Submitted by Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
It must have been that scene from Splendor in the Grass. You know the one where she is called to “stand and deliver” by the Nurse Ratchet-like school marm on William Wordsworth’s poem Ode: Intimations of Immortality. It’s an uncomfortable, vulnerable, and powerful bit of celluloid as the emotionally torn teenage beauty struggles with life and youth lost, and then distraught bursts into tears only to flee the classroom. It seemed a requiem for the 60s, and the reason for the activism of its time. It’s a fair estimate of Wood’s own life, as well.
There was always just something about her. Natalie could capture a moment in time. Beautiful, talented, vivacious, and alluring but not in the crass, commercial, and overtly sexual way of her contemporaries Ann Margaret or Raquel Welch, Natalie Wood elegantly spanned the generations from pillbox hats through tie-dyed tee-shirts to the garish big hair/padded suits of the 80s. Her tragic death in 1981 from drowning was a genuine Hollywood tragedy but not in the duplicitous Kardashian fashion of today. It brought real melancholy to family, friends, and fans alike. It was as genuine as it was mysterious.
Married to actor Robert Wagner for the second time in what can only be described as a tumultuous relationship, she slipped below the waves of Avalon Bay near Catalina Island after falling from the couples rented yacht, or after venturing out in the cold water aboard the vessel’s dinghy. Take your pick.
Now police have re-opened the investigation of her death after 30 years, prompted in large measure by a 2009 book authored by the ship’s captain, Dennis Davern. Davern now says that Natalie went missing after a violent argument on-board with husband Robert Wagner, and that her spouse was none too interested in finding her. No frantic search by Wagner, no concern, no nothing, according to the captain. According to Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour, Davern believes her death was a result of the argument she had with Wagner.
Her body was found a mile from the yacht. The autopsy report shows Wood had two dozen bruises on her body, including a facial abrasion on her left cheek, and bruises on her arms. She was deathly afraid of water and drowning and some speculate the ruling of accidental death was wrong. As her sister, Lana Wood, says, “My sister was not a swimmer and did not know how to swim, and she would never go to another boat or to shore dressed in a nightgown and socks.” The younger sister does not suspect foul play and the police say they have ruled out Wagner as a suspect, but investigations follow evidence and not public announcements.
Some deaths capture our imaginations more than the life lost. This one shouldn’t. Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko to Russian immigrant parents of modest means, Natalie became a child star who somehow avoided the pitfalls of that curious life-style. Schooled only by watching movies in her mother’s lap, she developed a genuineness that others fail to master after years at Juilliard. She appeared with many of Hollywood’s great figures. At age 5, she captured the attention of the future black-listed actor/director, Irving Pichel (The Most Dangerous Game).
Pichel cast her against Orson Wells and Claudette Colbert in Tomorrow is Forever (1946), and her career was off. She would appear in 20 more films during her formative years with Gene Tierney, Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, Maureen O’Hara and most of the rest of Hollywood royalty. Off-stage and driven by her mother’s ambition and determination to avoid poverty, she was a straight-A student.
As a teenager she gave a command performance with screen legend, James Dean, in the iconic, Rebel Without A Cause (1955) for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Nomination. She starred opposite John Wayne in the classic Western, The Searchers (1956). In 1961, she’d play opposite Warren Beatty in her masterpiece, Splendor in the Grass, directed by Elia Kazan. She’d be nominated again for the Academy Award. Natalie even earned her stage cred playing Maria in West Side Story that same year, and then went on to star in the movie version of Gypsy.
Natalie was never self-absorbed. In 1966, when the editors of the bratish Harvard Lampoon awarded her its Worst Actress of the Year Award, she surprised them by becoming the first actor to appear in person to accept it. That earned her the respect of the Back Bay mafia who proclaimed her a “good sport.”
Wood was married three times – twice to Wagner, of whom she said she had a crush on since she was a teenager. She gave birth to two daughters. She’s interred at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in LA and her funeral was attended by scores of international journalist and celebrities.
Her grave marker says simply, “Natalie Wood Wagner Beloved sister, wife, mother and friend,1938-1981, More Than Love. ”
Some say these words from Wordsworth should be added:
- What though the radiance which was once so bright
- Be now for ever taken from my sight,
- Though nothing can bring back the hour
- Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
- We will grieve not, rather find
- Strength in what remains behind…
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger