Natalie Wood: A Life

Natalie Wood: A Life

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by Gavin Lambert, Robert Blumenfeld

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She spent her life in the movies. Her childhood is still there to see in Miracle on 34th Street. Her adolescence in Rebel Without a Cause. Her coming of age? Still playing in Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story and countless other hit movies. From the moment Natalie Wood made her debut in 1946, playing Claudette Colbert and Orson

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She spent her life in the movies. Her childhood is still there to see in Miracle on 34th Street. Her adolescence in Rebel Without a Cause. Her coming of age? Still playing in Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story and countless other hit movies. From the moment Natalie Wood made her debut in 1946, playing Claudette Colbert and Orson Welles’s ward in Tomorrow Is Forever at the age of seven, to her shocking, untimely death in 1981, the decades of her life are marked by movies that–for their moments–summed up America’s dreams.

Now the acclaimed novelist, biographer, critic and screenwriter Gavin Lambert, whose twenty-year friendship with Natalie Wood began when she wanted to star in the movie adaptation of his novel Inside Daisy Clover, tells her extraordinary story. He writes about her parents, uncovering secrets that Natalie either didn’t know or kept hidden from those closest to her. Here is the young Natalie, from her years as a child actress at the mercy of a driven, controlling stage mother (“Make Mr. Pichel love you,” she whispered to the five-year-old Natalie before depositing her unexpectedly on the director’s lap), to her awkward adolescence when, suddenly too old for kiddie roles, she was shunted aside, just another freshman at Van Nuys High. Lambert shows us the glamorous movie star in her twenties—All the Fine Young Cannibals, Gypsy and Love with the Proper Stranger. He writes about her marriages, her divorces, her love affairs, her suicide attempt at twenty-six, the birth of her children, her friendships, her struggles as an actress and her tragic deathby drowning (she was always terrified of water) at forty-three.
For the first time, everyone who knew Natalie Wood speaks freely–including her husbands Robert Wagner and Richard Gregson, famously private people like Warren Beatty, intimate friends such as playwright Mart Crowley, directors Robert Mulligan and Paul Mazursky, and Leslie Caron, each of whom told the author stories about this remarkable woman who was both life-loving and filled with despair.

What we couldn’t know–have never been told before–Lambert perceptively uncovers. His book provides the richest portrait we have had of Natalie Wood.

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Editorial Reviews
The Barnes & Noble Review
In this insightful biography, screenwriter Gavin Lambert turns an illuminating spotlight on the generous heart, fragile spirit, and underrated talent of Hollywood icon Natalie Wood, the glamorous star whose life was cut tragically short at age 43 by a mysterious drowning off the coast of Catalina.

Revealing a world of shocking exploitation, Lambert describes how Wood (born Natasha Gurdin) was "handled" all her life -- first by a stage mother straight out of Central Casting, a manipulative Russian fabulist who pushed Natalie into stardom at age five and instilled in her daughter lifelong fears and insecurities; then by a studio system that wielded power with draconian severity. One of the few movie moppets to successfully segue into adult films, Wood was a cash cow for Warner Bros., yet she had pitifully little control over her own career. Over four decades she appeared in more than 50 films, wringing quality performances out of lackluster roles and proving her acting chops in a handful of gems like Rebel Without a Cause and Splendor in the Grass.

Lambert examines how early betrayals and emotional abuse surfaced in pathological fears (especially of the "dark waters" that, ironically, claimed her life), in an unshakable "Russian" melancholy, and in her innate mistrust of people. Indeed, the one high point in a love life filled with spectacularly bad choices was Robert Wagner, the compassionate soul mate she married twice.

What distinguishes this biography from other Hollywood tell-alls is a conspicuous absence of malice. With the same affectionate understanding he brought to his lives of George Cukor and Norma Shearer, Lambert has captured the enigmatic essence of Natalie Wood. Anne Markowski

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Chapter 1 Out of Russia

Shortly after eleven p.m. on November 6, 1917 (New Style calendar),
the Bolsheviks seized power by storming government buildings and the
Winter Palace in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). After months of
violent disorders throughout Russia, the revolution was under way;
and as the majority members (Bolsheviki) of the Socialist Party
believed in "dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants,"
thousands of wealthy landowners and businessmen realized their lands
and businesses would be confiscated, and fled the country with all
the money and possessions they could take with them. Supporters
and/or relatives of Tsar Nicholas II (government ministers, army
officers, princes and grand dukes with their wives and children) also
took flight, and when fighting between Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik
forces erupted across the country, thousands more fled their homes to
become refugees from a savage and devastating civil war.

