Her life and career seem so distant now — a blur of black-and-white glamour shots that come into focus mostly whenever the tabloids ghoulishly rehash her ending. But on Thanksgiving weekend of 1981, the death of Natalie Wood came as a shock. At 43, she was still a vital presence in celebrity culture — a youthful link to Hollywood’s Golden Age, whom the world had watched grow up from an adorable kid star to a sultry leading lady.
And yes, there was the way she died — drowned in the Pacific Ocean off Santa Catalina Island, after a evening on her yacht with husband Robert Wagner and co-star Christopher Walken. There was alcohol, and there was a fight, Wagner later wrote, but investigators could never determine how she ended up in the water. More than 30 years later, the Los Angeles County coroner’s office reopened the case and changed the cause of death from “accidental” to “undetermined” but reasserted that Wagner is not a suspect.
In The Washington Post, her death prompted a front-page acknowledgement, a lengthy obituary and a bittersweet tribute by critic Tom Shales. We’ve republished the original stories below.
Natalie Wood: The Storybook Beauty Of a Hollywood Star
By Tom Shales
Nov. 30, 1981
What is sadder than a beautiful woman dying young? Natalie Wood was able to remain a beautiful young woman through three decades of fantasy on the movie screen. Yesterday, her body was found floating in the Pacific Ocean off Catalina Island.
When a movie star dies, all kinds of memories well up — not only of screen roles and whatever part of the star’s private life went public, but also of ways these distant visions and separate lives interacted with our own. In the ’50s, Natalie Wood was an ultimate idealized teenager to girls who wanted to be like her and to boys who may have found in her one of their first raging erotic fixations.
She stayed beautiful, she stayed gorgeous; she was never anything so minimal as merely a sex symbol, and yet it would be hard to sustain the contention that she was a great actress. Like others who make mysteriously indelible impressions on the mind and dream-life of the mass audience, she was a great movie star — on occasion, a scintillating presence, and Hollywood royalty for the first rock ‘n’ roll generation.
And even though millions grew up with her, and watched her grow up on the screen, she seemed incurably youthful and, at heart, incorrigibly naughty — the good girl with the bad girl inside. Her death at the age of 43, apparently by drowning, seems all the sadder and more of a cheat because of that youthfulness, and yet it ensures that there will never be a photographic image of her, anywhere, in which she looks old or spent or without that teasing insouciance.
Movies can bestow not only immortality of a sort, but eternal youth of a sort.
Although not a particularly potent box office force in recent years, Miss Wood remained within the peripheral vision of the public eye, and repeatedly would snap back into focus. In a 1979 NBC remake of “From Here to Eternity,” she was the principal and perhaps sole source of electricity as she played the sex-starved wife of an Army officer at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Her dark Russian eyes were beckoningly provocative, and the film’s first scene was one in which she sauntered teasingly across the Army base, followed religiously by men’s admiring eyes.
She could still be the best of the bad girls.
Miss Wood made the transition not only from child star to national teenager, but from ingenue to leading lady. In the ’40s, she appeared to be 20th Century-Fox’s answer to MGM’s enormously popular Margaret O’Brien when she played the trusting little girl who melts a cynical mother’s heart in “Miracle on 34th Street,” the Santa Claus movie now making its annual holiday appearances on local television (Jack Albertson, also recently deceased, has a small role as a post office worker).
Then, in the mid-’50s, she played the teenager fascinated by the enigmatic broodings of James Dean — a surrogate for all the girls in the audience — in “Rebel Without a Cause,” which galvanized a generation and helped give it an identity. She looked up at Dean with the same worshipful eyes with which she’d looked up at Santa, but now there was something new in them.
By the time of her best film, “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), she was ready to leave the ranks of adolescence with one last histrionic display — a sensational bathtub scene in which, as a love-struck high school student, she responds to her mother’s obsessive anxiety over her virginity with shrieks and splashes and shouts. It was a shocker, especially after a series of innocuous roles. The film was set in the past, but it and the performances confirmed to every kid who saw it the great truth of youth: that adults know nothing about love.
