Natalie Wood’s movie career began at the age of four and ended too soon in an accidental drowning when she was forty-three. Her birth name was Natalia Zakharenko, and she was born in San Francisco on July 20, 1938, to Russian immigrants Nikolai Zakharenko, an architect, and his wife, Maria, a ballet dancer. (Natalie’s sister, Svetlana, was born eight years later, in 1946, and became known as Lana Wood, an actress and producer.) Nikolai and Maria changed their surname to Gurdin while Natalie was an infant. The family soon moved north to Santa Rosa, where Maria, determined to make her beautiful four-year-old daughter a star, took Natalie to an audition for “extra” work on a Don Ameche film called Happy Land, which was shooting locally. “Natasha Gurdin” (Natasha is the diminutive of Natalia) was cast in the uncredited role of a little girl who drops her ice cream, which was all the encouragement Maria needed to insist that the family move to Hollywood to pursue her child’s destiny as an actress.
Maria happened to be right. Warner Bros. quickly changed Natasha Gurdin to Natalie Wood and cast the seven-year-old as a German orphan in Tomorrow Is Forever with Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert, which was immediately followed by The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, starring Rex Harrison and directed by the esteemed Joseph Mankiewicz. Next came the classic Miracle on 34th Street, in which she played the little girl who doubted Santa Claus, securing her reputation as the favorite new child star in Hollywood. By the age of sixteen she’d appeared in twenty films, working with some of the biggest names in the business.
Natalie Wood was one of the few child stars who made a graceful transition into the teen years, and at the age of sixteen she was cast in a role that brought her her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress: costarring with up-and-coming superstars James Dean and Sal Mineo in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. Eager to reach adulthood offscreen as well, she dated the film’s director, Nicholas Ray, twenty-five years older than she, moving on from him to actor Scott Marlowe and from Marlowe to a rising rock-and-roll star named Elvis Presley. And then along came Robert Wagner.
Natalie told the story that when she was ten years old, she saw the handsome eighteen-year-old actor walking down a hallway at Twentieth Century Fox; she turned to her mother and announced, “I’m going to marry him.” On her eighteenth birthday she went on her first date with Robert Wagner, who was twenty-six by then, and they were married on December 28, 1957. They separated in 1961 and were divorced in 1962, but that was far from the end of their story.
Natalie was then cast in The Searchers, a John Ford western starring John Wayne. Natalie still found time to graduate from Van Nuys High School in 1956, which paled in comparison to the Golden Globe Award she won in 1957 that proclaimed her “New Star of the Year (Actress).” After a role in 1958’s Marjorie Morningstar opposite Gene Kelly, Natalie starred in one of her most memorable films, Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass, with the wildly popular Warren Beatty, which earned her a second Academy Award nomination. She established herself as a versatile talent in 1961’s film version of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and a year later in Gypsy. Her third Oscar nomination came in 1963 for Love with the Proper Stranger opposite heartthrob Steve McQueen.
Her professional life was clearly thriving in the early 1960s, but she was losing her struggle to successfully balance marriage and a career. The strain became worse when her marriage went through a rocky patch, and Natalie filed for divorce. She then found herself in a string of box-office failures and, during the summer of 1966, after slipping into a deep depression, she overdosed on sleeping pills in what she admitted was a failed suicide attempt.
By the time 1969 rolled around she’d not only recovered, but was beginning to thrive again. She starred in the highly acclaimed
Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice with Robert Culp, Elliot Gould, and Dyan Cannon, and she married Richard Gregson, a successful British producer and agent, whom she’d dated for two years. Their daughter, Natasha, was born on September 29, 1970, and Natalie seemed to have found the stable family life she’d been looking for since childhood. Sadly, in 1971, she reportedly overheard an inappropriate and unmistakably intimate phone conversation between her husband and her secretary. Feeling doubly betrayed, she fired her secretary and filed for divorce.
Several months later, in early 1972, she ran into her ex-husband, Robert Wagner, at a party, and they resumed their relationship. Three months after her divorce from Richard Gregson was final, Natalie Wood remarried Robert Wagner in Malibu on July 16, 1972. Their daughter, Courtney, was born on March 9, 1974, and their marriage lasted until the premature end of Natalie’s life. Not wanting to repeat the experience of stressfully juggling marriage and career, Natalie focused the majority of her attention on her husband and daughter and only accepted the television version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
with Laurence Olivier in 1976 when her husband was signed to star right along with her.
