More Than Love is a memoir of loss, grief, and coming-of-age by a daughter of Hollywood royalty. Natasha Gregson Wagner’s mother, Natalie Wood, was a child actress who became a legendary movie star, the dark-haired beauty of Splendor in the Grass, Rebel Without a Cause, and West Side Story. She and Natasha’s stepfather, the actor Robert Wagner, were a Hollywood it-couple twice over, first in the 1950s, and then again when they remarried in the 70s.
But Natalie’s sudden death by drowning off Catalina Island at the age of forty-three devastated her family, made her stepfather a person of interest, and turned a vibrant wife, mother, and actress into a tragic figure. The events of that weekend have long been a mystery, and despite the rumors, scandalous media coverage, and accusations of wrongdoing, there has never been an account of how the tragedy was experienced by her daughter. For the first time Natasha addresses the questions surrounding that night to clear her beloved stepfather’s name.
More Than Love begins on the morning after her mother’s death in November 1981 when eleven-year-old Natasha hears the news on the radio that her mother’s body has been found off the coast of Catalina after her parents had spent the weekend on the family boat, The Splendour.
From this profound and shattering loss, Natasha shares her memories of her earliest bonds with her mother; her warm, loving, and slightly chaotic childhood as the daughter of two stars; the lost and confused years of her adolescence; and her halting attempts to move forward as a young woman.
Beautifully told, More Than Love is an emotionally powerful tale of a daughter coming to terms with her grief, as well as a riveting portrait of a famous mother and a vanished Hollywood.
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Natalie and Natasha at home on North Bentley Avenue, 1971.
My first memory is an awareness of comfort and love, a feeling of being held in the cocoon of my mother’s embrace. All is right with the world. I can see her face above me, her velvet brown eyes, doe-like, smiling down at me. Her dark hair falls in my face in soft waves as she bends down to kiss me. The unmistakable scent of her gardenia perfume. Her sweetly musical voice she uses just for me, “Hello, my little Natooshie, I love you,” the sound of it sighing slightly upward. These are my earliest sensations.
My mother loved to sing, and I loved to listen. At night, when she tucked me into bed—or anytime I was tired or upset—she sang a lilting Russian lullaby called “Bayushki Bayu.” Later, I learned the song was about a wolf that comes in the night and drags little babies out of their beds and into the forest. My mom’s parents were Russian immigrants and she had grown up hearing the language all around her. She could speak it a little, although not fluently, but when she sang to me, the sounds seemed to come to her naturally. Other times, when we were driving in the car, she sang “Frère Jacques” or “My Favorite Things” or a silly song called “Fried Ham.”
When I picture my mother during the days of my childhood, she isn’t dressed up for a party or working on a movie set. She’s at home, in her favorite white cotton nightgown with the pink or blue rosettes, or wearing soft, gauzy dresses in Indian printed fabrics, or down by the pool with a caftan thrown over her bikini. Her skin is tawny and lightly freckled. Her hair is tied back. She rarely wore much makeup, maybe a dab of gloss on her lips. If people came over, she would do her eyes, but even then, makeup wasn’t a form of armor, just a natural extension of her routine, like brushing her teeth or putting on her perfume.
Her hands were pale and slender, with long, delicate fingers that always glinted with a fresh French-tip manicure. Mommie not only spoke with her hands, fluttering them like butterflies to express her meaning and mood, but she was forever touching me with a loving caress. If we were in the same room, her smooth hands would be stroking my forehead, playing with my hair, brushing gently against my face. Ruby and sapphire rings adorned her fingers like Christmas tree lights, her gold bangles and charm bracelets tinkling as she moved.
On her left wrist she wore a larger gold or silver bracelet, more like a cuff, to camouflage an injury she’d gotten as a child while working on the film The Green Promise. I knew that my mom had been working as an actress since she was a little girl and that in one of her movies, she had to run across a wooden footbridge that was supposed to collapse when she got to the other side. Instead, the bridge caved in too early, while my mom was still on it, and she broke her wrist. The bone had never been set properly and so she wore the cuff on that arm. “I have this horrible bump on my wrist and I like to keep it covered,” she used to say. I never thought the bump was that terrible. I liked it. It was part of her.
My mother named me Natasha. Before Hollywood renamed her Natalie Wood, she had been Natasha Gurdin. She was Big Natasha, and I was Little Natasha. We were Natasha. She was Mommie and I was her “Natooshie.” She also called me “Natashinka,” or her pet name for me, her “petunia.”
