to Natalie’s new role as wife and mother. Then, two years after her wedding, in March 1974, another treasure arrived. It was her second daughter, Courtney Brooke.
Natalie lived a life that most people can only dream. She had become a legend in her own time, and knew the joys of being a mother and wife. But the family’s paramount joy was about to become their ultimate sorrow as Natalie was destined to be like a candle burning bright, but not burning long!
After being a film star for over thirty-five years, Natalie Wood had found her deepest sense of purpose in a marriage and family and that’s what provided her with the love and acceptance she once looked for in a career. Natalie was truly excited about life; it was filled with new possibilities and the wonder of her children. Natasha says, "I think Mommy had a real zest for life. Everything mattered to her, you know, the holidays mattered to her, birthdays mattered. We were ‘it’ for her I think. I really think that!"
In November 1981, friends and family gathered at the Wagners’ house for Thanksgiving. As always, Natalie’s mother was there, despite the strains over the years, family ties bound her and her mother, but one family member, however, was missing. The year before, her father had died.
Natalie and R.J. had a lot to be thankful for during their ninth year of marriage. Natalie was working on Brainstorm, her forty-fifth film. In February she was going to star in Anastasia, her first stage play, and they were all enjoying the warmth and happiness of the holiday season.
On 27th November, after stormy weather had passed, R.J. and Natalie went out on their boat, The Splendour. Natasha pleaded with her not to go. Joining them was Christopher Walken, Natalie’s co-star from Brainstorm. Sometime after midnight on Saturday, November 28th, Natalie said goodnight to R.J. and left him talking to Walken on the main deck. That was the last time Robert Wagner would ever kiss her goodnight.
Somehow, Natalie accidentally slipped and fell overboard. When R.J. discovered that Natalie was missing, he called the authorities to help him search for her. The next morning, in the first hour of light, Natalie’s body was found. She had drowned.
Natasha remembers all too clearly how she felt after finding out of her mothers death. She says, "I don’t even think words now do that kind of intense grief justice. I know nothing like it, and I know that I never will!" Natalie’s youngest daughter, Courtney, also says, "I just know that it’s a big hole, and it’s missing, and I’m sure I will be able to find a way to fill it. But I think there will always be a longing for wanting to have a mother, you know, that I can just even call ‘Mommy’, you know, to her face!"
Robert Wagner was left with the bitter task of burying the mother of his children, and the woman who was his greatest love. How he managed his grief and carried on with two small children required every measure of strength he had, every ounce of hope. He says, "I just tried to get through the moment, get through the day, hoping that it would get better. I wondered many, many times, and sometimes still do, whether or not I can still go forward. But by the grace of god there’s a glue sometimes, and I also had a lot to go forward for. I had Courtney, and I had Natasha and I had a great love in my life. That’s a lot to be thankful for in one lifetime."
Natalie’s death was difficult to accept, and still is for her family. When she left for the boat that day, her children had every reason to believe when they kissed her goodbye, that they would see her soon, just like she promised.
But Natalie’s children will forever know a bitter sorrow, it is the irreplaceable loss of a mother taken from them in childhood, (Natasha was only 11 and Courtney, 7, when she died). What remains of her for them is kept alive on film, in photos and the memories of a short, but amazing life!
Courtney, Natalie’s youngest daughter, recalls dreaming of her mother. She says, "A lot of times, in my dreams for instance, she’ll come back and I’ll just think, ‘Oh God, you’re here. Where have you been?’ and she hasn’t been dead, she’s been somewhere else." Natasha also says she and Courtney find great comfort from their memories. "What I do when I feel really sad is, I always just look through the photo albums, and I always feel better because that’s such tangible memories of my relationship with her and how loved I felt by her," says Natasha.
For the man who loved her for most of her life, the feelings never go away. But the best parts of Natalie are forever alive in their children. Robert says, "One of my great regrets is that, one of the great sadness’ is that I would have her see what’s happening to our children. And maybe she is, who knows?"
Natalie Wood will forever be a part of American history, and the world over, immortalised as she is on film, but for her family, she will be loved and missed in every passing day. Their fondest memories are of the things she loved best: the springtime, the smell of gardenias, her incredible laugh, and her zest for life.