Natalie Wood

Reflections on a Legendary Life


By Manoah Bowman

With Natasha Gregson Wagner

Foreword by Robert Wagner

Afterword by Robert Redford

Photographs by Robert Redford

Contributions by Sloan De Forest

By Turner Classic Movies

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As a child actor who smoothly transitioned to adult stardom, Natalie Wood made an unforgettable impact on the world with her sensitive performances and her spectacular beauty. In a span of less than twenty years, her talent graced a dozen classics, including Miracle on 34th Street, The Searchers, Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass, West Side Story, and Gypsy, earning her three Oscar nominations and two Golden Globes. Few actresses in Hollywood history have carved out careers as diverse and rich as Natalie Wood’s, and few have touched as many hearts in a tragically short lifetime.

Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life boldly redefines Natalie not by her tragic death, but by her extraordinary life. This is the first family-authorized photographic study of Natalie Wood, and the first book to examine her glamorous film career as well as her private off-screen life as a wife and mother. Highlights include a special section on the making of West Side Story, a foreword by her husband Robert Wagner, a family album with never-before-seen snapshots captioned by daughter Courtney Wagner, an unpublished article written by Natalie in her own words, and an afterword by friend and costar Robert Redford. Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life will change the way the world remembers a Hollywood legend.




What makes someone a star? There is an indefinable quality, an x-factor I can only describe as a brilliant light that glows from within. It is not something that can be bought or artificially manufactured, but a god-given attribute. The first time I met Natalie Wood, I knew she had it. She was seventeen and in the glow of her post-Rebel Without a Cause fame. She had a reputation at the time for being wild, and she seemed fascinating to me. Her thousand-watt flame drew a lot of moths. I was one of them.

I had known plenty of attractive women, but she was special. Joyous, vivacious, humorous—her humor was so infectious. People naturally gravitated to her. Later, I found out that she’d had a childhood crush on me when we were both under contract at Fox, but I was unaware of it at the time. In 1956, we met at a fashion show at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and I asked her to a screening of a picture I did with Spencer Tracy at Paramount, The Mountain. We just hit it off, and our relationship grew from there. As I fell in love with Natalie the woman, I also came to love and respect Natalie the actress. In her best work, she is extraordinary, and even in her lesser films, you can’t take your eyes off of her.

It amazes me to think that she was discovered when she was six years old and brought to Hollywood. They dyed her hair blonde, told her to speak with a German accent, and suddenly there she was on the movie screen with Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert. How does that happen? That is god-given talent. It has to be. It has to come from someplace. When you watch her as a child in her first film, Tomorrow Is Forever, you can see she had a real concept of what she was doing. Yes, she was being directed, but she had to receive that direction. She had to be able to take the director’s guidance and use her own ability to make that process work. She had a gift.

The newlywed Wagners, 1958.

She also had what it took to break away from her child roles and her oppressive parents and strike out on her own. Going from a child actress to an ingénue to a leading lady is not easy. Natalie was very much aware of how important Rebel was when she was up for the role. Man, did she want that, and she did everything to get it. During that time, she went to New York and did live TV shows, stretching all the time trying to find herself, and when she found her strength as an artist, she was on pretty solid ground.

She had the drive, the desire—she wanted more than anything to be a great actress. When she got the part of Deanie in Splendor in the Grass, working with Elia Kazan and William Inge, everything just clicked. The character of Deanie Loomis was perfect for her. She did tremendous work in Splendor, and evolved into one of the finest actresses ever on the screen.

Natalie and I shared a truly magical love affair. When we married in 1957, we made a pact that we would never do a film together, but broke it with All the Fine Young Cannibals. Though the movie turned out disappointing, the experience of acting with Natalie was wonderful. We worked together, lived together, and were in sync emotionally, mentally, and physically. It was worth breaking our pact.

When she started West Side Story right after Splendor, there was so much pressure on her, and on our marriage, which started to crumble at the same time her career was hitting its zenith. We were separated and in the midst of divorce proceedings when she was nominated for an Academy Award for Splendor in the spring of 1962. I sent her a note that read, in part:

You were great in the film, and should and do deserve to get the award. I know it’s what you’ve always wanted and wished for and now it’s all coming true. The work and the dreams are there, and as you probably know you’ve got my vote. My thoughts will be with you and for you on Oscar night and believe me, Nat, I hope with all my heart that when they open up the envelope, it’s you.

