A Mother’s Death, a Daughter’s Life: Remembering Natalie Wood


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Natalie Wood with her daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner in the 1970s. “I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I am different from her and how I am similar,” Ms. Gregson Wagner said.

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Ron Galella/WireImage

LOS ANGELES — The home that Natasha Gregson Wagner shares with her husband, his sons and their daughter in Venice, a seaside neighborhood here, smells clean in a non-antiseptic way and, on a recent visit, faintly of the lilacs that rested in a vase on the kitchen countertop.

Scent matters to Ms. Gregson Wagner, 45. It’s an emotional trigger and conjurer of memory. In every home that she has lived in as an adult, she says she has planted a gardenia bush, because the smell of gardenias reminds her of her mother. “The smell is what I remember, the comfort of the smell,” she said as she sat on a banquette in her kitchen, wearing jeans and a flowered, billowy blouse. “I knew when she was home because I would smell her perfume. She would waft through the house.”

Her mother was Natalie Wood, who appeared in “Miracle on 34th Street” as a little girl, “Rebel Without a Cause” as a teenager and “Splendor in the Grass” and “West Side Story” as a young woman. Beginning at the age of 4, and over the next four decades, Ms. Wood starred or appeared in more than five dozen films and television shows and was an emblem of Hollywood glamour and beauty, wholesome but sensual — a good girl growing up in front of American moviegoers during the squeaky-clean 1950s and the sexual revolution and era of women’s liberation that followed.

She died in 1981, when she was 43, having drowned Thanksgiving weekend somewhere off the coast of Catalina Island, Calif., where she had been staying on a boat with her husband, Robert J. Wagner, and a friend, the actor Christopher Walken.

At the time, Ms. Gregson Wagner was 11 and her sister Courtney Wagner was 7. Ms. Gregson Wagner was on a sleepover at the Hollywood Hills home of her best friend, who had a new clock radio. The girls went to sleep with the radio on. The news was broadcast as they slept. “I woke up and I was like: ‘Is this real? Is this really what’s happening?’” Ms. Gregson Wagner recalled. “They said, ‘Natalie Wood drowned off the coast of Catalina.’”

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Natasha Gregson Wagner at her home in Los Angeles.

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Elizabeth Weinberg for The New York Times

Then she got home. “It was all real,” she said. “I remember all these adults, my dad was just in bed, he was in bed not able to function at all. Daddy Gregson was there the next day and my stepmom, Julia. My mom’s three best friends: Mart Crowley, who is a playwright; and Howard Jeffrey, who passed away and was assistant choreographer on ‘West Side Story’; and then Delphine Mann, who is still alive. They were really taking care of us, and of course our nanny. It was kind of like a Fellini movie with people coming in and out. It was very extreme. Very bizarre.”

As any daughter would be, she was devastated and scared. “Her bed and her sheets smelled like her,” said Ms. Gregson Wagner, who is petite at 5-foot-2 and with almond-shaped brown eyes, bears more than a passing resemblance to her mother. “I slept there for a lot of nights. Especially with one of her pillows, it just smelled like her in the days after.”

More than 30 years later, the memory of that death — and the decades-long controversy that surrounded it — remains a powerful one for Ms. Gregson Wagner, one that she has rarely spoken about publicly. An actress who has appeared in films such as “High Fidelity” and “Two Girls and a Guy,” Ms. Gregson Wagner has chosen, over the years, to reserve most of her remembrances and reflections about her mother’s life and death for conversations with close friends and loved ones.

But there are reasons that she recently chose to invite a reporter into her home, which is decorated minimally with nods to her family history: a needlepoint pillow bearing her mother and stepfather’s initials here, a photo of her mother holding her as a days-old baby in the front seat of a Mercedes there.

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Natalie Wood, left, and Lana Wood.

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Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

Working with her mother’s estate, she has decided to embark on a commercial project. She has created (and is planning a major rollout for) a perfume to honor her mother, called Natalie. It is a gardenia-based fragrance in a square glass bottle adorned by Ms. Wood’s signature. Next fall, there will be a coffee-table book she is contributing to, to be published by Turner Classic Movies and Running Press, with essays as well as vintage film studio and family photographs.

The occasion has led Ms. Gregson Wagner to speak about her mother’s death — and, of greater importance to her daughter — her life.

She has spent years talking to therapists while trying to extricate the mother who died from the celebrity whose legend lived on. The process, at times, was confusing and isolating, she said, and left her feeling insecure: the overshadowed daughter of a movie star who died young, rather than Natasha, daughter of Natalie.

But raising her daughter, Clover, 3, with her husband, Barry Watson, has shifted her perceptions. “When you grow up with a mom who is so enigmatic and gorgeous and full of charisma and power,” she began, “well, because I was 11 when she died, I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I am different from her and how I am similar, to help me have my own individuality.”

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A bottle of the perfume Ms. Gregson Wagner has created to honor her mother, along with jewelry that belonged to her, including a Van Cleef & Arpels butterfly.

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Elizabeth Weinberg for The New York Times

Ms. Gregson Wagner’s very name suggests the complications of a Hollywood childhood. At the time of her death, Ms. Wood had been married for nearly a decade to Mr. Wagner, whom she first married in 1957, then divorced in 1962 before marrying him again in 1972. It was between Ms. Wood’s marriages to Mr. Wagner that Ms. Gregson Wagner was born, in 1970, a product of a brief marriage to the English agent and producer Richard Gregson.

Ms. Wood remarried Mr. Wagner (whom Ms. Wood called R J) when Natasha was 2, and then appended her new husband’s name to her daughter’s. “She added his name without talking about it to my real dad, which she shouldn’t have done; but that was my mom’s style,” Ms. Gregson Wagner said. “She didn’t think she needed to ask permission to do anything.”

After her mother’s death, Ms. Gregson Wagner was raised by her stepfather (“Daddy Wagner”) in the Pacific Palisades, spending summers with her real father (“Daddy Gregson”) in Wales. (Courtney, Natasha’s younger sister, is the child of Ms. Wood and Mr. Wagner. Katie, Natasha’s older sister, is the daughter of Mr. Wagner and Marion Donen, whom he wed between his two marriages to Ms. Wood; Katie lived with her father and sisters.)

“There were no lawyers,” she said. “My dads just sat down and my Daddy Gregson said, ‘I feel like Natasha should come live with me because she’s my daughter,’ and my Daddy Wagner said, ‘I know, that would make sense, but she’s grown up with me,’ and then they said, ‘What’s the best thing for Natasha?’” She added: “And they were right. The best thing for me was to live with my stepdad and see my Daddy Gregson over the summer.”

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A charm necklace that belonged to Ms. Gregson Wagner’s mother.

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Elizabeth Weinberg for The New York Times

Ms. Wood’s death was declared a drowning, but some of the details around it remain unknown. The tragedy has long been a favorite focus of conspiracy theorists, and caused something of a family rift. Recently, Lana Wood, Natalie’s younger sister and Natasha’s aunt, approached Mr. Wagner in a hotel lobby in view of a videographer, asking him to answer questions about the night Natalie died. The video ended up on RadarOnline.com and kicked up a little dust on the web.

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