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Jewish World Review July 3, 2001/ 12 Tamuz, 5761

Jonathan Yardley

Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood -- IF you are an American male of a certain age -- mea culpa -- chances are that somewhere during your younger days you were just a little bit in love with Natalie Wood. Among the female movie stars who glowed so brightly in the 1950s and early 1960s, she was in many ways the most alluring and endearing of all. She was as wholesome as Debbie Reynolds, yet sultriness simmered just beneath the surface. She was as sexy in her way as Marilyn Monroe, yet her erotic appeal was softened by more than a hint of innocence. She was as beautiful as Elizabeth Taylor, yet one was always acutely aware of her vulnerability. She was as perky as June Allyson, yet she had a quiet regality.

She was the girl next door, if the house next door happened to be a castle. At a time when the prototypical "All-American girl" was bouncy, blonde and lightly freckled, she was dark-haired and slightly exotic. The screen name "Natalie Wood" was bestowed upon her by Hollywood, but she was born (in San Francisco in the summer of 1938) Natasha Zakharenko, to a mother who had immigrated to the United States eight years before. Maria Zakharenko insisted that she came from an aristocratic Russian family and hung "a picture gallery of the Russian royal family" in the room where her daughter slept. She believed that Natasha was "destiny's child" and reared her accordingly, the stage mother to end all stage mothers.


'Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood'

By Suzanne Finstad
Hardcover - 400 pages
Crown Publishers

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Four decades later, jokingly contemplating an autobiography, Natalie told a friend that it should be called "I Got What I Wanted," la Oscar Wilde: "In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it." That she was able to reach into the text of "Lady Windermere's Fan" is telling evidence of her wit and learning, if not erudition. That she seized upon this particular passage is no less telling evidence of the mixture of pride and regret, irony and sadness, with which she viewed her life and career.

Her story is told in Natasha with dogged intensity by Suzanne Finstad, who brings to the task two shortcomings -- she is far too much in love with her research, and she cannot resist the temptations of amateur psychologizing -- and strengths that ultimately outweigh them. If on the one hand she is not always capable of distinguishing between research that sheds light on her subject and research that merely clutters her pages, on the other hand she helps us reach what certainly seems to be a clearer understanding of a woman who, it turns out, was even more interesting, appealing and vulnerable in private than on the screen. A resident of Los Angeles whose previous books include a biography of Priscilla Presley, Finstad also has a keen sense of how that city's dream factory simultaneously turns women into stars and leaves them bereft.

Given the mother with whom she was both blessed and cursed, Natasha/Natalie (as from time to time Finstad refers to her) probably never had a chance to live the normal life for which apparently she always yearned. Maria Gurdin (her husband changed his surname because he thought Zakharenko was "too Russian") is a familiar character, a parent whose "obsession to make Natasha famous vicariously fulfilled her lost stardust dreams," at once contemptible and pitiable. Natasha (as she was then still known) was barely 6 when she made her first picture, and only a couple of years older when the first of her famous performances -- in "Miracle on 34th Street" and "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" -- were released. Early on it was drummed into her that the family's fortunes rested solely on her, with the result that "what compelled Natasha to act was not the desire to perform; it was a compulsion to please."

She never had more than a glimpse of a conventional American childhood. Not only did her mother drag her off to Hollywood at the first opportunity, but her father -- a weak man whom she seems to have loved -- was both alcoholic and abusive, though evidence of the latter is somewhat circumstantial. She was in her own words "a very good little girl," but she was lonely and remained so for the rest of her life. Yet if she was forced into stardom, she enjoyed it and eventually came to expect its rewards. Finstad, who is sympathetic to but not sentimental about her, quotes her friend and fellow child star Margaret O'Brien: "She loved everything to do with stardom. She just loved the life. The glamour and the going to premieres and all that." Another friend, who recalled her as "fragile" and "insecure," also remembered the pleasure with which she wrapped herself in the apparel of stardom: "the furs, the cigarette, the sunglasses, jewelry, pearls, the bracelet."

Finstad concludes, in fact, that stardom was Natalie's "real passion," so one should not be too quick to pigeonhole her in the category of poor little rich girl. She did get what she wanted, and even if it turned out to be something less than a dream, it put her at the top of her business and made her a figure of international renown. She worked very hard to get it, and proved to have talent as well as looks. The director of "Miracle on 34th Street" said she had "an instinctive sense of timing and emotion"; many actors who worked with her testified to her professionalism and grit; and there was near-universal agreement that "the camera loved her." As Debbie Reynolds put it: "She had features for the camera like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. They were so beautiful, and the camera loved their faces! It was a love affair with the camera, and Natalie had that, with those big brown eyes, little nose, little mouth."

She appeared in nearly four dozen pictures, only a handful of which had any real merit: "West Side Story" (her singing was dubbed by the ubiquitous Marni Nixon) and "Splendor in the Grass" and "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," though this last seems pretty much a period piece three decades after its release. She longed for more serious work and probably had the ability to do it, but "she was hesitant to veer too far outside the Hollywood mainstream and the studio system that weaned her."

In the last decade of her life she had only four major roles, none memorable. It is fortunate that at the same time she achieved at least a measure of private happiness. Her first marriage, to Robert Wagner, had been "her one-and-only, her fantasy fulfilled," and she committed herself to it "all or nothing," but it ended in a hurry in the early 1960s after she "stumbled upon [her husband] in a compromising position with another man." She was very briefly married later in that decade to Richard Gregson, "a suave London agent," who became the father of her first child, a daughter born in 1970. After their divorce she remarried Wagner, with whom she had a second daughter, born four years later. Thereafter she "made herculean efforts to be the perfect mother while still fulfilling her creative needs." Judging by the love with which both daughters speak of her, she must have succeeded.

Their time with her was brief, because in November 1981 she drowned off the island of Catalina in circumstances that never have been satisfactorily explained. She was aboard Wagner's sailboat with him and two other men. There was a lot of drinking, and apparently there was a lot of arguing as well. Whether the effects of alcohol were compounded by sexual tension or rivalry is a matter of conjecture. What we do know is that this woman who had a lifelong terror of water -- "I have this dream," she said, "where I'm going to die in dark water" -- ended up in it, and lost her life.

At the time the news was heartbreaking, for all the usual reasons about lost beauty and youth and promise. It is all the more so now, for the woman who emerges in this biography is not a distant celebrity but a real person, flawed to be sure, but also modest, unaffected, thoughtful, kind, intelligent, "just a terrifically nice, sweet person," in the words of a friend. "My mom never had a childhood," one of her daughters has said, "and it was one of her great sadnesses. One of her most important wishes was that my sister and I have a normal childhood." She had finally gotten what she really wanted, and then it was taken away from her.

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