Natalie did not win that night; Sophia Loren received the Oscar for Two Women. Sophia’s performance was certainly award-worthy, but I sometimes wonder. If Natalie’s name had been in the envelope, would she be a cinema legend today the way Sophia Loren is? Or Audrey Hepburn? Would her talent be better remembered and appreciated today? Probably.

After we broke up, I spent years trying to move on, but she was never out of my heart for a minute. She was everything to me. It was such an exciting experience to have a second chance with Natalie, to come back together and get married all over again. Her sensitivity, her warmth and sincerity, those are the things that drew me to her—the same qualities that drew fans to her films.

As a performer, I remain in awe of the energy she brought to her roles, and the effort she put into creating a character. She tried very hard to get out of her own way and let the character take over. My favorite piece of work that she did is This Property Is Condemned. She had a profound sense of story and of character arc, and she used those gifts to bring Alva to life. Before she left us, she was going to do Anastasia on the stage, and I think that would have been very exciting, to see how her talent would have evolved in live theater.

Looking back at her career, she played such a variety of roles, and yet the star quality is always there, in every character. The light that burned within Natalie was so magnificently bright, so strong, I thought it would go on burning forever. I could not imagine that light ever being switched off. When we lost her, a big piece of me was taken away. The personal loss was indescribable, and professionally, the world lost an extraordinary talent.

Yet, I know that her light is not really dimmed, because I still see it flashing. I see it within our daughters, Courtney and Natasha, and in our granddaughter, Clover. Sometimes when I look at Natasha, she looks so much like Natalie that memories come leaping back and I’m overwhelmed. I also see Natalie’s inner light shining on the screen in her movies. I can feel it. I can sense it. And I feel very happy knowing that her spirit endures.

Wedding portrait, July 1972.

Natalie Wood, October 1974. Photo by Michael Childers.


“I don’t think anyone, not even Marilyn Monroe, touched as many hearts as this beautiful actress whom so many Americans watched grow up and felt they knew.”

  —Danny Peary, 1991

“Ever since her drowning death off Catalina in 1981, Natalie Wood has been slowly easing into that limbo populated by stars who don’t transcend their period.”

  —Scott Eyman, 2004

While the above two quotes may seem some-what incongruous, they do a stellar job of not only expressing an important contradiction inherent in Natalie Wood’s life, career, and memory, but also of explaining the purpose of this unique book.

One of the cruelest ironies of Natalie’s untimely passing is that her accidental death would eventually overshadow her extraordinary life—a life of deliberate actions, a journey that was far from accidental. A rather unfortunate byproduct of this contradiction is that she is now remembered more for joining the likes of Rudolph Valentino, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe in the “died too young” cult than for her lifelong accomplishments in cinema. For over three decades since her death, endless speculation and sensationalistic tabloid headlines about Natalie Wood’s demise have kept her name firmly in the public’s consciousness, but at a terrible price: the tarnishing of an otherwise distinguished legacy.

Though several biographies on the actress have been published, few books succeed in presenting the real Natalie, the woman friends and family remember for her vivacity, her laughter, and her thirty-year reign as a beloved industry professional. As one of the most stunning beauties Hollywood ever beheld, and boasting a lengthy résumé of bona fide classics impressive enough to generate envy in any actor, Natalie deserves to be properly canonized in print for the world to appreciate and rediscover.

At the apex of her fame in the early 1960s, the former Natasha Gurdin was nothing short of a sensation, a back-lot child who had blossomed into a sophisticated sex symbol and three-time Academy Award nominee by age twenty-five. A 1962 Newsweek cover story paints Natalie as a strikingly contemporary icon with a postmodern sensibility: “In an age which is keenly conscious of its own contradictions, she is somehow able to suggest hope and confusion, sincerity and mockery all at once. Her large brown eyes fire off bursts of emotion. Her mouth is always on the verge of falling with sadness or breaking across her face in a wave of laughter.” It is easy to see why Natalie Wood is ripe for resurgence.