For as long as I can remember, people told me I took after her.
“You look just like your mother when she was a little girl,” friends and even strangers said.
“Natasha, you’re just like me,” my mom repeated, taking my face in her hands, smiling.
We did closely resemble each other, especially as children. Aside from a few slight differences—her eyes were larger, while mine were more almond-shaped—we were both petite, elfin brunettes with the same turned-up nose, tall forehead (although mine was taller than hers), and high cheekbones.
The first time I saw my mother in a movie was a TV broadcast of Miracle on 34th Street one Christmas. I was about four or five. I remember sitting cross-legged in front of the screen while my mom stood behind me buzzing with proud excitement, watching me watching her on TV. In the film, she played Susan Walker, a little girl who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, even when she meets him. After each scene, my grown-up mom looked at me expectantly, to see how I was reacting. Was I smiling? Was I laughing? Was I scared? “That’s me when I was your age,” she told me. “See how much you look like me?” This little black-and-white girl shooting skeptical looks at Santa Claus did resemble me. I remember getting up and walking behind the television set to see how she managed to get in there. Was the girl on the TV me or was she my mother? Once Mommie explained it to me, I tried to hold these strange slivers of conflicting information together in my mind. This is Mommie when she was little, thirty years ago. She looks more like me than Mommie, but it’s not me. It’s her.
Besides our looks, we mirrored each other in temperament. We were both readers who loved to curl up with a book. My mother had gotten hooked on books as a child when she was working on movie sets. For her, reading was a way to refresh herself in between scenes and setups. As soon as I learned to read, books became my reset button as well. If a lot of people were at our house or a playdate had lasted too long, I took myself up to my room and crawled into bed with my book. Other times, Mommie would read to me as I sat in her lap: Russian fairy tales, Caldecott’s fairy tales, Winnie-the-Pooh, The Wizard of Oz, stories by Dr. Seuss, or one of my favorites, Rapunzel, the tale of the beautiful princess locked in a high tower. She once gave me a copy of her favorite book, The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, inscribing it with a beloved, often quoted line from the book: “Dear Natasha, remember: ‘It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.’?”
We both loved to bathe, the feeling of the water and bubbles on our skin, the wrapping up of ourselves in soft towels afterward. I was always welcome to come into her bathroom when she was in the tub, to ask her a question or try to make her laugh. Mommie would be lying there, bubbles up to her neck, as she read a book or talked on the phone, the long, curly telephone cord resting on the frothy soapsuds. She loved telephones and we had one in almost every room. The phones seemed to like my mother too because they were always ringing, and she was forever talking and laughing into a receiver. She had the most delightfully uninhibited mix of a giggle and a guffaw that could be heard throughout the house, impossible to avoid and completely infectious.
We were both fond of order, tidiness, structure. As a child, I actually enjoyed straightening up my room. I would observe my mother fussing with the heights of books in our bookshelves, repositioning them so they stood more aligned, and then I would imitate her in my bedroom, lining up all my stuffed animals and porcelain dolls in a row on my bed and bookshelves, arranging them from highest to lowest.
We looked so much alike and had so much in common. Where did the mother end and the child begin? We were so completely connected—and she was so sharp and perceptive—that I sometimes believed she could see right into my mind. She could anticipate my needs, those times when I was on the verge of a tantrum or meltdown, and would take me for a rest or sing me a song. Sometimes all it took was a hug from her and I would feel calm again.
I was born at Cedars of Lebanon in Hollywood on September 29, 1970. It was a Tuesday. That day, my mother wrote in her small spiral-bound datebook, where she recorded all the details of her daily life: “Natasha born 9:11 p.m. 6lb. 8 ounces.” It was an easy labor. Only six hours, then one push and out I came. Later she wrote in a letter to my godmother, the actress Norma Crane, that I had my father Richard Gregson’s legs and dimple, and a combination of both of their noses: “A small, tender toughie.” In a photo of my mother leaving the hospital a couple days after my birth, she is a vision of beauty—beaming, her famously expressive eyes painted to perfection, holding me in her lap in the front seat of my British dad’s brown Mercedes. No car seat or seat belt back then to keep me safe, just my mother’s loving arms. My father once told me that during the first few months of my life, my mother hardly ever put me down. “You two adored each other,” he recalled. “She was like a panther, ready to spring if anyone said anything about you which she didn’t like.”
