Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Natalie Wood: Talent, Beauty, Mystery, And The Written Word

I think I was about thirteen when I first saw Natalie Wood in a film - back when channels like A&E and Bravo! actually aired older films and television shows before the former, especially, lapsed into the CSI fictional type programming and reality shows.
Something about her touched me deeply, and has continued to do so since.   Not long after having seen "Splendor In The Grass" (1961), "Rebel Without A Cause" (1955), "West Side Story" (1961) and "Inside Daisy Clover" (1965),  her E! True Hollywood Story aired, and it compelled me to learn as much about Natalie as I could. At the time, there was very little biographical information available, so I started with her sister Lana's book, "Natalie: A Memoir By Her Sister", and later followed it up with Suzanne Finstad's "Natasha: The Biography Of Natalie Wood", followed by "Natalie Wood: A Life" by the late Gavin Lambert and finally "Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendor" by Marti Rulli. I will be discussing my opinions and views on these four published works.

The first is Lana Wood's book, published in 1984,  which is very much auto-biographical, but still presents the complexity of their relationship as sisters and how devastated Lana was by Natalie's death.  Lana was relegated into the background by her mother, Maria, who lived vicariously through Natalie (Maria was a stage mother of the first order), ignoring her husband, Nikolai, who unfortunately found solace in alcohol in his defeat at asserting himself.  Looking back at Lana's book, there are some interesting recollections that seem to fit the later viewpoint that myself and many others have regarding Natalie's tragic death and her relationship with her husband, Robert Wagner.  I'll leave it at that in order not to give too much away, but let's just say that there were hints even then that things may have not been as they seemed.

Despite the tensions and disagreements between them, Natalie and Lana's sisterly bond remained, despite what some naysayers have tried to claim.  Lana did become an actress at an early age like Natalie, but she was a shy child and did not like to be pushed by her mother.  Self-conscious about her appearance, Lana had no real interest in acting until she was nearly grown.  Being Natalie Wood's sister opened doors, but also made things difficult when Lana had to prove that she had something of her own.  Lana will probably be remembered as Plenty O'Toole, the gorgeous, ill-fated Bond girl in "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971), although she did have a two-year run on the television soap opera "Peyton Place".

The book has some great photos in it, ranging from family pictures to Natalie and Lana together, and at different stages of their lives and careers.  Early on, Natalie became Lana's protector, shielding her from their mother's attempts to push her into acting and keeping young Lana's secrets. After Natalie married and left home, Lana ran away and stayed with her big sister.  Not surprisingly, though, Lana worshiped Natalie but was also jealous of her at times. Considering the mother they had and the environment they were raised in, it's not surprising.

 Both women had a lot of ups and downs in their lives and in their relationship with each other, but in the end they were reconciled, which is something of a comfort to Lana after Natalie's tragic passing.  "The person that I loved most in the world, with the exception of my daughter, is dead. I cry for Natalie often; I expect I always will."

  Lana concluded near the end of the book that she believed Natalie's death to be an accident, although in more recent years she has reconsidered her original viewpoint.  It's clear that she was devastated by her estrangement from her nieces, and Robert Wagner's treatment of her is more that just a little bit questionable. But more of that later on.  While Lana's book is flawed, it is an interesting read.  Considering this was the first book about Natalie I found, I do have a special fondness for it, but it's not really a biography of Natalie. It's Lana's recalling of her life events and some of Natalie's.  The photos are definitely worth it.

 In 2001, former lawyer Suzanne Finstad published "Natasha: The Biography Of Natalie Wood", composed of interviews with her sisters Olga and Lana, friends, co-stars and aquaintences.  Many agree that this is the definitive biography, although as with all Hollywood bios, one wonders how much is truth and what is myth.  I enjoyed the book very much and still read it several times a year.  It does capture the person behind the Natalie Wood image, revealing the little girl nicknamed Natasha who became a studio commodity, dominated by her stage mother, traumatized by many fears and phobias.  I have to say that the book is very uneven in how it presents Natalie's life - too much emphasis on her early and teen years and not a lot on her later life, although the chapters dealing with her death are quite detailed up to a point. Finstad was also quite repetitive in her vocabulary and usage throughout the book.