Assembling a deluxe illustrated work on Natalie Wood’s life and career, however, would prove a daunting task for many reasons. Not only was the subject herself a fascinating human being with a multitude of layers and facets to uncover and examine, but she was an avid collector of her own legacy. The first step in this author’s process was scanning over 5,000 photographs, papers, and varied pieces of memorabilia, only a fraction of which would fit into this book.

Much has been written about Natalie Wood’s mother, Maria Gurdin, both positive and negative, but Maria’s unwavering dedication to preserving her daughter’s accomplishments cannot be debated. She taught Natalie the importance of cataloging her career by keeping meticulous scrapbooks containing virtually every magazine article, advertisement, and photograph featuring Natalie since she was five years old.

Natalie proved to be both sentimental and pragmatic in her approach to documenting her own life. She incorporated a file system of her movies, her art collections (one of which, an important treasury of ancient ceramics, she gifted to UCLA during her lifetime), her brief foray into interior design, and every professional project she participated in, from TV commercials to tributes. An articulate writer, she chronicled her life and thoughts in diaries and notebooks. She saved every card that came with flowers, every note or telegram of congratulations, and had all her film scripts bound and embossed for posterity. Amongst her possessions are dozens of framed photographs that hung for years in her various homes, capturing highlights from her films, her friends, portrait sittings, and, most of all, her family.

A staggering array of scrapbooks and albums exist in the Wood-Wagner archive today, and their contents proved invaluable in the making of this book. The magazine and newspaper clippings document a complete timeline of a career, and the personal correspondence and family photos offer rare insight into the private corner of a public life. They reveal the woman behind the veil of fame, and inadvertently invalidate the trappings that come with the carefully manufactured illusion of movie stars and what the public expects them to be. One of Natalie Wood’s triumphs was straddling a fine line—she managed to be a very real person, yet also every inch the glamour queen her public expected.

In November 2015, the Wagner family made a decision to part with some of Natalie’s possessions in a highly publicized public auction. As the family had kept the items safely in storage for thirty-five years, some wondered why they would suddenly allow them to be sold. Natalie’s daughters, Natasha Gregson Wagner and Courtney Wagner, decided to release the part of their mom that the world had known, but they had not. They believed that relinquishing a portion of their mother’s movie memorabilia would generate a buzz among fans and ignite the spark of a revival. What they kept were the scrapbooks, the personal photo albums, and items especially important to Natalie: files and scripts for Splendor in the Grass, West Side Story, Gypsy, and Inside Daisy Clover. Though the auction may have appeared to be a complete record of Natalie’s life and career, quite the opposite is true. Natalie Wood’s personal archive—documenting the child, the wife, the mother, the woman, and the movie star—remains intact and preserved.

Following the birth of her own daughter, Clover, Natasha became more aware of the importance of maintaining her mother’s legacy for future generations. It was time to come out of the shadows and reclaim Natalie from the tabloids and conspiracy theorists, and re-introduce Natalie Wood the actress, one of precious few stars in Hollywood history to successfully transition from child to adult on screen, and anything but a tragic victim.

After decades of taking the high road by ignoring or declining to comment on rumors surrounding Natalie’s death, the Wagners have broken their silence with honest, eloquent contributions to this book. Coinciding with the book and auction is another special tribute: Natasha and Courtney’s creation of “Natalie,” a fragrance inspired by the natural gardenia scent that their mother wore and loved.

Natalie in her Beverly Hills home archive, circa 1966.

Creating Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life has been a rewarding experience for everyone involved. From the recreation of private scrapbooks and family albums for the world to appreciate, to thoughtful writings that reassess the one major twentieth-century actress most in need of rediscovery, to the priceless participation of her family and colleagues, such a study could never be replicated in quite the same way again. Having preserved every artifact of her life, Natalie Wood is truly the architect behind this book. She was keenly aware of her image and her place in film history, and seemed to have a sixth sense regarding her own purpose and meaning. Her voice is honored in these pages; her opinions and reflections appear throughout. An abridged version of “Public Property/Private Person,” an autobiographical piece written by Natalie in 1966 for Ladies Home Journal (that never appeared in the magazine), is published here for the first time.

