Gavin Lambert was the first person in the movie business my wife and I met when we moved to Los Angeles in 1964. It was at a small outdoor Sunday lunch in Beverly Hills given by my brother and sister-in-law, both peers in Hollywood’s version of Debrett’s. There were six of us, the fifth and sixth being Gavin and his New York literary agent, Helen Strauss, who was also my wife’s book agent. Gavin had careful, hooded, missing-nothing eyes, spoke so softly that one could hardly hear him, and looked, as he does to this day, as if he were trying to suppress a laugh and only half succeeding. He was gay, but hiding in the closet was something actors did, not an expatriate English writer who had come out at age eleven. In his wonderfully indirect memoir, Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, Lambert described reporting for conscription as an Oxford undergraduate during World War II, when pederasty was still a criminal offense in England. “I decided to dress and behave with the utmost normality,” he wrote, “except for painting my eyelids gold.”
After Oxford (and rejection by the military), he edited Sight and Sound, turning what he called a “terminally boring” English film magazine into a precursor of Cahiers du Cinéma, offering poisonous reviews along with serious contributions by Carl Dreyer, Jean Renoir, Josef von Sternberg, and Lindsay Anderson, a friend of Gavin’s since public school and Oxford, and as formidable a critic as he was later to become a stage and film director. Gavin worked for a while as an assistant to, script doctor for, and part-time lover of the director Nicholas Ray. Moving to California, he wrote The Slide Area, seven connected stories about Hollywood’s marginal and downsized fringe, modeled on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay (shared with T.E.B. Clarke) of Sons and Lovers.
In the years since we met, there have been numerous scripts and ten more books, including the novel Inside Daisy Clover, On Cukor (a series of conversations with the director George Cukor that is as stimulating about film as Hitchcock Truffaut), and GWTW, about the making of Gone With the Wind, which is dedicated to my wife, Joan Didion, and me. Now, with Natalie Wood: A Life, he has found an almost perfect subject, his friend Natalie Wood, the star of Inside Daisy Clover, perhaps her best film role (with a screenplay by Lambert). She was a movie star out of a post–Joan Crawford, pre–Julia Roberts age—promiscuous, insecure, talented, irrational, funny, generous, shrewd, occasionally unstable, and untrusting of anyone who would get too close to her—except for a Praetorian Guard of gay men.
Natalie Zacharenko—Natalie Wood—was born of parents, Maria Stepanovna Zudilov and Nikolai Stepanovich Zacharenko, who never would have met were it not for the Russian Revolution. The Zudilovs, Lambert writes, were haute bourgeoisie, rich from the father’s soap and candle factories in southern Siberia. When Red units roaming the countryside began executing suspected tsarists, the family set in motion its plan for flight, with jewels and money sewed into their clothes so that they could bribe their way to safety. As they were leaving their country house, the family discovered Maria Zudilov’s oldest half-brother hanging from a tree; it was a display of revolutionary justice that left six-year-old Maria with a lifelong tendency to convulsive outbursts, often merely as a means of getting her own way. The Zacharenkos were pro-tsarist but poor; Nikolai Stepanovich’s father had worked in a chocolate factory and died in the streets of Vladivostok, fighting the Bolsheviks. His widow escaped to Shanghai with her three sons, and eventually the sons made their way to Canada, then into the United States, and finally to San Francisco.
The Zudilovs settled in the Manchurian city of Harbin, where they became leading members of the large Russian exile community there, with a Chinese cook and a German nanny and ballet lessons for the daughters. Maria had a highly developed erotic sense, and when she was seventeen, she managed to get herself secretly married and pregnant—or vice versa; the child of that union was Natalie Wood’s older half-sister, Olga.
