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“NATALIE WOOD” NEVER REALLY EXISTED. The actress with that name was a fictional creation of her mother, a disturbed genius known by various first names, usually Maria. How Natalie was discovered, why she went into show business as a child, her background, were all part of a tapestry of lies woven by Maria that began before Natalie was even born. “God created her, but I invented her,” her mother said once, after Natalie's body was discovered floating in the dark waters off Catalina Island the Sunday after Thanksgiving of 1981, when she was just forty-three. Natalie Wood, the celebrity, was an entwined alter ego of mother and daughter so powerfully macabre her drowning had been predicted by a gypsy, years before, to happen to Maria, not Natalie. The person inside the illusion of “Natalie Wood” was lost for years, even to herself.
Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, the real name of the actress known as Natalie Wood, was a child of Russia, once removed. Exactly where in Russia we may never know, for her mother, the source of the family history, was an unreliable witness, a feverishly imaginative woman who lived in a world of her own invention, only occasionally punctuated by the truth. Maria's friends characterized this as colorful; others considered her devious; her youngest child eventually concluded she was a pathological liar. There was intrigue to Maria no biographer could fully unravel. She would have three daughters-Olga, Natalia, and Svetlana-three sisters, as in the Chekhov play. For Maria, there was only and ever Natalia. Her consuming obsession with Natasha, Natalia's pet name, was the one thing no one questioned about Maria.
The rest of her life was a masquerade, with Maria assuming different disguises.
Natalie Wood's mother came into the world somewhere in Siberia. It was most likely the town of Barnaul, as her oldest child, Olga, believed and ship's records document, though she told a different daughter and a biographer that she was born in Tomsk. They are both close to Russia's border with Mongolia, near the Altai Mountains. Maria's early years were spent in this nethermost, Russian-Asian region of the more than four and a half million square miles known as Siberia, famous for its bitterly cold winters, romanticized for its forests primeval, and considered the ends of the earth.
Maria claimed, throughout her life, to have grown up in fantastical luxury on a palatial Siberian estate with a Chinese cook, three governesses, and a “nyanka” (nanny) per child. But her most cherished belief, or delusion, was that she was related, through her mother, to the Romanovs, Russia's royal family. Her stories-whether true or not, and most who heard them questioned their veracity-”kept you spellbound,” according to a young actor who befriended Maria in the 1980s, after Natalie drowned. “She herself was quite the actress. She spoke in a very dramatic whisper, so you had to lean in, and pay close attention. She used her hands as she would describe in great detail her genealogy from Russia. She would whisper, ‘We were descended from royalty . . .' and you would just hang on every word.”
What is known of Maria's family is that her father, Stepan Zudilov, was married twice. He had four children-two boys, Mikhael and Semen, and two girls, Apollinaria (called Lilia) and Kallisfenia (or Kalia) – by his first wife, Anna. Anna died in childbirth with Kalia in 1905 in Barnaul, where the Zudilovs resided. Stepan took a second bride, who would likewise bear him two sons and two daughters in reverse order: a girl, Zoia, born in 1907, followed by Maria, then Boris and Gleb. Stepan Zudilov's youngest daughter, Maria Stepanovna Zudilova, would become the mother of Natalie Wood.
According to Maria, her mother (also named Maria) was “close relations” to the Romanov family. It is believed her maiden name was Kulev. Whether she was an aristocrat is unknown. Kalia, Stepan's younger daughter by his first wife and the only Zudilov child other than Maria to immigrate to the United States, would later tell her children, “Somebody in the line was a countess.” But as a Russian historian notes sardonically, “Everyone from Russia wants to be related to the Romanovs.”
If Natalie Wood's grandmother had royal blood, her mother undermined her own credibility by the thousand-and-one variations on her lineage she offered, Scheherazade-style. “One story was that her parents took her to China when she was a little girl and she became a Chinese princess through some mysterious circumstances that were never explained,” recalls a Hollywood friend. Another version that surfaced in studio biographies after Natalie became a child actress identified Maria as “being of French extraction.” According to her eldest daughter, Olga, this was a prank on Maria's part. “When they would ask her if she's French, she'd say, 'Oh, yes . . .' She knew how to speak French, because she probably had French nannies.” Even this was based solely on Maria's word, for Olga never heard her mother actually speak a word of French (nor did Maria's half-sister Kalia speak it). Maria's white lie sustained itself all the way to a 1983 television tribute to Natalie Wood, during which Orson Welles, her first costar, refers to Natalie being “not just of Russian but also of French descent.” Maria, in the opinion of her daughter Lana (Americanized from Svetlana), was “frightening” in her ability to bend reality and convince others it was true, “because she did believe everything that came out of her mouth.”
