Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood

Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood

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by Suzanne Finstad

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Natalie Wood was always a star; her mother made sure this was true. A superstitious Russian immigrant who claimed to be royalty, Maria had been told by a gypsy, long before little Natasha Zakharenko's birth, that her second child would be famous throughout the world. When the beautiful child with the hypnotic eyes was first placed in Maria's arms, she knew the…  See more details below


Natalie Wood was always a star; her mother made sure this was true. A superstitious Russian immigrant who claimed to be royalty, Maria had been told by a gypsy, long before little Natasha Zakharenko's birth, that her second child would be famous throughout the world. When the beautiful child with the hypnotic eyes was first placed in Maria's arms, she knew the prophecy would become true and proceeded to do everything in her power — everything — to make sure of it.

Natasha is the haunting story of a vulnerable and talented actress whom many of us felt we knew. We watched her mature on the movie screen before our eyes — in Miracle on 34th Street, Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story, Splendor in the Grass, and on and on. She has been hailed — along with Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor — as one of the top three female movie stars in the history of film, making her a legend in her own lifetime and beyond. But the story of what Natalie endured, of what her life was like when the doors of the soundstages closed, has long been obscured.

Natasha is based on years of exhaustive research into Natalie's turbulent life and mysterious drowning in the dark water that was her greatest fear. Author Suzanne Finstad, a former lawyer, conducted nearly four hundred interviews with Natalie's family, close friends, legendary costars, lovers, film crews, and virtually everyone connected with the investigation of her strange death. Through these firsthand accounts from many who have never spoken publicly before, Finstad has reconstructed a life of emotional abuse and exploitation, of almost unprecedented fame, great loneliness, poignancy, and loss. She shedsan unwavering light on Natalie's complex relationships with James Dean, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Raymond Burr, Warren Beatty, and Robert Wagner and reveals the two lost loves of Natalie's life, whom her controlling mother prevented her from marrying. Finstad tells this beauty's heartbreaking story with sensitivity and grace, revealing a complex and conflicting mix of fragility and strength in a woman who was swept along by forces few could have resisted. Natasha is impossible to put down — it is the definitive biography of Natalie Wood that we've long been waiting for.

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Editorial Reviews
The fruit of nearly 400 interviews, this authoritative biography offers perhaps our first comprehensive view of a woman and movie actress whose life, until now, had remained as much a mystery as her unexplained 1981 drowning. Finstad's zestful research illuminates every phase of Wood's abbreviated life, from her sudden fame as a nine-year-old child star to her last night aboard The Splendour. Apparently, Ms. Wood took her role as sex symbol seriously: The former Natasha Nikolaevna Zacharenko conducted offscreen romances with Elvis Presley, James Dean, Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, and Robert Wagner.