Among the refugees were two families, one rich, one poor, living
three thousand miles apart. A daughter of the rich family and a son
of the poor family eventually emigrated to California, met in San
Francisco, and were married on February 8, 1938. The Russian Orthodox
ceremony took place at the Russian church on Fulton Street, when the
bride was almost five months pregnant, and the following July a
future star was born.

In 1917, Stepan Zudilov was forty-two years old, a portly, prosperous
middle-class businessman who owned soap and candle factories in
Barnaul, southern Siberia, and an estate in the outlying countryside.
Bythen he had fathered a large family: two sons and two daughters by
his first wife, who died in 1905 after giving birth to their younger
daughter; and by his second wife, whom he married a year later, two
more daughters followed by two more sons.

His youngest daughter, Maria Stepanovna, born in 1912, claimed years
later in California that her mother came from an aristocratic family
with Romanov connections, and had "married beneath her." But this was
Maria the fabulist speaking, with her dreams of nobility, and Zudilov
the outspoken tsarist and land-and-factory owner had no need of
Romanov connections to qualify for the Bolshevik hit list. The
Zudilovs were known as "gentry," and to the Bolsheviks all landowning
gentry were suspect, like the family of the great Russian writer Ivan
Bunin (who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1933). "Any of us
who had the slightest chance to escape did so," Bunin wrote after he
fled from his estate in central Russia to France by way of Romania.

But the armies of the new government headed by Lenin were slow to
gain control of an enormous country, and for almost a year the
Zudilovs, like their tsarist neighbors, were in no imminent danger by
remaining in Barnaul. It was not until the summer of 1918, six months
after the civil war broke out, that the Bolsheviks managed to gain
control of all southern and central Russia. On the night of July 16,
Tsar Nicholas II, his entire family, their doctor and servants, were
executed by a squad of Red Guards at Ekaterinburg, the western
terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway. When the news reached
Barnaul, it sent tremors of fear throughout the neighboring gentry;
and by late November, Red Guard units were only a hundred miles from
the town, after executing suspected tsarists en route.

Zudilov had arranged to be warned of their approach in advance, and
when the alert came, the family hurried to a prepared hiding place on
the estate, stuffing as much money and jewelry as they could inside
loose-fitting peasant clothes. Forgotten in the panic of the moment
was eighteen-year-old Mikhail, Zudilov's eldest son, who happened to
be out of the house.

After the soldiers moved on, the family left their hiding place. Just
outside the house, they were confronted by Mikhail hanging from a
tree. The sight of her dead half-brother sent six-year-old Maria into

Knowing the soldiers were bound to return, the Zudilovs quickly made
plans to leave Russia, and in the dead of winter they set out for
Harbin in Manchuria, the northeastern province of China. Maria
claimed later that they traveled by private train, with a retinue of
servants as well as stacks of rubles and the family jewels stowed in
their luggage. Although there's no doubt they escaped with enough
assets to live very comfortably in exile, the private train is almost
certainly another example of Maria the fabulist.

Red Guards were still searching the area for potential enemies of the
new Soviet Russia, and a private train would have aroused immediate
suspicion. But as Barnaul was a stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway,
only four hundred miles from the Manchurian frontier, and Harbin the
last stop before Vladivostok for eastbound trains, it seems far more
likely that the Zudilovs decided to keep a low profile and traveled
by the regular route.

When the child from a secluded country estate looked out the train
window during that journey of almost three thousand miles, she would
have glimpsed the same frighteningly alien world as the Anglo-Russian
novelist William Gerhardie, who traveled by the Trans-Siberian that
same year. He saw a "stricken land of misery," with ravenous and
spectral refugees huddled on the platform when the train slowed down
past a wayside station; dismal tracts of frozen steppe, occasionally
swept by a violent gale that caused the coaches to rattle, squeal,
and shudder; and near the Chinese frontier, where civil war had been
especially ferocious, a wake of gutted villages and more desperate
refugees, some dying or dead.