 I don't doubt that Natalie's childhood years were important in shaping the woman she was to become, and dealing with the tremendous pressure to act well and support her family is just too heavy a burden for any child to bear, but unfortunately, in the golden age of Hollywood that was often the way it was.  There's also no doubt in my mind that her mother instilled many of the fears and anxieties that would plague Natalie for many years to come.  Her father's weakness when it came to standing up to his wife often resulted in violent arguments between her parents and heavy drinking to numb his feeling of inadequacy.   Natalie did however have a God-given talent and ability to draw people in, to display vulnerability and depth beyond her years. And that was evident from her debut in "Happy Land" (1943) to her last film, "Brainstorm" (1983). 

 In her teens, Natalie began to rebel, which threatened Maria that her star child would leave home and leave the family without an income, and leave Mud (as Natalie called her) without her vicarious dreams.  Natalie also faced that awkward stage that often kills the careers of child stars; however, she managed to get the role of Judy in "Rebel Without A Cause" (1955), which earned Natalie her first Oscar nomination. Her close friendship with James Dean ended with his tragic death in a car crash on September 30, 1955, although she forever after cherished her memories of him. She credited him and Rebel director Nick Ray (with whom she had a brief romance during production), with turning her on to acting as something she enjoyed doing and taking seriously, rather than something she was expected to do.  Maria, however, was determined to keep Natalie in her control by telling her lies about sex and the gypsy premonition that Natalie needed to "beware of dark water".

Rebel also established Natalie as a teen idol, and her dates with Elvis Presley, hotel heir Nicky Hilton, Woolworth heir Lance Reventlow, fellow actors Dennis Hopper, Nick Adams, Perry Lopez, Robert Vaughn, Scott Marlowe, Raymond Burr and Tab Hunter - some publicity set-ups, others platonic and a few that were actually romantic - filled the magazines, presenting Natalie as a beautiful teen queen with an exciting life, but belying her exhaustive schedule of filming, public appearances, pressures of supporting her family and stifled by her mother's control and drive.  She also had to try to maintain her perfect public image by always being made up, sporting the latest fashions, and carefully crafting her persona as to present only the happy and positive side of stardom and family.  Throughout her life, Natalie maintained her star persona in public, and in her considerate and kind ways, didn't say a bad word against anyone.

Natalie and Robert Wagner, the "perfect" Hollywood couple, circa 1958

On her eighteenth birthday, July 20, 1956, Natalie had her first date with Robert Wagner (known as RJ to friends), whom she had had a crush on ever since they had crossed paths on the Fox lot when she was eleven years old.  No sparks flew then, as Natalie was still involved with Scott Marlowe, whom she planned to marry but the wedding fell through because of the opposition of Natalie's home studio, Warner Brothers, and Maria.  Eventually, Natalie and RJ began seeing each other, becoming intimate for the first time on Wagner's boat My Lady, and marrying in 1958.  They were a beautiful couple, and their lives seemed like a fairy tale, but Natalie had a hard time adjusting to married life, trying to keep her career going and please her husband and the public. Her mother warned her that Wagner was not what he seemed and that no good would come of the marriage (some of Natalie's friends gave her the same warning), but Natalie was deeply in love and wouldn't listen.  Although neither ever went public with what caused their divorce in 1961, it has been alleged that it was the combination of career problems and the fact that Natalie had discovered her husband's bisexuality (Wagner has denied this).