Outside its Russian enclave, Harbin was seething with civil and martial unrest—Reds fighting Whites, street demonstrations by underpaid Chinese workers, and a festering Chinese nationalist movement whose xenophobia was directed at the exiles. Shortly after Olga’s birth, Maria’s husband, Alexei Tatuloff, left for San Francisco, promising to bring his wife and daughter when he found work. It was 1930, a bad time to emigrate to America. Jobs were scarce. Still, after a year spent unloading ships on the waterfront, he was able to summon his wife and daughter to join him.
On Maria’s arrival in San Francisco, her husband had a suggestion—a ménage à trois with his current girlfriend. Maria turned the offer down, but having hardly any other choices, she stuck with Tatulov, moving in and out of a series of mean, small apartments where Russian exiles camped. It was her husband who introduced her to Nikolai Zacharenko, a stevedore he had met on the docks. Nikolai was now Nick Gurdin, hard-drinking, semi-employed, and fervently tsarist. At best a feckless wife and mother, Maria had an affair with Gurdin while also quietly conducting an on-again, off-again romance with a Russian-born officer on the Matson Line. Ultimately she and Tatuloff divorced, and when she married Nick Gurdin, she was again pregnant, not by him but by the Matson officer. A daughter was born on July 20, 1938. Her birth certificate listed her name as Natalie Zacharenko, but she was called Natasha Gurdin.
Natasha Gurdin’s childhood effectively ended the day her mother marched her onto the location of a sentimental Don Ameche movie, Happy Land, that was shooting an exterior parade sequence in Santa Rosa, outside San Francisco. Depositing her five-year-old daughter onto the lap of the flabbergasted director, Irving Pichel, whom she had never met, she whispered, “Make Mr. Pichel love you.” Natasha did. Pichel gave Natasha a piece of business to do and a reaction shot—she was to drop an ice cream cone and then cry (the reaction was ultimately cut from the final film). He also told Maria that he would be shooting another picture in Los Angeles, in which there might be a part that Natasha could test for. On this slim reed of encouragement, Maria moved the family to Los Angeles. She had always been a fantast, at times claiming her mother had Romanov connections and had married beneath her, at others that she was a foundling raised by Gypsies who taught her to tell fortunes and then abandoned her on a Siberian steppe. In her daughter she saw the ticket to the life she had dreamed about, thought she deserved, and would have had except for the accidents of history—like the Russian Revolution.
Natasha won the part in the second Pichel movie, Tomorrow Is Forever, and also a new name—Natalie Wood—bestowed on her by the movie’s producers as a gesture to their friend Sam Wood, who had directed Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees and Ronald Reagan in King’s Row, but who is perhaps best remembered for relentlessly rooting out Communist influences in Hollywood films and writing, with Ayn Rand, a manifesto of filmmaking don’ts, including “Don’t Glorify Failure”; “Don’t Deify the Common Man”; “Don’t Smear the Free Enterprise System, Success, and Industrialists.”
Shepherded by her mother, Natalie Wood became a professional daughter, the onscreen child of Orson Welles, Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Tierney, Margaret Sullavan, Irene Dunne, Joan Blondell, Bette Davis, and Maureen O’Hara. She was happier on a movie set than anyplace else, and since Nick Gurdin was often unemployed and often drunk, her family’s most reliable source of income as well. Her mother taught her to distrust everyone, especially children at school and other child actors. Gigi Perreau, a slightly younger contemporary at one studio school, remembered receiving notes from Wood that said, “I’m going to be a star, but you’re not.” Sometimes Nick Gurdin found work as a studio carpenter, but Natalie’s mother instructed her never to acknowledge him if he came on the set; she was talent, he was crew, and any sign of affection between daughter and father would embarrass her co-workers.
Natalie’s every move was photographed, a documentation of a happy childhood as comprehensive as it was false. She was a poster child for the American Cancer Society, and with her breakthrough movie, Miracle on 34th Street, won honorary membership in the Polly Pigtails Club plus a trip to New York to appear in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. Her mother was her shadow. “By supervising Natalie’s publicity, especially in relation to her family background,” