A Sister Remembers
Natalie Wood’s mother, Maria, doesn’t approve of it. Robert Wagner intends to ignore it. Friends are raising their eyebrows over it. The “it” in question is a book, Natalie: A Memoir, to be published next spring by G.R Putnam’s Sons. It is hardly a typical Hollywood biography; it is written by someone who ought to know: Natalie’s little sister, Lana Wood, 37. “The book is a rainbow,” says Lana. “There are all kinds of things in it. Natalie was not Doris Day. She was a wonderful mother, wife and friend, but sometimes she was just outright selfish and shitty, and I would get angry.”
It was Lana’s need to deal with the death of her sister two years ago that made her write the book, a portion of which appears on the following pages. “I kept denying that she was gone,” recalls Wood, who lived in her sister’s shadow.
At first they were the Gurdin sisters, Natasha and Svetlana, the precocious daughters of Soviet immigrants. Later, as child actresses, they became Natalie and Lana Wood. But only Natalie, eight years Lana’s senior, was a star. “I was always really skinny and plain Jane, and Natalie was beautiful and vibrant and outgoing,” recalls Lana.
The years only widened their differences. Lana had five divorces, Natalie’s second marriage to Wagner stuck. Natalie, R.J. and their three daughters lived in Beverly Hills splendor, while single mother Lana and daughter Evan, now 9, shared a small two-bedroom apartment in Sherman Oaks. “Sometimes I would say: ‘Damn! Why couldn’t I have this much of the money Natalie has so that I wouldn’t have to drive myself and work so hard.”
Now, things are easier. Natalie’s last film, Brainstorm, is being released just as Lana is emerging from her anonymity with a lucrative book advance (she got $50,000) and renewed ambitions. After working behind the scenes in film development and production for various companies, Lana has returned to her sporadic acting career. (She played Sandy Webber for two years on ABC’s Peyton Place, and a nude Playboy layout in 1971 led to her role as Plenty O’Toole in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever.) For the last four months Wood has been playing resort owner Fran Burke on the CBS soap Capitol earning an estimated $2,500 per week.
It may be her new success that has emboldened Lana to speak out about her sister. At one point, Lana reports, Natalie stopped talking to her for an entire year. The estrangement followed Natalie’s remarriage to Wagner in 1972. The couple had asked Lana’s then husband, businessman Richard Smedley, to take some photographs of the ceremony on board a friend’s yacht. Smedley then sold the pictures to a magazine. The newlyweds, furious at Richard, also blamed Lana.
Eventually, however, Wood and Wagner forgave Lana. But after Natalie’s death and R.J.’s growing attachment to actress Jill St. John, Lana’s relations with her brother-in-law grew distant. “I have never begrudged R.J. having somebody to love,” says Lana. Still, she is miffed by press reports that Natalie and Jill were good friends. “It drives me nuts,” she says. “If anyone would know who Natalie’s friends were, it would be me. Jill was never there. Not once!” Nor, she says, does she have much interest in developing her own friendship with St. John and Wagner. “Could I sit in the same room if he was puttering around her? No, because that’s my sister who belongs there.”
Most of Lana’s spare moments are taken up by Evan, her daughter by Smedley. And she has maintained a stable relationship for four years with actor Alan (Masada) Feinstein, 40ish. He recently co-starred on Broadway in A View From the Bridge, but spends much of his spare time with Lana in her new Encino apartment. The dominant feature of the living room is something that she was given by Wagner: a large oil painting of Natalie Wood.