Despite her private battles, Natalie was at the peak of her career.  Her roles in "Splendor In The Grass" and "West Side Story" (both 1961), "Gypsy" (1962) and "Love With The Proper Stranger" (1963) brought her acclaim and two Oscar nominations.  She dated her Splendor co-star Warren Beatty, as well as other high-profile men such as Arthur Loew Jr, but none of these relationships ended in marriage.  She showed a flair for comedy in "Sex And The Single Girl" (1964), and "The Great Race"(1965).  She also formed a close friendship with Robert Redford, her leading man in "Inside Daisy Clover" (1965) and "This Property Is Condemned" (1966).  By the mid-sixties, however, her films had begun to fail at the box office. After a hushed-up suicide attempt, Natalie embarked on a personal journey to discover her true self. She met British producer Richard Gregson in 1966 and the couple married in 1969. Natalie had also made a triumphant comeback that year in the comedy "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" but acting was not her focus at this stage in her life.

In September 1970 she gave birth to her first child, Natasha.  In giving her daughter the name she had been robbed of she wanted her children to have a stable, loving childhood, unlike her own.  Unfortunately, her marriage to Gregson ended when she discovered his infidelity with her secretary.  She began bumping into RJ at parties and the two began to fall in love again.  Blissfully in love and confidant that this time their marriage would last, they married in 1972.  Content to work only occasionally in television, Natalie focused on her family.  She gave birth to her second daughter Courtney in 1974, naming her after the character she played in a TV movie opposite her husband.  Wagner, who had never been much of a film actor, had found success on his television series, "Hart To Hart".

When the girls started to go to school, Natalie began to contemplate a return to acting on a more full-time basis.  She and Wagner once again seemed to have the perfect marriage, enjoying their free time giving parties and entertaining friends, if not at home than aboard their boat, the Splendour.  By the time Natalie was shooting what would be her final movie, some began to notice that all was not well. Lana couldn't put her finger on it, but at the party the Wagners gave at their home on Thanksgiving seemed tense, and that was the last time she and Maria would see Natalie alive.  They were not allowed on the boat and Lana had stopped asking why.  On that particular weekend, their only guest on the Splendour was Natalie's Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken and the skipper, Dennis Davern.  The night before she drowned, Natalie had left the boat accompanied by Davern, after a row with Wagner.  He had been accusing her of having an affair with Walken. The following day she returned to the boat, asking Walken if he wanted to take a sea plane with her back to Los Angeles.  The quartet went to Doug's Harbor Reef for drinks, then returned to the Splendour. What happened that led up to her death is controversial and shrouded in mystery. Walken has very rarely spoken about that night, but what he has said has proven to be contradictory. Davern maintained his silence for a few years before he began to struggle to tell his story. Wagner has too given contradictory statements in the rare times he has chosen to speak on the matter.  By the end of the book Finstad shows that his behavior is odd and suspicious to say the least.  (More on that later).

Natasha was the first full length biography of Natalie to be published, and for that alone it deserves praise.  That's not to say that it is without its flaws but it is without an agenda and relatively unbiased. Robert Wagner refused to meet with Finstad and one wonders if he was avoiding confronting the allegations that arise in the book.  Apparently, stories about his sexuality as well as Natalie's alleged rape at the hands of a powerful actor/producer (who is not identified, but reading between the lines you can guess his identity), have been around long before the book was published. While some things in the book must be approached with caution and can't really be verified, it does make an interesting read. At times I almost felt that I was there,  witnessing the events of Natalie's life as they unfolded. Recommended.

 I was hesitant to read Gavin Lambert's bio of Natalie after reading the mostly negative reviews on Amazon.  I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt, but I found that I was every bit as disgusted, bored and annoyed by this book as many others, which compelled me to write my own less than favorable review.  First of all, the book reeks of Robert Wagner's influence and patronizing tone.  Also, it shows a trend that would continue in Wagner's autobiography, Pieces Of My Heart - "outing" actors of the 50s and 60s that Natalie knew, yet avoiding the underlying question of his own sexuality and behavior during his first marriage.  It's clear that Lambert's insulting comments towards Lana, Maria and Dennis Davern stem from Wagner's fear that he will be questioned and exposed in what transpired on that fateful November night in 1981.  Lambert also threw in the "questionable paternity" of Natalie and Lana,  alleging that George Cetalopv, a Russian sea captain, was their real father.  There is no DNA evidence to support this theory, despite Cetalopv's daughter Natasha Lofft making an appearance in the book and her going on and on about how much she and Natalie resembled each other.  It seemed she was trying to get her 15 minutes of fame - the fact that she wanted to be related to Natalie but not to Lana speaks volumes.
Natalie and Lana loved Nick (Fahd, and Natalie called him, Pop, as Lana did), so for Lambert to make those claims was very cruel and hurtful.
As with Natasha, Natalie's relationship with her family plays a large part in the book, but the result is less interesting and much more vicious.  Maria, due to her fanciful superstitions and domination over Natalie comes off very badly, but Lana is treated even more horribly throughout, accused of being money-hungry and attention-seeking, ironic when one takes into consideration that Natalie paid off Wagner's debts upon their second marriage, and despite his later success on television he displayed jealousy over Natalie's career and rode on the coattails of her fame.  The latter of that statement is my opinion, anyway.