Maria told Lana that she was born to gypsy parents who left her on a hillside, where the Zudilovs found her and raised her as their own. “I heard that story my entire life.” Maria would laugh about it with friends after Natalie became famous, muttering, in her heavy Slavic whisper, “They used to call me 'The Gypsy!' “ She could easily create that impression as an adult, with her raven hair, magical tales and musical accent. “I could almost see her,” remarked a Hollywood writer who spent hours with Maria, “waylaying me on a street with a bunch of heather, saying, 'Buy this or you'll be cursed for life.' “
The idea that Maria was the displaced child of gypsies is “hogwash” in the pronouncement of her closest traceable living relation – Kalia's son Constantine. No one in the family, including Lana, took this tale seriously. It originated, Maria's daughter Olga believes, as gossip among the family servants, for Maria was born, she told Olga, at the Zudilovs' “dacha,” a country cottage, in the mountains. “And when my grandmother came back she had my mother, so the servants used to tell her, 'You were born by gypsies,' because she wasn't born right there where they could see her.”
One clue exists to help decipher Maria's past. It is a photograph of the Zudilov family, retained separately by both Maria and Kalia, taken somewhere in Russia circa March 1919, according to the handwritten description. Maria's family, judged by their portrait, appears to be of means. They are dressed ˆ la mode, the girls in shirtwaists and sailor dresses, posed regally, projecting a patrician mien. Stepan Zudilov, Natalie Wood's maternal grandfather, sits on a chair to the far left of the photograph, a stout but stately figure with a sweeping moustache, in a well-tailored three-piece woolen suit. At the center of the portrait, also seated, is his second wife, Maria, the putative Romanov. Maria evokes a gentle womanliness. She is possessed of a round face with soft features, girlishly pretty; her dark hair, contrasted by fair skin, is styled in marcelled waves. What distinguishes her as the grandmother of Natalie Wood are her liquid brown eyes: they hold the camera with their tender, slightly sad gaze.
Stepan and Maria occupy the front row with their four children – Natalie's mother, Maria, staring brazenly into the camera's eye; thirteen-year-old Zoia; and the two boys, Boris and Gleb, six and four, seated side-by-side in identical Lord Fauntleroy suits. (Maria would later bizarrely refer to them as “twins.”) Standing behind Stepan's second family are his four grown children by his first wife, Anna; including Kalia, the corroborating witness to the family history. Anna's offspring are swarthier, with sharper features than Stepan's children by Natalie's grandmother. Everyone has captivating eyes.
The picture helps to solve the riddle of Maria's true age, which would become the subject of whispered speculation once she came to Hollywood. From the time she was twenty or so, she gave her date of birth as February 8, 1912. On the back of the 1919 family photo, she is identified as “11 years, 1 month,” which would mean she was born in 1908-the same year recorded in the ship's log when she immigrated to America. Both Maria and Kalia, Kalia's son cheerfully admits, “lied about their age.”
The photograph of Maria's family, ironically, bears a resemblance to the romantic images of Russia's Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra, in formal portraits with their children, taken in the last days of the Romanov monarchy. Maria kept this family photo beside a framed portrait of the Romanovs in similar pose, to the day she died, prizing them as jewels. Aside from Natalie, her link to Russian aristocracy is what defined Maria to herself, true or false, for as one companion remarked, “She believed every word of it. That's the mark of a good actress.”
Musia or Marusia, as young Maria was affectionately called, was pampered from the time she was born because of her diminutive size. One of her stories was that she weighed only two pounds at birth, nearly dying. In the family portrait, she is nestled into her mother, cradling her to her breast as Marusia peers out with the smug self-possession of the favored child. She has an elfin quality, her dark hair pixie-short, with penetrating, bird-like eyes she compared to her father's as green, her daughter Olga describes as a changeable gray-blue, and those who considered her malevolent called “black and beady.” Her expression, even at eleven, suggests cunning. She was a mischievous girl. Her German nanny was fired for making Musia kneel; she learned to swear in Chinese from the cook. When she did so in front of her father, it was the cook-not Musia-who “got a talking.” The young Marusia adored jewelry (a bold bracelet leaps out from her tiny wrist in the family photo). She collected pictures and books depicting the royal family “because I worship them,” she would say later, “almost like a god.”
Kalia, Marusia's older half-sister, supported her grandiose accounts of governesses and fur coats and seamstresses for their dolls, though Kalia identified the origin of the family's wealth as a factory that produced vodka and textiles, while Maria said their father manufactured candles, ink and candy.? Kalia was not heard to repeat Maria's boast that the town where they kept their dacha was named after Natalie's grandfather. (“Because he was such a generous man. If a peasant is nice and he likes him, he'll give him house, he gives him horse, he gives him land.”) According to Maria, her parents' marriage was arranged to merge Stepan Zudilov's fortune with Maria Zuleva's name. Neither Kalia nor Maria, once in America, had photos of the family's estate, or their dacha, to authenticate living such rarefied childhoods, though according to Kalia's son, they behaved like it. “Didn't cook, didn't clean, had other people do that.”
This idyll, if it existed, came to a tragic end around 1919. A civil war erupted in Petrograd two years before, forcing Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate. Bolshevik workers seized the Winter Palace by October, naming Communist Vladimir Lenin as their leader. The summer of 1918, the Bolsheviks murdered Nicholas, his wife, Alexandra, and their five young children, Grand Duke Alexei and the grand duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and presumably Anastasia.