I know about these early months of my life because my mother captured every detail in my baby book, which was bound with the same smooth ivory cover and embossed with the same gold lettering as the binding on her film scripts. She called it Natasha’s Book. My baby book reports that my first distinct words were “ha ha.” After that, I began adding new words to my vocabulary: “Mama” and “good girl.”
My parents separated when I was eleven months old. I don’t have any memories from the time they were together, and perhaps as a result, I have always had a hard time picturing them as a couple. My father was an Englishman, reserved and levelheaded. My mother was the complete opposite, all feeling and passion. In hindsight, their separation seems inevitable. At the time, it must have been devastating for both of them.
My parents met in LA in the mid-1960s, at a dinner party given by a PR company. My mother was at the height of her fame, having already starred in some of her most iconic adult roles, as Deanie Loomis in Splendor in the Grass, Maria in the movie version of the musical West Side Story, and Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy. She had three Academy Award nominations to her name. She was a sharp conversationalist, and she could be a little intimidating. My dad was “an English top dog,” as he put it, a well-dressed, elegant man with almond-shaped hazel eyes and prematurely gray hair. Born in India and raised in England, he was evacuated during the war and sent to boarding school in Canada. He began his career in London, working for a literary agency in the film and TV rights department and later established himself as a Hollywood agent. I’m sure my mother was drawn to his intelligence and charm, as well as his confidence. He was interested but didn’t fawn over her. That evening, she was smoking a menthol cigarette through a long, black plastic holder. “A woman of your beauty and style and distinction should have a jade holder,” he said. “I’ll buy you one.” And that’s how it started.
Soon they were spending all their time together, going to parties and to the Daisy nightclub in Beverly Hills. He repeatedly said, “Let’s get married,” and she repeatedly said, “No.” She was reluctant to rush into a commitment. My father had already been married once and had three children, Sarah, Charlotte, and Hugo, with his first wife, Sally. My mother was drawn to all three of his kids, relishing the potential role of stepmother. Finally, she went to visit him on the set of the movie Downhill Racer in Wengen, Switzerland. Richard was producing the film for his client and friend Robert Redford, who was shooting his scenes on the slopes. On a day off from filming, my parents went skiing and my mother had a fall, fracturing a bone in her leg. She was back at the hotel, elevating her plaster-encased leg and resting in bed, when she said she wanted to have a talk with my dad. Something (other than a cracked bone) must have shifted for her.
“How come you never ask me to marry you anymore?” she said.
“Because you always say no,” he replied.
“Ask me again and I’ll say yes.”
They got married at the Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles on May 30, 1969. Robert Redford was best man. Edith Head designed my mother’s white-and-pale-yellow silk gown, basing it on a dress worn by an eighteenth-century Russian princess. My mother wore a white-and-yellow flower-decorated tiara with ribbons flowing in her hair. At the time, she was more than ready to settle down and become a parent. Her movie Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice had become one of the highest-grossing films of 1969. She had points in the movie (in other words, she got a percentage of the film’s gross income), and had made a lot of money as a result. The following year it was nominated for four Academy Awards. She was in a good place to put her career on hold and focus on starting a family.
According to my father, I was conceived in the Oscar Wilde Suite at L’Hotel in Paris on New Year’s Eve 1969–70. Who knows if that is true, but soon after, my mom discovered she was pregnant and the Gregsons settled down in a white brick house my mother owned on North Bentley Avenue in Bel-Air. My dad would tell me she repeatedly stated during her pregnancy, “I’m having a girl and her name is Natasha,” even though there was no sonogram or ultrasound technology in those days. Somehow she knew. She didn’t give me a middle name. I later asked her why. She told me, “I thought Natasha was such a beautiful name, it stood on its own.”
After I was born, right away, my parents clashed over their differing styles of parenting. My dad’s wealthy British mother had been remote and non-maternal, the polar opposite of how my mother had been raised. Her Russian mother—my grandmother Maria—loved her daughter with a passionate sense of eternal devotion, and Mommie lavished me with the exact same degree of focus and attention. My mother had gone through a difficult transition to adulthood. She had been a working actor since the age of six, cosseted and accompanied everywhere by her mother, who also served as her manager. Growing up in a world of Hollywood fantasy and illusion, where she was adored, not just by her overprotective mom, but by the millions of Americans who were her fans, it was hard for my mother to figure out who she wanted to be. Everyone has to figure out their identity as they shift from childhood into the adult years, but my mother had to do it while watched by gossip magazines, studio heads, her adoring fans, and her parents, who monitored her every move.
