Natalie Wood’s daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner is opening up about the private side of the beloved mother she lost in a tragic boating accident. Subscribe now for the exclusive untold story, only in PEOPLE.
Thirty-five years after her tragic death, Natalie Wood remains one of Hollywood’s most iconic figures. From her film debut at the age of 5 to her glamorous life in the spotlight to her epic romances, the beguiling, dark-eyed beauty sidestepped the trappings of many onetime child stars, fostering a celebrated career – and an inimitable allure – that made her one of the most captivating actresses of her time.
When she accidentally drowned at the age of 43, Wood left behind a loving marriage to Robert Wagner, three children whom she cared for above all else, a promising future and a timeless body of work.
“People know her as this legend, and some people think of her as having a tragic life,” Natasha Gregson Wagner, Wood’s only daughter with her second husband, British producer Richard Gregson, tells PEOPLE. “But that’s not the way I remember her at all.”
A Celebrated Child Star
Born Natalie Zacharenko to Russian immigrant parents, Wood lived in the shadow of an overbearing mother, Maria Gurdin, who orchestrated the nascent star’s early life and passed her own dreams of stardom onto her young daughter. “One of her sadnesses was that she didn’t have a real childhood of her own,” says Gregson Wagner of her mother.
Two years after Wood made her film debut in 1943’s Happy Land, director Irving Pichel contacted Gurdin and asked her to bring her daughter, who was 7 at the time, to Los Angeles for a screen test. Thrilled by the opportunity, Gurdin packed up the family – including her husband and their other daughter, Lana – and relocated to Los Angeles. Fortunately, Wood ended up landing the part of a German orphan in 1946’s Tomorrow Is Forever, which costarred Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert. Welles later described the young actress as “so good, she was terrifying.”
A year later, a starring turn as Susan Walker in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street made her one of the biggest child stars in the world. She would go on to appear in over 20 films as a child under the name Natalie Wood, given to her by RKO studio executives David Lewis and William Goetz.
Becoming a Leading Lady
While many young actresses struggle to navigate the transition from child star to teenage ing nue, Wood managed a seamless crossover with 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. The coming-of-age-drama, in which she played James Dean’s love interest, swiftly swept away her child-star persona, and helped Wood earn her first Oscar nomination. She would build on that momentum with a short but powerful performance in John Ford’s 1956 western opus The Searchers.
After suffering a series of bad reviews for her turn in 1960’s All the Fine Young Cannibals, Wood would experience a career resurrection at the hands of legendary director Elia Kazan, who cast her in his now-classic 1961 film Splendor in the Grass. Wood went on to earn another Oscar nomination for her performance in it as she starred opposite Warren Beatty, with whom she’d end up having a torrid romance.
Later that year, Wood played Maria in Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s big-screen adaptation of the Broadway hit West Side Story, which went on to become a commercial and critical success despite a performance that saw Wood lip-sync her musical numbers.
In 1964, she received yet another Oscar nod – this time for Love with the Proper Stranger, making the then-25-year-old the youngest actress to net three Academy Award nominations. It was a record that stood for 50 years until Jennifer Lawrence broke it in 2014.
Wood starred in several more films throughout the late 1960s, including a well-received comedic turn in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, but she went into semi-retirement in 1970 after the birth of her first child, Natasha. (Her daughter has now created a fragrance, Natalie, in honor of her mother and inspired by the Wood’s signature gardenia scent). The star would only make four more theatrical films for the rest of her life.
The first time Wood saw Robert Wagner, she was 10 years old and told her mother she wanted to marry him. On her 18th birthday, she and Wagner, who was 26 and relatively unknown at the time, met on a studio-arranged date. Despite protests from her mother, the couple married just a year later, in 1957.
In a 2009 interview, Wagner recalled their budding romance: “I remember the instant I fell in love with her. One night on board a small boat I owned, she looked at me with love, her dark brown eyes lit by a table lantern. That moment changed my life.”
But their first shot at marriage didn’t last: After separating in the summer of 1961, they were divorced in the spring of 1962.
Wood was working on Splendor in the Grass with Warren Beatty at the time, and the two entered into a tumultuous romance. When the pair finally split up in 1966, Wood attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.
After she recovered, Wood began dating British producer Richard Gregson. He and Wood married in 1969 and had a daughter, Natasha, the next year. But it wasn’t long before Wood began suspecting that Gregson was having an affair, and the two were divorced by 1972.
Just three months after the divorce, Wood and Wagner remarried. Despite the media attention their reconciliation received, those who knew the couple had no doubt their love was the real thing.
For much more of Natalie Wood’s untold story, including an interview with Robert Wagner and never-before-seen family photos, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE.
Wood’s friend, best-selling author Thomas Thompson, wrote, “[Wagner] and Natalie were very much in love. It wasn’t fan magazine posing. It was real, sometimes embarrassingly so. On the boat they held hands and kissed and grabbed each other so often that we used to turn away in embarrassment or make gagging noises.”
Wood’s sister, Lana, also recalled the strength of the couple’s relationship in her book, Natalie. “Her marriage was considered to be one of the best in Hollywood, and there is no question that she was a devoted, loving – even adoring – mother and stepmother,” she wrote.
“She and [Wagner] had begun with love and built from there. They had overcome each other’s problems and had reached an accommodation with time, and the changes time brings. As with anybody else who has settled into making a long marriage work, they were far more determined than most people to make it work.”
Her Tragic Death
As her children grew, Wood started looking for the right script to mark her big-screen comeback. It was during the filming of what would be her final project, Brainstorm, that Wood drowned while on a Thanksgiving boat trip to California’s Santa Catalina Island on Nov. 29, 1981.
Aboard their 60-foot yacht, the Splendour, Wood and Wagner were joined by her Brainstorm costar, Christopher Walken, and the vessel’s captain, Dennis Davern. The weekend would end in tragedy after the actress went missing from the boat during the night, and her body was found the next morning a mile away. The Los Angeles County coroner ruled her death an accident by drowning and hypothermia.
The case was reopened in November 2011, after Davern publicly stated he had lied to police during the initial investigation. Wood’s death certificate was changed from accidental drowning to “drowning and other undetermined factors,” and the investigation remains open.