Ivan Bunin: No one who did not actually witness it can comprehend
what the Russian Revolution quickly turned into. The spectacle was
sheer terror for anyone who had not utterly lost sight of God.

Like thousands of other refugees, Zudilov chose Harbin because it was
a Chinese city with a strong Russian presence. The Byzantine dome of
the Russian cathedral dominated its skyline, and there was an
extensive Russian quarter, part business, part residential, with
street signs in Russian, droshkies instead of rickshaws, restaurants
that served borscht and beef Stroganoff. Japan had also moved in,
with trading concessions at the port on the Songhua River,
investments in the city's grain mills, and a chain of "Happiness
Mansions," brothels that featured very young boys as well as girls;
and Britain, with the British Export Company, which employed
ruthlessly underpaid Chinese to slaughter thousands of pigs, fowl and
sheep every year, then freeze them for export to the homeland and the
United States.

Business as usual, of course, meant politics as usual, colonial
expansion in a country weakened by years of internal rebellions led
by rival warlords. By the spring of 1918, Russian nationals formed
almost a third of Harbin's population of three hundred thousand, and
the Chinese quarter was just a suburb, like a picturesque Chinatown
set in a Hollywood silent movie; while the much larger central
downtown area, with its handsome beaux-arts railroad station and
Hotel Moderne, looked solidly Western. Under the agreement between
Russia and China, the stretch of the Trans-Siberian that crossed
Manchuria was officially known as the Chinese Eastern Railway; but it
was Russian-financed, maintained by Russian workers, and guarded by
regiments of Russian soldiers headquartered in Harbin.

And in the wake of the revolution, the Zudilovs escaped one political
upheaval only to find themselves in the middle of another. Not long
before they arrived, fighting had broken out between Red and White
Russian workers and guards on the railway. The Soviet government had
sent in militiamen to rout the anti-Bolsheviks; and in case a
full-scale civil war developed, the Japanese made ready to invade
Manchuria and seize control of the Chinese Eastern. At the end of
December, when the Zudilovs reached Harbin, the Chinese government
intervened by sending in an army to disarm and deport the Soviet
militia; and for the moment at least, the situation was defused.

A few weeks later, on February 8, 1919, the Zudilovs celebrated
Maria's seventh birthday. Although she was too young, of course, to
understand the ways of the great world, the flight from Barnaul had
stamped images of warning and terror on her mind. Like most Russian
refugees, the Zudilovs stayed within their own community of exiles,
ignoring China and the Chinese; but as she grew up, Maria couldn't
fail to notice-beyond the house in the Russian quarter where Zudilov
established his family with a Chinese cook and a German nanny for the
girls, and the Russian school where she occasionally took ballet
lessons as well as regular classes-more warning signs that the great
world was a disturbingly insecure place.

Throughout the 1920s, the city witnessed several outbreaks of
fighting between Red and White Russians, parades of underpaid Chinese
workers on strike against foreign companies, and street
demonstrations by the growing nationalist movement. In 1920 one of
these demonstrations led to violence, and smoke covered the city when
the storage plant of the British Export Company was burned to the
ground. Occasional Soviet threats to invade Manchuria and restore
order sent shivers of alarm through the exiles; and an increasingly
familiar experience for Maria was the sight of Russians who had
arrived in style, like her own family, reduced to begging in the
streets when their money ran out.

The sight of her half-brother hanging from a tree had produced
Maria's first convulsion. It soon led to others, when something
frightened her or when she didn't get her own way. As a result she
was considered delicate, pampered and spoiled by her parents and

As a further result, Maria learned that she could get her own way by
throwing a fit. She grew cunning, but at the same time incurably
superstitious, and most of her superstitions were based on fear. At
first they were the conventional ones: the bad luck caused by
breaking a mirror, leaving a hat on your bed, or touching a peacock
feather. But they grew quite bizarre with time, like her more extreme
fantasies. Years later, in California, she told her daughters that
she was a foundling, born into a Gypsy family that taught her
fortune-telling, explained the dangers lurking in everyday signs, and
later abandoned her on a Siberian steppe.

