Thirty-five years after screen icon Natalie Wood’s death, a new book, Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life, written by Manoah Bowman with Wood’s daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner, reveals candid and intimate new details about the star whose life and loves were often as dramatic as her films. The coffee-table book features stunning never-before-seen photos, an introduction by Wood’s former husband Robert Wagner, and a very personal essay written by Natalie herself in 1966, unpublished until now.
In the revealing piece, Wood writes about her view of Hollywood, her heartbreak following her divorce from Wagner before they remarried in 1972, her romance with Warren Beatty and her search for happiness.
The daughter of two Russian émigrés, Wood was a child star and her family’s sole financial support from a young age. As she writes, ”Sometimes I had nightmares about my family starving if I didn’t act.”
While she loved the magic of making movies, she writes candidly of its demands: “Your ego is constantly on the line when your every mood, pound and inch is scrutinized by experts every day.”
At 16, she starred in Rebel Without a Cause and became close friends with her costar James Dean. Soon after filming wrapped, she had dinner with mutual friends one night in New York City and they talked about his “streak of self destruction.” A few hours later, she went back to her hotel room and found out he had died in a car crash. “It was the most severe shock I had every experienced in my life,” she writes.
She also opens up about her marriage to Wagner — and their divorce in 1961. “If you love someone and make a commitment to them, the love does not vanish because you have signed a legal document called a divorce paper,” she writes. “The failure of all your hopes, promises and dreams gives you one more thing in common — mutual sadness.”
“The happiest times in our marriage occurred when we were aboard RJ’s yacht, My Other Lady, usually on cruises to Catalina Island without other people,” writes Wood, who learned to cook her trademark huevos rancheros on the high seas.
“RJ taught me about all about yachting: the radio, the mooring, the radar, fire extinguishers and life jackets … One morning as we returned to Balboa from Catalina while RJ maneuvered the boat into the slip, I threw over the line — and fell right into the water with it. It was January and freezing. RJ fished me out.”
But after two years of marriage, tensions arose. “It was extremely difficult for us to really face serious flaws in the relationship when everything looked so ideal on the surface,” she writes. “Looking at it from the outside, we must have seemed like the American Dream. We were both attractive and successful, so what could possibly be wrong?”
Searching for answers, she entered psychoanalysis. “One needs more than approval or fame or wealth to be nourished,” she writes. “It was as if I were the total of all the parts I had played and I had no idea who I really was.”
As she delved deeper into the past, she feared her future. “For the first time in my life I considered, in horror, the possibility that I might join that sad parade of famous movie ladies who wind up desperately lonely, with nothing more substantial about them than their scrapbooks and old photos, and memories of romances and divorces.”
Adrift, she fell in love with Warren Beatty in the mid-60s. “After my divorce, I was looking for the Rock of Gibraltar. Instead, I discovered Mount Vesuvius, a live volcano with eruptions each day,” she writes. “And I contributed my share of fireworks too. In fact, we were both so confused that we thought fighting and hostility meant real emotional honesty.”
In retrospect, she writes, “I felt that I should be punished for having failed in marriage. I was trying to punish myself by sticking to a relationship that was going nowhere …”
Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962 also made a big impact. “I had known her and seen her days before her death,” she writes. “Her beauty, charming wit, and joy of life seemed paradoxical to the tense loneliness which she faced in her life, and was to me, clearly apparent.”
Wood adds, “I realized that her tragedy reminds us all how vulnerable we are, and I chose to try to be stronger.”
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Over time, the actress slowly found healing. She moved to the beach, took night classes at UCLA, and learned to “say yes to life.”
She ends the piece poignantly, writing of her wishes for the future: “I was once asked if my goal in life was to be a good actress, and at one time perhaps it was. But now I know that most of all my hope is that I will be totally committed to another human being and that that union will bring children and happiness.”
In the years that followed, she had a daughter, Natasha, with her second husband, producer Richard Gregson. After their divorce, she remarried Wagner and had a second daughter, Courtney.
Today, Natasha would like her mom to be remembered for how she lived and loved — not her tragic death by drowning. “She worked hard on herself because she didn’t want to be a casualty of her own childhood,” Natasha told PEOPLE in March. “She strove for happiness.”