In 1976, Miss Wood and her movie-magazine husband, Robert Wagner, visited Washington to promote an upcoming TV production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in which they appeared with Laurence Olivier. It was a terrible show, but Miss Wood looked magnificent in a silk slip as Maggie the Cat.
In their hotel room, the couple, who had once divorced and later remarried (as if to obey a plebiscite of movie fans), ate gooey reuben sandwiches and talked in pleasingly superficial terms about their lives and careers. They radiated well-being and the Hollywood version of class; they still seemed entranced by how well they looked together and how their romance had assumed the storybook qualities of a romantic movie.
Miss Wood wore a white suit that day, and gold chains around her neck — from one of which dangled a plump red heart — and her deep brown eyes were completely outlined in black, so that they were the first things you saw when you walked into the room, and would have been even if a brass band had been playing in one corner. There was chit-chat about family life in Beverly Hills and about show business. Miss Wood was saucy, and shiny, and down to earth.
She said she couldn’t remember all the films she had made, especially those of her childhood. “Even though I don’t really remember ‘Tomorrow is Forever’ (1946) , I remember Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert very vividly,” she said, smiling. “Tab Hunter and I did one called ‘The Burning Hills,’ and I had to do this hilarious line lapsing into a mock-Spanish accent , ‘You doity gringoes! You turn dis town into a scorpions’ nest!’ ” She laughed. “That makes us break up so much, we’d hate to see the movie disappear.”
And she recalled having just shown “Miracle on 34th Street” to her own children, denying a published report that they’d hated the film. “No, they just got a little bored. The only people terribly moved by it were our parents. When the lights came up, there were tears streaming down their cheeks.” Wagner was asked then if there were anything about his life with Natalie Wood that he would like to change. He said, “Not a thing that I can think of.”
It’s going to be awfully hard now to watch reruns of “Splendor in the Grass” on television and not get even more depressed than the movie is supposed to make you anyway, especially in the last scene, when Miss Wood’s voice on the soundtrack — over a shot of her walking away, smiling bravely, from the great love of her life — recites again from Wordsworth:
“Though nothing can bring back the hour, of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower; We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.”
Natalie Wood, Actress, Found Dead in Ocean
By J. Y. Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Nov. 30, 1981
The body of Natalie Wood, who started her career a child star and grew into an actress who played leading roles in such hits as “Rebel Without a Cause,” “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” was found Sunday floating in the ocean near Catalina Island off the California coast. She was 43.
Officials said Miss Wood apparently drowned, but that an autopsy will be conducted to determine the cause of death. The actress and her husband, Robert Wagner, a star of the “Hart to Hart” television series, were spending the weekend on Wagner’s yacht.
Miss Wood was reported missing from the yacht about midnight Saturday, officials said, shortly after she, Wagner and some friends had returned from dinner on the island, located 26 miles southwest of Los Angeles.
This conflicted with an earlier statement by island harbor authorities who said that, after dinner, Miss Wood disappeared while trying to pilot a small inflatable power boat back to the yacht alone. Sheriff’s deputies said last night that this report was incorrect.
After an 8-hour search, her body was found about 200 yards from shore near the power boat, which she apparently had used to leave the yacht.
“She went out in the boat by herself and slipped off or fell off or jumped off,” said Lt. Gary Crum of the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Service. Officials said an investigation was continuing.
Miss Wood was working on the filming of “Brainstorm,” a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production in which she starred with Christopher Walken, Louise Fletcher and Cliff Robertson, at the time of her death.
The death of another star more than 25 years ago had an important effect on Miss Wood’s own career. He was James Dean, the teen-age idol of the 1950s. Shortly after the completion of “Rebel Without a Cause,” in which he played a juvenile delinquent, he was killed in an automobile accident. His death attracted enormous publicity for the film, in which Miss Wood, then 16, and Sal Mineo were the other stars.
“When Jimmy Dean died, the teenagers made him a martyr and latched on to Wood and Mineo. . . . Anyway, the fan mail began coming in. So we signed Natalie,” said a Warner Brothers executive.