Among the multitude of poor Russians, peasants and laborers, some had
never heard the word "revolution" before, and thought it meant a
woman chosen to replace the tsar. The poor, in fact, simply fled the
chaos of civil war: famine, butchery, looting, skyrocketing
inflation. In Vladivostok, a subzero city on a bleak peninsula in Far
Eastern Siberia, almost half the population had been reduced to
near-starvation, and some died of cold on the wooden sidewalks
rotting under heavy snow.

Hundreds more died in the street fighting that broke out in November
1918 between Red and White Russian soldiers. Among the dead was
Stepan Zacharenko, who worked in a chocolate factory and joined the
anti-Bolshevik civilian forces who fought side by side with the
Whites. His widow escaped by train to Shanghai with her three young
sons, and wrote to ask for help from her brother, who had emigrated
to Canada. With the money he sent, she bought steerage tickets on a
boat that left Shanghai for Vancouver, but it's unclear whether she
traveled with her sons or remained behind.

In August 2000, the youngest Zacharenko son, Dmitri, was living in
Palm Springs. At first he insisted that his mother remarried in
Shanghai, and her new husband, a Russian engineer, brought her to
Canada, where the family was reunited. But at eighty-five Dmitri's
memory was erratic, and he later contradicted himself by insisting
that he and his brothers were sent to live with their uncle and aunt
in Montreal.

Although Dmitri wasn't always sure what he remembered, it's certain
that he and his brothers, Nikolai and Vladimir, attended school in
Montreal, learned to speak serviceable English, and soon heard the
call to go west. As a young boy, Nikolai had acquired a passion for
reading and learned to play the balalaika. As a young man, he became
a migrant worker, took any job that would bring him nearer
California, and developed into an expert carpenter along the way. But
in San Francisco he had to take the only job on offer at first, as a
janitor at the Standard Oil Building.

Vladimir, the oldest brother, played violin; Dmitri played mandolin;
and when the three Zacharenkos met up in San Francisco, they formed a
trio with Nikolai on balalaika to earn extra money at local dance
halls. Although Vladimir eventually became a nuclear engineer, and
Dmitri worked as chief accountant to an automobile tire company after
joining the U.S. Army and being awarded a Purple Heart in World War
II, Nikolai appeared to place his future on indefinite hold. In 1934,
the year he met Maria, he was working at the docks, loading and
unloading the sugarcane boats that plied the coastal ports between
San Francisco and San Diego.

A photograph of Maria in Harbin with her mother, sister, two
half-sisters and German nanny shows a dark-haired girl with
strikingly intense eyes. She faces the camera confidently, directly,
as if daring it not to find her more attractive than her siblings.
She looks around sixteen, so the photograph was probably taken in
1928, the year she met and fell in love with a Russian-Armenian
regimental officer from one of the military units stationed in Harbin.

"When I was young," Maria said many years later in California, "I was
ruled by my heart, not my head." So was her own mother, she added,
who was forced to break off her affair with an impoverished
aristocrat to marry Zudilov, a merger arranged by the heads of their
respective families. And Maria claimed to have married Captain Alexei
Tatulov in secret, because she feared her father would consider him

For "heart that ruled the head," read "sexual drive." Maria probably
inherited it from her mother, and there's no doubt the same gene
recurred even more strongly in her famous daughter.

In Maria's sometimes conflicting accounts of her early life, she
never discussed her parents' reaction to her secret marriage to
Tatulov. But in 1929, after the birth of their daughter, Olga, it was
clearly no longer a secret. At Tatulov's insistence, Olga was
baptized in the Armenian Orthodox Church; and when Zudilov learned
that he had a granddaughter, he accepted the situation on condition
that a Russian Orthodox priest rebaptize her.

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Meet the Author

Gavin Lambert was born and educated in England. He coedited the film magazine Sequence with Lindsay Anderson, was the editor of Sight and Sound and wrote film criticism for The Sunday Times and The Guardian. He is the author of four biographies--On Cukor, Norma Shearer, Nazimova and Mainly About Lindsay Anderson--and seven novels, among them, The Slide Area and The Goodbye People. His screenplays include The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, the Oscar-nominated Sons and Lovers and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. He lives in Los Angeles.

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