In her early twenties, she started seeing a therapist and began her long journey to discovering who she was, independent of the image she projected on the movie screen. It wasn’t easy. My father later confessed to me that, early in their marriage, he didn’t understand my mom’s moods, those times when rages and nameless fears would apparently consume her. He also derided her dependence on psychoanalysis. “At that time, the English thought LA brain scrapers were a joke,” he explained. By the time I knew her, my mother had benefited from a lot more therapy and from a stable marriage. To me, she never seemed anything less than wholly secure, a woman who knew who she was and what she wanted.
But it was different in those early days of my life. Even during the pregnancy, her love for me had bordered on obsessive, and she shut out her husband so much that he later joked, “It was as if the Immaculate Conception had come to Hollywood.” Every ounce of the dedication she had previously reserved for her acting career she now aimed at the life growing inside of her. My dad felt pushed aside and irrelevant. Once I was born, I took over completely as the main object of her affection. My father dealt with feeling neglected by starting an affair with my mother’s secretary. My dad was by nature a stable, family-oriented kind of guy. If my parents hadn’t gotten married at the height of the sexual revolution—when having a fling was all the rage—I find it difficult to imagine that he would have cheated on my mother so blatantly. But that’s exactly what he did. My mom was apoplectic when she found out. She kicked my dad out of the Bentley house, then she called her beloved older sister, Olga, and her best friend Mart Crowley and asked them both to come with us to Europe. We left on the SS Raffaello ocean liner. Mart recalls the trip as “a nightmare.” He says my mother was painfully thin. She was so distraught she wasn’t eating enough, and he was concerned for her health. They docked in Naples and flew to the island of Sardinia. Here, she spent a lot of time resting and recovering, while Mart and Olga took care of me.
After we returned home to America, my mother and I went to live in the house on North Bentley Avenue in Bel Air. Only one week after we returned from Sardinia, she threw my first birthday party in the backyard. In her datebook, she scribbled the names of the five little friends who attended my party from noon to 3:30 p.m. Daddy visited me at 4 p.m. For the first several months after she left my father, she allowed him brief visits but kept him on the outskirts of our world. She even kept her parents at a distance. She was my only caretaker for a while, and she had no intention of sharing me.
That soon changed. Robert John Wagner (always known to my mom as R.J.) came into my life when I was a little more than a year old and stayed there. By seventeen months, my baby book states, my favorite new word was “R.J.” He was also my favorite new person. Apparently I was constantly saying “R.J.” and kissing his photograph. I don’t remember this. As far as I recall, I have always called him Daddy. Considering how close my mother and I were, I could have easily resented him as an intruder in our world, and yet I never felt that for an instant. His presence made my mom so happy.
To me, he was this sun-kissed man who seemed to radiate warmth. I remember he wore a gold chain around his neck and a gold ID bracelet on his wrist. When he held me, I jingled his chains, and he laughed. In photographs from that time, he’s dressed in denim shirts, silk ascots, flared slacks, or a denim shirt and shorts, and always the gold chains. In 1973, my mom told a reporter about our relationship: “That little girl and that man adore each other so that if I didn’t love them both so much, I think I’d be jealous!” R.J. became a real father to me, treating me just like his own daughter. I soon began to take it for granted that I had not one but two loving dads and I even came up with names for each of them. Daddy Gregson, who had moved back to England, and Daddy Wagner, who lived with us in California and was the constant caring presence in my daily life. It would be some years before I realized that not everyone had the luxury of two fathers.
When I was still a toddler, we moved to Palm Springs, where R.J. owned a stone-covered house in the Mesa neighborhood up in the foothills. I was still so young, but I have the impression of wide-open spaces, mountain views, and palm trees swaying above me. My mother brought her two Australian shepherd dogs along with us. Their names were Penny and Cricket and they were large shaggy creatures with light eyes; they looked like stuffed animals come to life. As a little girl, I couldn’t get enough of them.
She also brought her parents, my grandparents, Maria and Nick Gurdin. My mother had nicknames for everyone she loved and so she called them Mud and Fahd, short for “Muddah” and “Faddah.” To me, my grandmother was always “Baba,” short for Babushka, and my grandfather “Deda,” short for Dedushka, the Russian words for grandmother and grandfather.