 Lambert wrote the screenplay of Natalie's film "Inside Daisy Clover" and was a social friend of her and RJ for years, but that alone does not qualify someone to write a biography.  Whether much of the book is Lambert's opinions or Wagner's influence can't be determined, but he was definitely writing it for Wagner, not Natalie.  He tried to portray Wagner as some knight in shining armor who put up with so much during his marriages to Natalie - I literally felt like cuing the violins when Wagner, through Lambert, seems to act as if he was some kind of saint to endure Natalie and her family.  The fact that the book tried to say that Natalie had a compromised liver due to drinking (which is contradicted by her autopsy report, stating her liver was healthy), and accuses her of "swishing her tail" is enough to take this drivel with a grain of salt.  Also, Lambert inadvertently showed that Wagner does have a violent and jealous side, such as the smashing of the wine bottle on that night (which Wagner admitted to after years of denying it).

Wagner also seemed threatened that Natalie wanted to return to work, no doubt fearing that she would overshadow him as she had in their first marriage. While Wagner had a successful run on TV in the 70s, he has never really been much of a film actor.  Natalie was already an established star and accomplished actor when they met.  The night of her death as described by Lambert made no sense at all, trying to tie up loose ends in a hasty manner in order to try to maintain that it was no more than a tragic accident.  It seems that Lambert was also very lazy in his research. He relied heavily on e-mails and telephone conversations, which makes one wonder just how many people who knew Natalie really cared to participate. As many fans have said of Natalie Wood: A Life, Natalie deserves better. So does the reader.  The photos are the only saving grace.

At long last, a book that confronts and investigates the night that Natalie died, what led up to it and what came after.  While Suzanne Finstad did make an effort to shed light on it, Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour is the book that dares to expose as much of the truth as possible, thanks to author Marti Rulli's detailed research and her long friendship with Dennis Davern, who was onboard the Splendour that weekend.  Rulli also shows that Davern has been unfairly portrayed as a fame-seeker, when he in fact anguished for years over that night and was torn between his loyalty to his boss (Robert Wagner), and his concern for Natalie.  The book is not a quick read, but an engrossing one, in which Rulli also shows how Wagner has lied and omitted many things over the years, worried about maintaining his image but not the welfare of his supposed "true love" and the mother of his child.  He maintains that he didn't start seeing Jill St. John until six months after Natalie's death, when it has been recorded that he was out with her on Valentine's Day 1982, not even two months after Natalie's death.  And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

"It always seemed that Natalie could live with or without RJ, and RJ needed Natalie more than she needed him.  Everyone in Natalie's world, including RJ, depended on Natalie, for many reasons," Davern told Rulli.  Previous works have downplayed the fact that Davern was a close family friend who was present on Splendour outings and was close with both Natalie and Wagner. Davern's late brother, Paul, was also part of the group. Wagner kept Davern near him for the first few years after Natalie's death and even found him work, then as Davern began to distance himself Wagner turned against him. Very similar in that when Lana told him that she believed him when he said that her sister's death was an accident, he cut her out of her nieces' lives.  If Wagner has nothing to hide, why does he go out of his way to ignore and insult both Davern and Lana? Lana was not there that night, neither was Natalie's longtime friend and hairstylist, Ginger Blymer, but he cleary perceives them as  threat.