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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 sis?ter, 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 expe?riences. 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 cheru?bim painted on the ceiling; in the backyard, concealed by spiders’ webs, Marusia found a decaying playhouse. Natalie’s mother believed in reincarna?tion 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.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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Natasha 4 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 33 reviews.
MichaelDuBasso More than 1 year ago
I graduated High School the same day Natalie did along with Margaret Obrien. My classmates and I along with millions grew up adoring the Natalie Woods the "press" wrote about. Your documented biography reveals a horror story worse than any fiction novel I have read. It is obvious from the last tortured moments of her life who killed or caused to have killed her based on her cries for help and responded replies from an abusive and very drunk person supposedly who loved her. Congratulations on a bio well documented well written.
biggyboyt More than 1 year ago
I have to say, I enjoyed this book. It was like reading from a gossip magazine, but I believe that's what gave the book character. I also appreciate the work Finstad did on researching. There may be too much water references, but I like how Natalie's fear is all tied together at the end of her life; it makes the story seem more like a movie than someone's life. That's also just what Finstad was trying to get across to readers; Natalie's life wasn't really a life it was one big role and she lived to her fullest and went out with a bang. I honestly liked this book. It was very emotional. To the description of her horrible sexual experiences (rape) and her death, this book was extremely appealing and kept me reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Natasha' certainly provides enough information about Natalie Wood: we get an introduction to her life, including the origins of her family in Russia and how she was not 'discovered' but was methodically forced into becoming an actress as a child; there's a description of the constant battle she waged between her desire to be a Hollywood personality and her effort to maintain 'Natasha' the private, simple girl, with the attendant problems of depression and substance abuse; while we learn about her early promiscuity and the life-long relationship/conflict with her mother, we also find out about her desire to be recognized by her peers and her devotion to family and children. But, what a price there is to pay. The narrative reads like an encyclopedia and the redundancy is rampant! Finstad heaps detail upon detail, too much of which, despite the boast of 400 interviews, is the questionable recycled pulp from Hollywood fan magazines. Adding to the glut, the same individuals are identified again and again and again as the same questions are posed over and over. If we hear once that Natalie was afraid of dark water and that her mother was superstitious, ruthless and domineering, we hear it a score of times, indeed, in almost every chapter. Ironically, there are glaring omissions that perhaps a little professional research may have remedied: for example, who in fact WAS the mysterious Hollywood star, who anonymously raped Wood? More inexplicably, Finstad ends the volume, bloated to over 450 pages of text by the superfluous language, abruptly, making very little attempt to place her subject in perspective. There admittedly is much that can be gleaned from this book, especially for the unitiated. To be sure, it served as a starting point for me. But quantity certainly does not make for quality. What is needed is a writer whose approach is more analytical than anecdotal and style is more concise than repetitive in order to produce an enjoyable biography of integrity that this enchanting but tragic star so much deserves.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved Natalie Wood from the moment I saw her in 'Rebel Without A Cause.' She was GREAT!! I was so excited to get this book! It was so interesting and I couldn't put it down. After reading it, I found a whole new respect for her as a person, not just as my favorite actress. It's so sad how she died, but I'll always remember how great she was. She will always BE great. Excellent!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Wonderful book ... provides insight to all of the beautiful actress's fears, hopes, dreams, and more. Great details about her relationship with her family members (especially her mother), costars (including famed rebel Jimmy Dean), and friends (including husband Robert Wagner and Frank Sinatra). Well worth it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love to read biographies and I have to say that 'Natasha' by Suzanne Finstad was a compelling read. Finstad reveals a number of things of which I was unaware such as Miss Wood's amazing intellect; her repeated attempts to carve out a normal life for herself; the lengths and depths of her mother's willingness to prostitute her own daughter; her ongoing journey of self-exploration; and of course, the rape. Finstad gives us so much here that I was left wanting to read a sequel focusing more on her those around her especially her sisters whose suffering and neglect at the hands of their mother was likely more profound than Finstad has room to address in this book. As for those who say Finstad teases readers with only veiled references as to the identity of her famous attacker, I think she made it pretty clear. Actor/Producers were a rare breed in the late 50s/early 60s, and I can think of only one major star who was known for his big grin. A biograhy about this man cotaining descriptions of his abusive treatment of women came out in 2000. All in all, I enjoyed the book and only wish there had been more of it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book contained many details about the beautiful actress, yet it remained focused and was an addictive read. While it is impossible to know how much of the sources are totally accurate, particularly Davern, whose statements are questionable if only due to the contradictions, the impressions of others help us to have a better view of the person, rather than the legend. It is obvious that the author did a great deal of research.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was so fascinating that I actually read it in one day. 'Natalie Wood' continues to be a household name even twenty years after her death, but this is the first biography to focus solely and objectively on Natalia 'Natasha' Zakharenko (Nat's sister Lana wrote 'Natalie: A Memoir' in 1984 and Warren G. Harris also wrote a bio of both Natalie and her husband RJ Wagner). Suzanne Finstad interviewed nearly four hundred people in her research for this book and offers some startling revelations in her portrait of Natalie's life. Finstad does an excellent job of drawing a very clear distinction between the person, Natasha, and the creation 'Natalie Wood' and the demons these dueling personalities created within her life. The best thing about this biography is the unwavering (and well deserved) respect Finstad has for her subject. Especially touching is Finstad's dedication of the book to Natasha 'the little girl lost in 'Natalie Wood'' and her two sisters, Lana and Olga, as well as the parallel Finstad uses with Chekov's 'Three Sisters'. From the beginning of 'Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood' where Finstad traces Natasha's geneological roots in depth, to the end of the book where Finstad examines the possible events that led to the tragic loss of this great star at such a young age, Suzanne Finstad provides the reader with the spell-binding tale of Natasha and the people and events that shaped her life. This is a MUST HAVE for any fan of Natalie Wood and/or her films.
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jay1967c More than 1 year ago
Excellent biography of a sad woman tortured by her own mother, neglected by her father and in the end we do not even know what actually happened to her.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is fantastic reading chock full of pictures and great facts.
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SunburstOrangeHHR More than 1 year ago
This is a very sad comentary on a parent's unrealistic ambitions for themself thru their child. To use a child's sexuality to further a career. Natasha's mother was the absolute worst! I cried in many places, laughed in others, but was proud of the strength Natasha started to gain toward the end of her life. Families are all dysfunctional to degree, but this family was the pits.
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