In an age when people who possess neither discernible talent nor glowing personalities can rise to the heights of celebrity, Natalie Wood reminds us that, once upon a time, there were real movie stars who looked, dressed, and behaved like movie stars, seeming to effortlessly exude above-average glamour. While she may have eventually shed her Hollywood image to raise a family, Natalie never ceased to be larger than life. “We are not average people,” she once observed, “and our fans don’t want us to be average. Don’t call us the folks next door! If we were, people would visit their next door neighbors instead of going to the movies to see us.” If any star ever seized the day and took all that fame had to offer and more, it was Natalie Wood.

Though she was gone much too soon, she left so much behind. Her carefully maintained archive stands as one consolation to her early death; another consoling factor is the exuberance and energy with which she lived. “The way a life ends doesn’t define that life; the way a life is lived does,” Robert Wagner has contemplated. “Natalie had a tragic death, but she didn’t have a tragic life. She lived more in her forty-three years than most people—felt more, experienced more, did more, gave more.” Natalie herself has the final word on her legacy and legend: “I have absolutely no complaints about a moment of my life.”

Family Album

The Gurdins 1938–1957

Maria Stepanovna Gurdin

Nikolai Stephanovich Gurdin

Natasha Nikolaevna Gurdin

Russian River, California

Mama & Natasha

San Francisco, 1940

Sweet dreams

Natasha’s first dance recital

a farm outside Santa Rosa

Olga & friends, Natasha

in Los Angeles

Halloween 1946

Natalie & Lana


a home performance, 1948

Natalie & her uncle, 1950

high school dance, 1953

width girlfriend Alice

Graduation day – June 1955

Natalie, Olga, Maria, Lana, Nick

Natalie, “Mud” and Lana

on the way to marry R.J., 1957

Natalie as a teenager at Van Nuys High School.



“This little girl debuted in a spectacular way. Natalie had ‘Le Cinema’ in her blood.”

  —Cinémonde magazine

As a teenage girl, I thought “Natalie Wood” was synonymous with “Hollywood.” Forget Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and both Hepburns. For me, Natalie was the center of the classic film universe. I was twelve when I first saw her—as Maria in a TV broadcast of West Side Story (1961)—and in the following years she popped up everywhere. I saw her in John Ford westerns, Alan J. Pakula dramas, Blake Edwards comedies, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz classics. She was an adorable 1940s child, a vivacious 1950s teenager, a beautiful 1960s woman, a musical star, a dramatic tour de force, and a game comedienne. I had never seen anything like her. I wondered how, as a child, she had squeezed so much talent into such a tiny frame, and how, as a young adult, she managed to make that nearly impossible transition into glamorous, Oscar-nominated leading lady. How had little Natasha Gurdin become big Natalie Wood?

According to Natalie, the secret of success requires three factors: talent, timing, and luck. “I’ve had all three,” she once said. But as I unearthed the story of her early years, more factors came to light—such as the potent mix of destiny and determination that seemed to guide her—and one undeniable truth became clear: If anyone was ever born to be a star, it was Natalie Wood.

Natalie was unique, and the first of her kind: a professional actress who worked consistently from the age of four until thirty-one, when she chose to shift her focus from films to family. Countless scores of others have tried for such a career and failed, as child stardom almost always ends with the onset of puberty. Child stars Shirley Temple and Margaret O’Brien grew into pretty young women, and made valiant attempts to remain relevant onscreen into adulthood, but their great fame dissolved with adolescence. Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin remained stars as adults, but they were not young child actors; both debuted in films as teenagers. Roddy McDowall had started acting in films at twelve, and managed a lengthy career, but his path to adult success was not a smooth one. Even Natalie’s most celebrated predecessor, Elizabeth Taylor, was not technically a child star, not having achieved screen fame until twelve. Natalie actually lived up to the “Wonder Child” title she was given by film critic Edwin Schallert in 1946. The only contemporary performer with a career comparable to Natalie’s is Jodie Foster, a child prodigy who made her acting debut at age six and worked steadily for decades to become one of the most lauded stars of her generation.

“Natalie acts from her heart, not from the script,” Orson Welles said of his Tomorrow Is Forever costar in 1946.