In 1979 she won a Best Actress Golden Globe Award for the miniseries From Here to Eternity, but her next two feature films were unsuccessful both critically and financially. Eager to get her career back on track, Natalie had high hopes for her next film commitment, a science fiction thriller called Brainstorm.
Location work in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Brainstorm finished at the end of October 1981, and the cast and crew returned to Los Angeles in November to film interior scenes. On November 28, Natalie, Robert Wagner, and Natalie’s Brainstorm costar Christopher Walken sailed to Catalina Island aboard the Wagners’ yacht Splendor. Late on the night of November 29, Natalie disappeared from the yacht. Frantic and distraught, Wagner alerted the Coast Guard, who, after an all-night search, found the body of Natalie Wood two hundred yards offshore, still wrapped in the down-filled coat and wool sweater she’d been wearing when she was last seen onboard.
Hollywood and the tabloids shifted into high gear, breathlessly sharing every possible sensational story that could be dreamed up about a sudden death, a yacht in the dark of night, and three Hollywood stars. But after the autopsy and a police investigation, the sad conclusion was a simple one: Natalie, after several glasses of wine, had gone to the yacht’s dinghy, either to board it or to secure it more tightly to the side of the boat; intoxicated, she slipped overboard. She was a poor swimmer with a lifelong terror of dark water, so she panicked, tried unsuccessfully to climb into the dinghy with her heavy, wet coat and sweater pulling her down, drifted too far away from the yacht for her cries to be heard, and drowned in the Pacific near the Catalina coast.
In the aftermath of Natalie Wood’s shockingly premature death at the age of forty-three, Brainstorm was finished with a revised ending, a stand-in, and some sleight-of-hand with camera angles. It was released in 1983 and was neither a critical nor a commercial success, but it’s still valued as the last work of one of Hollywood’s favorite, most memorable stars. She was laid to rest in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.
Natalie made the transition from earth to the Other Side instantaneously, but she was understandably stunned to find herself emerging from the tunnel after such a sudden death. She was welcomed Home by her old friend and costar Steve McQueen (a new arrival himself) and by a tiny woman who, as all spirits do here, greeted her as she’d appeared on earth to make sure Natalie would recognize her: long steel-gray hair pulled tightly up into a topknot, large deep-set eyes, a rather prominent nose and thin lips. (Natalie says her family will know immediately who the woman is from this description.) As emotionally sensitive as Natalie was during her last lifetime, she was watched carefully during her time at the Scanning Machine, but she made a quick, peaceful adjustment to being Home and was so eager to resume her life on the Other Side that cocooning wasn’t necessary.
While no one on earth is allowed to see the chart they wrote for any given lifetime until they’ve returned from that lifetime, there are those who are uniquely able to remember fragments of their charts without being aware that that’s what they’re doing.
Natalie was one of those people. She knew at the age of ten, on seeing Robert Wagner for the first time, that he was the man she’d charted herself to marry—not once, but twice. And her lifelong fear of dark water was a memory of having written an Exit Point into her chart involving dark water. In fact, if you talk to those who were closest to her, you’ll find that she was often extraordinarily intuitive. It was part of her strength and part of her fragility.
She wants her daughters to know that not a day goes by when she doesn’t visit them, especially when they’re “alone” in their cars. She says they taught her about love and priorities, and nothing in this world meant more to her than being their mother.
She also wants to assure them that she’s at peace about the night she died and that “everyone who matters knows everything they need to know about what happened.” Beyond that, there’s nothing more to say, and she’s very happy that they were able to move on and grow into such successful, beautiful, interesting women.
Her life at Home is, of course, blissfully busy. She loves to socialize with her many cherished friends from her most recent lifetime—Steve McQueen, James Dean, Elvis Presley, Sal Mineo, Bette Davis, and a British woman named Judy Fox, to whom she seems especially close—as well as loved ones from her twenty-three past incarnations. She both performs and teaches ballet, and she’s also training to work in the cocooning chambers. She has no intention of incarnating again, but she does intend to become a Spirit Guide for an acquaintance on the Other Side who’s preparing for another lifetime and has chosen life themes identical to those Natalie just experienced, Rejection and Aesthetic Pursuits.