From Child Star to Hollywood Icon: The Journey of Natalie Wood

From Child Star to Hollywood Icon: The Journey of Natalie Wood

Sandra Pandora | 
Pandora Writer | 
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In the dazzling realm of Hollywood's golden era, Natalie Wood's star burned brightly, illuminating the silver screen with her undeniable talent and captivating beauty. Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko on July 20, 1938, in San Francisco, California, Natalie Wood would go on to become one of the most iconic actresses of her time. With a career spanning over three decades, Wood left an indelible mark on the history of Hollywood. Her life was marked by immense success, but also marred by personal struggles and tragedy.

Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood's journey into the world of entertainment began at a young age. Natalie's mother, recognizing her daughter's charm and acting potential, began taking her to auditions at just four years old. Her early roles in films like "Happy Land" (1943) and "Tomorrow is Forever" (1946) showcased her natural talent.

At the age of nine, Natalie starred in the holiday classic "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947). The film's success further established her as a prominent young actress and opened doors to more significant opportunities in Hollywood. Natalie's breakthrough came in the 1950s when she starred alongside James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955). The film became a cult classic and highlighted Natalie's acting versatility and emotional depth.

Natalie Wood

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, she appeared in a wide range of roles, including the classic musical "West Side Story" (1961) and the psychological thriller "Splendor in the Grass" (1961).

Natalie continued to display her talent in movies like "Love with the Proper Stranger" (1963) and "Inside Daisy Clover" (1965). Her dedication to her roles and her ability to convey a wide range of emotions made her a highly sought-after actress.

Behind the glamorous facade, Natalie's personal life was often turbulent. She had a string of high-profile relationships with some of Hollywood's leading men, including Dennis Hopper, Elvis Presley, and Warren Beatty. However, it was her marriage to fellow actor Robert Wagner that garnered significant media attention.

Natalie Wood

Natalie and Robert first married in 1957 but divorced in 1962. They remarried in 1972. Their daughter, Courtney Wagner, was born in 1974. The couple's second marriage appeared stronger, and they remained together until Natalie's tragic death in 1981. Natalie had another daughter, Natasha, with film producer Richard Gregson. Natasha was born in 1970. 

On November 29, 1981, tragedy struck the world of Hollywood when Natalie Wood's life came to a devastating end at the age of 43. The events leading up to her death took place on a yacht named "Splendour," which was docked off the coast of Santa Catalina Island, California. Natalie was aboard the yacht with her husband, Robert Wagner, and their friend, actor Christopher Walken.

Natalie Wood

According to official reports, that fateful evening began with  dining and drinks ashore. Upon returning to the yacht, the three continued their celebration on board. As the night wore on, tensions between Natalie and Wagner allegedly escalated. Christopher Walken reportedly retreated to his cabin, leaving the couple alone.

The timeline of events becomes clouded at this point. What is known is that during the early hours of the morning, a distress call was made from the yacht. The captain reported that Natalie had vanished. Hours later her lifeless body was found floating in the waters near the yacht.

Natalie Wood

The official investigation that followed labeled Natalie Wood's death as an accidental drowning. She was known to have a fear of dark waters and had consumed alcohol that night. The prevailing theory was that she fell overboard while attempting to secure a dinghy, either accidentally or during an altercation with Wagner. The circumstances surrounding her death were mysterious, and the media frenzy that ensued further complicated the investigation. Despite rumors and speculation, the case was closed in 1981.

Initially ruled an accidental drowning, the case was reopened in 2011 after the boat's captain revealed new information. The Los Angeles County Coroner's Office eventually amended the cause of death to "drowning and other undetermined factors." Despite the investigations, the exact events leading to Natalie's death remain unclear. Natalie Wood's death was a tremendous loss to the world of entertainment.

In Robert Wagner’s memoir, published in 2008, he wrote that after a night of drinking, he and Walken got into an argument. They were discussing Natalie's career.

He wrote, “I picked up a wine bottle, slammed it on the table and broke it into pieces.”