Miss Wood was nominated for the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her work in “Rebel.” In the next 10 years, she made a number of notable films, including “Marjorie Morningstar” (1957), which was based on the Herman Wouk novel about a Jewish girl in Protestant society in New York and in which she played opposite Gene Kelly; “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), in which she played opposite Warren Beatty and for which she received another Academy Award nomination; “West Side Story” (also 1961), the Romeo-and-Juliet story set among the street gangs of New York; “Gypsy” (1961), in which she portrayed Gypsy Rose Lee, the legendary stripper; “Love With the Proper Stranger” (1964), with Steve McQueen, which got her a third Academy Award nomination; “The Great Race” (1965), with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, and “Inside Daisy Clover” and “Penelope,” both in 1966 and both milestones in Robert Redford’s rise to stardom.
Miss Wood’s television appearances included “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” which was produced by Sir Laurence Olivier and for which she received an Emmy nomination, and “From Here to Eternity,” for which she won a Golden Globe award.
Along the way, Miss Wood made a solid if unspectacular reputation. She was petite, dark-eyed and beautiful, a nice girl, but a bit too flashy, perhaps, to play the girl next door. “Maybe I’m not given credit for being an actress by the press,” she once said, “But the industry takes me seriously. Most directors know I haven’t forgotten I’m an actress.” The Harvard Lampoon, an undergraduate humor publication, twice gave her its “Roscoe” award for the worst performance of the year. In 1966, the magazine renamed it “The Natalie Wood Award” and the actress was on hand for its presentation.
Her own disclaimers and the Lampoon notwithstanding, Miss Wood could go along with such stunts because her talent had become recognized. Writing of “Splendor in the Grass,” which was based on a William Inge play about a girl in a small Midwestern town who loses the local rich boy and her sanity and who eventually develops a new understanding of herself, a reviewer in Newsweek magazine said:
“After years of vacuous popularity Miss Wood suddenly finds herself being taken seriously.”
Bosley Crowther said of the film in The New York Times: “Miss Wood has a beauty and radiance that carry her through a role of violent passions and depressions with unsullied purity and strength. There is poetry in her performance.”
Apart from such praise, Miss Wood also garnered a fortune. At one time, she commanded $250,000 for each film. In 1969, when she appeared in “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” a critical and popular success about wife-swapping in Beverly Hills, she received a percentage of the picture’s gross. Her earnings from the venture were said to be $2 million.
Despite her fame and fortune, all was not easy for Miss Wood. At one point she was suspended by Warner Brothers. The studio said the dispute involved salary. Miss Wood said the problem was parts.
“You get tough in this business, until you get big enough to hire people to get tough for you,” she said in an interview about that time. “Then you can sit back and be a lady.”
Born Natasha Gurdin in San Francisco on July 20, 1938, Miss Wood was one of three children born to Russian immigrants. Her father, Nicholas Gurdin, was an architect who turned to set decoration in this country. Her mother, Maria, was a former ballerina. When Natasha was 4 years old, the family moved to Santa Rosa, Calif. It was there that the child and her mother got bit parts in a film called “Happy Land.”
The director, Irving Pichel, remembered the little girl’s walk-on when he was making “Tomorrow Is Forever” in 1946 and gave her a part. She played a child who is adopted by Orson Welles, who later said that “she was so good she was terrifying.” The film’s producers changed her name to Natalie Wood.
Miss Wood was put under a contract earning $1,000 a week. In 1946, she appeared in “The Bride Wore Boots.” A year later, she played the little girl who came to believe in Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street,” which has become a perennial favorite.
In 1956, Miss Wood married Robert Wagner after a widely publicized romance. The couple settled down in a Beverly Hills mansion equipped with “his” and “her” swimming pools. The marriage ended five years later. In 1969, Miss Wood married Richard Gregson, a film executive. They had a daughter, Natasha. That marriage ended in divorce. On July 16, 1972, Miss Wood and Wagner were remarried on a yacht off the California coast. They had one daughter, Courtney.
“We had each other in our youth,” Miss Wood once said of her relationship with her husband, “and now we have each other in our prime.”
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