Baba and Deda were often at our house, my grandmother taking care of me when my mom was working or out with my dad. I didn’t like it when Mommie was away from me. I wanted to always be close to her. During this time, she took a role in the TV movie The Affair alongside my dad. Whenever she was away on set, there was my grandmother in the long purple dresses she always wore, making me food, tucking me into bed, attending to my every need. I remember once my grandmother switched on the TV because my parents were appearing on a talk show together. When I saw them there, tiny and trapped in a box, I was so upset, I became inconsolable. I couldn’t understand how they had gotten in there. Baba had to turn off the television set so I would finally calm down.
In one of my earliest memories of my grandmother, I must have been around three years old, and we are in the sun-drenched kitchen of our Palm Springs house. She is making something. She pulls bottles out of the fridge, empties them into a bowl, and with a sharp twist of the whisk, froths the liquid, then pours it into glasses for the two of us. The drink is slightly sour with a hint of sweetness. I sort of like it, but I want to like it more because I want to like what she likes. Later my mom chastises my grandma for giving me beer.
“But, Natalie, I mix with milk,” my grandmother protests in her strong Russian accent. “Makes Natasha’s bones grow strong. You drank when you were little!”
There were always these squabbles, with me caught in the middle. In Palm Springs, I remember we had a swimming pool in the backyard. My mother loved hanging out by the pool. She was not a strong swimmer, and she wanted her daughter to be comfortable and confident in the water. I soon grew to love splashing around in the shallow end, and even holding my breath and sinking to the bottom to fetch my plastic Pokey horse. One day, my grandfather Deda decided to teach me how to swim.
“Come to Deda, Natashinka,” he told me. “I want to give you a hug.” I jumped in his arms. Next, I remember the fleeting feeling of security as he held me, and then, without warning, he dropped me in the deep end. I was plunged underwater and terrified. I think perhaps this was his old-world Russian way of toughening me up. He meant no harm. But Mommie was furious. She jumped in after me, carrying me to safety and calming my fears. As soon as I was on dry land, my mom flashed those intense brown eyes at her father.
“How dare you throw my baby in the pool,” she said. “Get out of my house.”
Before long Deda was forgiven, and my grandparents were invited back again, Baba always staying with me if my parents needed to go out for the evening.
When I turned three and a half, it was decided that I was ready for preschool. Each morning my mother dropped me at the door of the Leisure Loft, a small local nursery school. After she left, I missed her desperately. Why can’t Mommie stay with me? I wondered. “Natasha started preschool,” my mom wrote in my baby book. “She wants mother there ALL THE TIME!” It wasn’t only at preschool that I missed her. At night I didn’t want to sleep in my own bedroom. I’d often tiptoe through to my parents’ room so I could snuggle under the covers with them. My mother had to slowly train me to stay in my own bed.
Oftentimes, when she was out during the day, I’d wait for her, longing to hear our front door creak open, followed by her sweet, familiar voice rising up through the rafters. Her tone lifted an octave when she called out, “Natooshie, Mommie’s home! Where are you?”
I dropped whatever I was doing and raced down the stairs to meet her, her arms and her fragrance enveloping me as I hugged her, clinging so tightly that she used to laugh and say, “You’re trying to kill me!” I just could never get enough of her. To me, our whole house lit up when Mommie walked inside.
My mother was my mirror. When I saw myself reflected in her, it was a self that was bigger and better and brighter. If I ever doubted myself, she was there to fill me with confidence. I am just like her, and she’s okay. So I must be okay.
It also worked the other way around. I knew that I was my mom’s mirror too. If I was okay, then she was okay. Any uncomfortable feelings of my own created discomfort in my mom and I knew that.
In one of my earliest memories, I’m with my godfather, Mart, who is feeding me noodles. My mother is in another room. Somehow, I understand that my mom is feeling sad, which is why she can’t feed me herself. I am spitting the noodles out, enjoying the way they slip through my front teeth. Mart is trying to be patient but I hear the frustration in his voice. I am caught between enjoying the feeling of the slippy noodles and the awareness that someone I like is showing signs of becoming exasperated with me. Where is my mother? I want her to come back in the room. She will not find my noodle-slurping game to be irritating. She will laugh and talk to me in her adoring “just for Natooshie, my little petunia” tone.
But I don’t cry. I know I need to be a happy girl so my mom can be happy too. My success ensures her success. We are like the sweet peas tangled on a fence in the backyard, entwined.