Natalie's grandparents kept an uneasy vigil at their home in Barnaul as the Bolshevik Revolution made its way toward Siberia. Sometime after March of 1919, the date they sat for their portrait, they were warned the Bolsheviks were coming. “They told us, 'Run!' “ said Maria, “because of Mother, the whole family would have been killed. They were killing aristocrats.” They left so quickly, she recalled, there was no time to find her favorite brother, Semen.
The Zudilovs, dressed as peasants, crossed the border into Manchuria, where they stayed a few days per Maria, a year by Kalia's version. “Then the Czechs came and chased the Communists away,” Maria recounted, “so we came back.”
Marusia and her family returned to Barnaul to find Semen hanging from the archway of their front door, a rope around his neck. Ten-year-old Marusia went into violent convulsions. “I was so little and I loved him so much-he was such a nice half-brother. When I saw him hanging there, with the tongue and everything, I start to have convulsions, starting with the neck, then with leg and hands, and then I just drop.” The episode, a family legend, permanently affected Natalie's mother's nerves, leaving her subject to “the fits,” she called it, damaging her psyche in ways unknowable.
Marusia and her family remained in Siberia until the Bolshevik Revolution reached their door, when they fled for China, “because the Reds were killing everybody.” She and Kalia would provide essentially the same drama of the family's escape: how they packed what jewels and belongings they could onto a train their father bought from the Chinese. According to Maria, Natalie's grandfather buried “jewels and money and gold” worth “millions” in a waterproof box with a map of its location provided to everyone in the family “except me. I was young, they didn't give me the plan.” A similar story surfaced from Kalia, though never, notably, the “plan.” Whether the tale of their escape and the buried family treasure is true remains cryptic. “The problem with stories from Russians,” one historian of the era observes, “is that they're all probable.”
According to Natalie’s mother, her parents changed everyone’s names because they were afraid Communists would find them, exacting a promise from each child never to reveal the family’s true identity – a reaction a Russian émigré friend considered extreme to the point of “demented.” “Stepan Zudilov” is identified as Kalia’s father on her 1905 birth certificate, before the alleged name change, and “Maria Kuleva” is the name documented as Marusia’s mother on family possessions prior to the Revolution. These are also the names Natalie’s mother would use to identify her parents on legal records once in the U.S., leaving little room for doubt that Natalie’s grandparents were born Stepan Zudilov and Maria Kuleva; though Olga, Natalie’s older sister, still expresses uncertainty those are their true names, “or if they changed them when they ran.” Olga and Natalie’s mother remained haunted all her life by the fear that Communists would come after her and “kill me like killed my brother.”
Once in Manchuria, little Marusia and her family stayed at a hotel in Qiqihar, where Natalie’s mother had the first of several alleged mystical experiences. As Maria later told the story, she “recognized” a house near their hotel as one she had lived in, remembering an outdoor playhouse and the ceiling of her bedroom, with “angels” on it. Her parents took her to the house, afraid she would have another seizure if they refused. Upstairs was a room with cherubim painted on the ceiling; in the backyard, concealed by spiders’ webs, Marusia found a decaying playhouse. Natalie’s mother believed in reincarnation ever after, despite the opposite position of the Russian Orthodox religion in which she was baptized, and to which she and her parents adhered. (“How can you explain that?” she would ask. “There was my angels!”)
Natalie’s grandparents settled in nearby Harbin, China, where so many Russians had fled, neighborhoods appeared to have been lifted out of Siberia. The family lived in such an enclave, in a “good” part of town. Stepan, Natalie’s grandfather, is presumed to have managed a soap factory. Natalie’s mother, Marusia, attended an all-Russian girls’ school, though Marusia’s eye was on “pretty young boys.” She went to church so she could “look at the boys, and look at what the girls are wearing – is my dress better than theirs?” Marusia had thick, naturally curly, crow-black hair and was preternaturally tiny – just five feet – “But she carried herself as if she were seven foot tall,” an acquaintance from Maria’s senior years. “She liked to talk about how she had been a great dancer, and how she had been a great beauty.” Natalie’s studio press releases would later describe her mother as a “professional ballerina” in China. “That was made up,” admits daughter Olga. Teenage Marusia took one ballet class in Harbin. “For grace,” she put it later, claiming her parents withdrew her, believing dancers and performers fell into a category with “prostitutes.”
Marusia and her sisters placed absolute faith in Russian superstitions and “did gypsy stuff” using Romany magic, such as “looking in the mirror on a certain night between two candles and you can see the person you’re supposed to marry.” One day, the sisters had their fortunes read by a Harbin gypsy. The fortune teller warned Marusia to “beware of dark water,” for she was going to drown. The gypsy also predicted her second child “would be a great beauty, known throughout the world.” Natalie Wood’s life, and death, would be dictated by the gypsy's twin prophecies.
The fortuneteller’s predictions held an immediate power over Natalie’s mother. She refused to go near water, “especially if it's dark waters.”