We do know Natalie must have fallen off the boat at sometime during that night. Robert Wagner then wrote. "There are only two possibilities: either she was trying to get away from the argument, or she was trying to tie the dinghy. But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened.”

To hear more about what Wagner said about that night, check out his memoir Pieces of My Heart.

Other books that include details of that night at Catalina Island:

More Than Love: An Intimate Portrait of My Mother, Natalie Wood
by Natasha Gregson Wagner

Little Sister: My Investigation into the Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood
by Lana Wood

Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour
by Marti Rulli and Dennis Davern

Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood's enduring legacy lives on through her films and the memories of those who loved and admired her. Her star may have been dimmed, but it will forever shine brightly in the hearts of those who knew and adored her talent.

Natalie Wood was a renowned American actress whose captivating performances and personal life continue to intrigue audiences even today.


Did you know?

In 1942, during the filming of a movie in Santa Rosa, Natalie Wood was discovered by crew members, marking the beginning of her journey in the film industry.

Her younger sister, Svetlana Gurdin, also pursued acting and adopted the stage name Lana Wood.

Natalie Wood

Natalie made her film debut at just five years old in the movie "Happy Land" (1943), playing the "Little Girl Who Drops Ice Cream Cone" in a brief 15-second scene.

It was her major role as Susan Walker in the Christmas classic "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947) that catapulted her to commercial and critical success.

Despite her young age, Natalie's performances received widespread acclaim, resulting in three Academy Award nominations.

She graduated from Van Nuys High School in 1956, continuing her journey as a versatile actress. At the school she met Robert Redford.

Natalie had a profound fear of water, stemming from a near-drowning incident during the filming of "The Green Promise" in 1949. This fear posed challenges during her roles in water-related movies, even though she delivered an iconic performance in "Splendor in the Grass" (1961).

Natalie Wood

Natalie spoke about her fear often. “I've always been terrified, still am, of water -- dark water, sea water, or, you know, river water.”

“I hate the ocean; I hate the water. I can't swim and I don't like to be around it.”

Natalie's fear of water was a significant part of her life, even to the point of always wearing a large bracelet on her left wrist, which hid a permanent injury from a childhood accident on a movie set.

Apart from her illustrious career, Natalie had a close friendship with James Dean, her co-star in "Rebel Without a Cause," who mentored her and helped her improve her acting skills and confidence.

Natalie Wood

Wood's relationships and marriages were also a subject of public interest. She was married three times, with her first and third husband being Robert Wagner, and her second husband being Richard Gregson.

Her final completed film was the sci-fi movie "Brainstorm" (1983), but her untimely death before its release led to some scenes being completed using body doubles.

Natalie Wood's death on November 29, 1981, remains a subject of controversy and mystery. She drowned off the coast of Santa Catalina Island, California, during a boating trip. The circumstances surrounding her death have led to various theories and investigations, but no definitive conclusion has been reached.

Natalie Wood

Splendour, the name of the yacht Wood was on the night she died, was named after her movie "Splendor in the Grass" (1961).

Wood was buried on December 3, 1981 at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. 

Catalina Island

Catalina Island

Catalina Island is located approximately 22 miles southwest of Southern California's coastline. It is a popular tourist destination known for its natural beauty and outdoor recreational activities.

There are several ways to get to Catalina Island from Southern California:

Ferry: The most common and popular mode of transportation is by taking a ferry from various ports along the Southern California coast. The main departure points for the ferry are usually Long Beach, San Pedro, Dana Point, and Newport Beach. The ferry ride typically takes about an hour, depending on the departure point.

Helicopter: Some companies offer helicopter services from certain locations in Southern California, providing a faster but more expensive option to reach the island. Helicopter rides generally take around 15-20 minutes.

Private Boat: If you have access to a private boat or yacht, you can sail to Catalina Island on your own. There are marinas and harbors where you can anchor or dock your boat.


Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood
Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood
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