Orson Welles, who had been a child prodigy himself, famously described Natalie Wood as “so good she was terrifying” in her first major film role, as Welles’s adopted daughter in Tomorrow Is Forever (1946). For any actor to hold his own onscreen with the venerable Welles is commendable, but for a six-year-old to upstage the legendary actor-director is uncanny. Yet that’s exactly what Natalie did; critics even credited her with surpassing Welles. “The others in the cast do not have much chance in Tomorrow Is Forever,” wrote a Washington, D.C. reviewer, “except possibly a small child named Natalie Wood, whose innocent charm is armor against Welles’s Jovian wrestling with the story.” With no training, only her instincts and director Irving Pichel to guide her, first-grader Natasha Gurdin was more than an actress. She was a force of nature.

Born on July 20, 1938, in San Francisco, Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko soon became known as Natasha, and her Russian immigrant parents Maria and Nikolai changed their surname to the easier-to-pronounce Gurdin. Nikolai further Americanized his name to Nicholas or Nick and hoped to find steady employment during the Great Depression, but only worked occasionally as a day laborer. With the new baby and Olga, Maria’s eleven-year-old daughter from a previous marriage to support, the family struggled.

Maria had a vivid imagination. Consumed by fairy-tale fantasies and fascinated by motion pictures, she was thrilled to discover Natasha naturally possessed the type of outgoing charisma Hollywood favored, and encouraged her daughter to play dress-up, sing, and dance for anyone who would watch. She also created a film fan by nursing Natasha on movies—literally. As a baby, Natasha was reportedly able to sit through a movie without crying and Maria would often carry her to matinees. In the dark theater, no one noticed if her mother breast-fed her and rocked her to sleep when she grew restless.

Olga was starstruck too, and before Natasha could read she had learned the names of ninety-four of the screen’s top stars from her sister, and could identify their pictures in fan magazines. Russian was often spoken at home, but when Natasha learned English her favorite word was “pretend.” It was also her favorite pastime. Each morning she would check into her movie studio—the family’s garage—and announce, “Today I am Lana Turner.” After a lunch break, she would check in again as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, or Vivien Leigh. Maria did her part by curling her daughter’s hair in the obligatory Shirley Temple ringlets and photographing her in precocious poses, daring to dream of movie stardom for Natasha. If luck is the result of preparation meeting opportunity, Maria was not about to be caught unprepared.

Incredibly, Hollywood responded to the signals Maria and Natasha were sending out. In 1942, the Gurdin family moved from San Francisco to Santa Rosa, California. Although Hollywood was still over 400 miles away, and location filming was uncommon at the time, Alfred Hitchcock insisted on an authentic backdrop for his typical American town in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). He not only brought Hollywood to Santa Rosa, but mined the community for screen talent. Edna May Wonacott, the daughter of a grocer—and an unlikely candidate for stardom with her glasses, baby fat, and freckles—was given a major role in the film by Mr. Hitchcock and whisked off to Hollywood with a seven-year studio contract. Maria clipped an article about Edna May’s discovery from the local newspaper and pasted it into a scrapbook. If it could happen to a girl in their own neighborhood, why not little Natasha?

Enter character actor-turned-director Irving Pichel, who followed Hitchcock to Santa Rosa in June and July of 1943 to capture the same sleepy-town feel in his home-front drama Happy Land


On Sale
Oct 11, 2016
Page Count
320 pages
Running Press

Manoah Bowman

About the Author

Manoah Bowman is the author of Fellini: The Sixties. He maintains the Independent Visions photographic archives, a collection featuring more than a million unique images that details the history of cinema and television. He has contributed material to many publications, movie studios, and museums, including Eastman House, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Paramount, and Disney. His work as a photo editor includes the books Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema and Buster Keaton Remembered. He resides in Los Angeles, CA.

Natasha Gregson Wagner has led an unorthodox career for the descendent of Hollywood royalty. Since making her film debut in 1992’s Fathers and Sons, the actress established her place in the indie film world with titles such as Another Day in Paradise, High Fidelity, Two Girls and a Guy, and David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and she has received acclaim for her stage work and television appearances in Ally McBeal, House MD, and Chicago Hope. She recently completed work on the independent film Anesthesia. Wagner resides in Los Angeles.Turner Classic Movies is the definitive resource for the greatest movies of all time. We entertain and enlighten to show how the entire spectrum of classic movies, movie history, and movie-making touches us all and influences how we think and live today.

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