A famous author recalls his friend Natalie Wood, a star with 'no shadows on her life'

By Thomas Thompson
Updated December 14, 1981 12:00 PM

A year after Natalie Wood’s 1957 marriage to actor Robert John Wagner (known to friends as “R.J.”), she remarked of their honeymoon: “The best part was the last week. We spent it on R.J.’s boat, off the coast of Catalina, in a dense fog for four days…. We’re happiest on the boat, and we intend spending as much time there as possible.” Near that same spot off Catalina Island, Natalie Wood drowned on Nov. 29 at the age of 43. It was a tragedy that stunned Hollywood and saddened the nation. The tribute that follows was written by a close family friend and author of the best-sellers Blood and Money and Serpentine and a novel, Celebrity, due in April. Thomas Thompson captures the exuberance for life and work and marriage on the part of a fine actress who appeared in 52 films during a career that began when she was only 5.

Some exits, sorrowful as they are, can at least be understood. Bill Holden’s recent leave-taking saddened his industry, but it was not unexpected. Elvis Presley and Judy Garland practically invited death to sit on the front row in house seats. But when we heard that Natalie Wood was gone, those of us who loved her gathered at her warm, comfortable home in Beverly Hills and nursed a common emotion: absolute anger. This wasn’t fair. This wasn’t acceptable. No woman seemed to have a firmer grip on the fragile substance called life—and yet it slipped inexplicably through her fingers.

The morning after, rumors were up early and commenced to eat a greedy path through the town. Suicide, some said. Drinking problems. Shaky marriage. Permit me to speak as an objective reporter and devoted friend of almost 20 years (an understatement there; I loved her, and R.J. knew about it). Natalie Wood had absolutely no shadows on her life. She had, as they say, gotten her act together. Oh, it took a while, and it took about six figures’ worth of shrink bills over a dozen years, but at the end she possessed love, a deep and profound and bedrock marriage, motherhood, beauty, self-respect and work. I believe that touches every Freudian base necessary for happiness.

Part of the brutal unfairness lies in the site of her death—the sea. Natalie loved the Splendour, the 60-foot yacht that she and R.J. picked out soon after their second marriage. They made the weekend crossing from Marina Del Rey to Catalina Island as routinely as commuters. A few weeks ago I sailed along, and the trip followed a familiar scenario.

Natalie set out a welcoming lunch of fresh fruit and a wheel of Brie cheese and poured white wine. (Yes, she enjoyed the grape, drinking only wine. She did not abuse it; her face showed the respect she had for her body.) Then she settled in with a lapload of scripts, trade papers and correspondence. When R.J. wanted to go below, she took the wheel capably. She was a good sailor, checked out on all the radar and radios and electronic geegaws necessary to navigate. The Splendour bore traces of her handiwork everywhere: needlepoint pillows, hand-sewn curtains at the portholes, pictures she took of favored (and usually famous) friends, some of them mildly seasick. Above their cabin door were twin brass plaques: Captain and First Officer. R.J. liked to joke that he was not exactly sure who got top billing.

That night we pried open abalone shells that a scuba diver had brought by. Natalie dredged the filets in flour and sautéed them in butter and wine and shallots. Later she grilled lobsters and tossed a spectacular health salad. As we ate the delicious meal, I remembered the first time we met, reporter and subject, two decades ago. I had asked her then, “Are you domestic?” and she had replied, “Yeah, I’m domestic. I can call room service.” She had come a long way. We all stayed up through several bottles of Pouilly-Fuissé, spinning yarns, gossiping. Was it this trip or some previous one when Natalie remarked on her astonishment that Laurence Olivier, sitting in my seat, once toasted her acting ability? She seemed astonished that Lord Olivier would find merit in her work. I’m not sure Natalie realized how good she was.

The next morning I found her on the deck yelling into the wind. What on earth was she doing? “Stretching the pipes,” she said, somewhat embarrassed at being discovered. I interpreted easily. Next February she was supposed to make her stage debut in Anastasia at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre. She was scared. She was worried that her voice would not be strong enough for the massive auditorium.

I suspect she would have made a terrific Anastasia. Natalie was a child of Russian immigrants and that language was her mother tongue. Two years ago she satisfied a lifelong desire to visit the country of her blood. R.J., Natalie and I spent a long two weeks in Leningrad where she filmed a remarkable documentary for NBC on the treasures of the Hermitage. It was supposed to have been shown as part of the Olympic year, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan killed it. The Russians were agog at Natalie, swirling about their city in a sable coat, those enormous brown velvet eyes flashing what they mistook for passion and emotion. What she really felt was paranoia and what she really wanted was out. The moment we passed through Passport Control at the Moscow airport, Natalie burst into a slightly off-key but heartfelt rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. Last Christmas she sent me a picture of herself from childhood. She was about 10, looked particularly silly, was wearing an expression dangerously close to the village idiot’s. As a caption she wrote, “You mean we get to go back to Leningrad tomorrow?”

After her stage interpretation of Anastasia, it was Natalie’s intent to make a film of the fascinating story. She had asked me to write the script and I enthusiastically agreed. We were supposed to sign the papers this week. The last time I spoke to her was the day before she left on her final trip. She fairly yelled into the telephone, “Tex! Put some lead in your pencil. We’ve got a deal!” I wish I could have put lines into her mouth. I would have been honored to hear her speak them.

A word about Natalie’s career. Someday critics are going to realize that many of her films were not only good, but were remarkable testaments of both a certain time and a certain social condition in America. Rebel Without a Cause was the ancestor of every film about disenchanted youth. Love With the Proper Stranger spoke agonizing truths about abortion. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice told the middle class what it was like to smoke pot and teeter on the edge of a new morality. Ask any craftsman in Hollywood and he will say that Natalie was the most professional woman in the business. She was always on time, lines memorized at first rehearsal, able to light the set and move the scenery if necessary.

About seven years ago, at the peak of her career, she abruptly stopped working. Her reasons were good: She wanted to devote full time to being wife and mother, roles she played brilliantly. At the time, I was worried that the clock would ravage her career. Women don’t get any younger in show business. “Hell, I don’t really care, Tex,” she said. “I’ve been a movie star longer than Joan Crawford.”

Then, when both her daughters were old enough to go to school, Natalie resumed acting. All of us felt she was on the threshold of stage two. A new maturity had fallen gracefully about her face. Her voice had deepened and darkened becomingly. At the time of her death she was three weeks away from completing a difficult new action movie called Brainstorm, with Christopher Walken. Several times she called me from the North Carolina location to report how enthusiastic she was over the shooting. “Cross your fingers, I think this one’s good,” she said. As of this writing, it has not been determined whether the picture can be saved; several key scenes remained to be shot. I hope so. It would be further cruelty to lose her final work.

The day after she died, R.J. wept uncontrollably and when he wasn’t crying he was swearing, “What a goddamned waste!” He 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.

“I hope you guys never divorce,” I told her once. “I’d stop believing in the institution of marriage if you did.” “No chance,” she said. “I’m not about to let him go again.” She liked to describe the interlude between their marriages one and two as a Seitensprung. That is a charming German expression for when two people dance, then make a little side step and swirl about the room with new partners before reuniting to finish the waltz. “You’re only allowed one Seitensprung,” she said.

Last New Year’s Eve, at their annual black-tie dinner, Natalie toasted R.J. with adoration. I forget what she said, but I remember well what he said in response. R.J. Wagner lifted a glass of Dom Perignon and he peered across its rim and topped her. “I love you, my darling Natalie,” he said. “In fact, you take my breath away.”