A PEOPLE writer recalls the "luminous spirit" of a star she befriended far from home
Credit: Henry Lamb/Photowire/BEImages

I met Natasha on a mild, foggy night in Shanghai in September 2004. She was there filming and had stopped by a popular restaurant for a late bite with cast and crew. I’d recently taken a year off from my job as a writer at PEOPLE in Los Angeles to accept a fellowship in China, and happened to be at the same restaurant. A mutual acquaintance introduced us.

Only in Shanghai – with its dizzying collision of international culture and commerce – could my day begin in a neighborhood where residents still use chamber pots and end sharing a meal with the dauntingly beautiful Natasha Richardson. Over the next three months, she became my friend.

Most days, Natasha worked on the set of her movie, The White Countess. But when she had free time, she was determined not to waste it. We went sightseeing, taking touristy pictures in the imperial Yu Gardens. We lingered over long lunches. We shopped.

In the buyer’s paradise that is Shanghai, Natasha didn’t gravitate toward the luxury boutiques of Nanjing Road. Instead, with me acting as translator, she bargained for silk, pearls and toys with a vigor that left haggle-happy local shopkeepers awestruck. She found a tailor who did fittings at her hotel; his custom creations included a sensational red and gold silk dress.

Glamorous and Grounded

As glamorous as she was, Natasha was also grounded in a way that seemed at odds with her pedigree, her beauty and her success. She was full of passion, humor, mischief, curiosity. And, always, warmth.

When I was feeling down she would tell me how brave I was to have moved, all alone, so far from home. She’d listen to stories about my beloved grandmother, who had grown up in Shanghai, and urge me to tell her more. She’d ask me to teach her Chinese phrases. She made me feel connected, included, and not alone at all.

Natasha loved to throw dinner parties at the best restaurants in town. I can still see her working the room, an impossibly thin cigarette in one hand (she was always vowing to quit) and a lychee martini in the other, laughing from her core. She made sure her guests had the finest food, drink and company, and launched into post-meal parlor games with divine flair. She was so much fun.

A Family Thanksgiving

Nothing compared to her excitement that November, when Liam and the boys arrived in Shanghai. She planned a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at a favorite Western restaurant. Wearing that fabulous red and gold dress, she presided over a group that included her director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and her leading man and close friend Ralph Fiennes.

We ate turkey, chestnut stuffing and a well-meaning attempt at pumpkin pie at a long table with sweeping views of Shanghai’s colonial waterfront. With Liam and their sons Micheal and Daniel by her side, this woman – she of big personality and luminous spirit – somehow glowed even brighter.

In December, her film wrapped. We kept in touch with occasional e-mails, and after I returned to the States we had lunch when I was passing through New York. The last time we talked, Patrick Swayze had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Stricken with Grief

Natasha readily agreed to be interviewed about her old friend. After we caught up (she was so proud to report she’d finally quit smoking) she talked with eloquent sensitivity about Patrick, whom she had gotten to know in 2001 while shooting Waking Up in Reno.

“Theirs is a great, enduring love. It’s so inspiring to all of us,” she told me of his 30-plus-year marriage to Lisa Niemi. “He’s one of the good guys,” she added. “There are not a lot of them out there.”

I know just what she meant. Natasha was one of the good guys too. And the love she had, with her husband, her sons, her family and friends, will endure and inspire long after the shock of her death subsides. Ralph Fiennes, stricken with grief at the news, released a statement that praised her “gift for living.” He couldn’t have said it better. It was a gift she enjoyed to the fullest – and shared with infectious, marvelous generosity.