In spite of her fear of water, Natalie did like boats - or learned to like them since RJ always had one. It was haven at times, away from agents, the press and studio heads.  But from some accounts, finding herself isolated with her husband presented problems too. While Davern maintains that he did not see how Natalie ended up in the water, he does know that she and Wagner were having an argument near the boat's swim step.  The coroner noted that Natalie had half a dozen bruises on her body, some on her face, which could not have been caused by the dingy, although Wagner has tried to maintain that Natalie fell in the ocean while trying to adjust it. She was also not drunk, something that Wagner has always hinted at. Wagner himself admits to having had a drinking problem, which makes the picture of that night very vivid.  The banging dingy theory has been discredited by Rulli, and Davern has passed a polygraph and undergone hypnosis in order to recall events of that night that his subconscious may have suppressed.

Rulli has confirmed that nothing Davern has said has proven untruthful, while Wagner's statements and lies have been overlooked, perhaps deliberately.  And no one calls him on it. His lawyers threatened to sue Rulli if the book was published but as soon as it was - nothing.  Maybe because they know he can't really refute anything without giving himself away or putting him in the position of answering detailed questions that he doesn't want to answer. Marilyn Wayne, who overheard Natalie's cries for help and a man's mocking voice in response, tried to tell the authorities what she heard and she was ignored. She also claims to have received threatening notes to ensure her silence. Wagner admitted that he didn't bother to call the Coast Guard until 1:30 am, roughly two hours after he first noticed that Natalie was missing. Davern wanted to call for help right away but Wagner stopped him.  Why did he wait so long to get help? Wagner told authorities he figured that Natalie had gone off to join a party on another boat, and considering she was found in her nightgown makes that suggestion ridiculous. As is the claim that she would have driven the dingy in the middle of the night. Given her fear of dark sea water, that notion is nonsense. Yet, to this day, everyone tiptoes around Wagner as if on eggshells.  He rarely speaks of Natalie unless he is tricked into it or it is on his terms.  Davern and Rulli, by contrast, have struggled for years to get to the truth and reveal it.

There are many more details in Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour that can't possibly all be divulged here but in a way I don't want to give away anymore - I recommend this book the most if you want a clearer picture of what happened the night that Natalie left this world, and how terrifying it must have been for her to realize that she had fallen victim to her worst fear -  drowning in the ocean, and the no one was coming to rescue her.  Many are hoping that this case will be re-opened and that a real investigation will be conducted (the mockery of the one that originally was, was shall we say, hopelessly botched), and that there will be justice for Natalie.


I want to conclude this post with a reminder of just what the world - and her loved ones lost on that terrible night.  Natalie was an actress who worked hard for her status in the film world, but also was a kind, gentle person who never lost the endearing qualities she showed from the moment she first appeared onscreen.  Perhaps I'm biased somewhat in my opinions on these four books, but I don't apologize for being a Natalie fan first.  Her work lives on, even though she was taken far too early. She was a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, and a friend to many, and she meant a lot to many fans.
The Cover Girl

                                The Clown

                           The Fashion Icon


                               The Actress

 The Woman

                              The Mother

                          The Unforgettable


  1. TOTALLY agree with All OF YOUR REVIEWS on these books about Natalie! I've been following Natalie for years, her life, her death. When I read Marti Rulli's book, I'd been forever changed. I appreciate your "look" at Natalie and you have left her a FITTING place on your blog! Thank you so much for your kindness and love for Natalie. We all miss her so....Justice will prevail!

  2. Thank you very much - it looks like our hopes and prayers may be answered!

  3. natalie wood is my all time favorite actress. thank you.

  4. i first saw natalie in marjorie morningstar when i was 12 years old. i thought she was breathtakingly beautiful. i cried so hard when i heard about her death. i didnt know her but somehow she had been family since i was 12. i will always remember natalie wood.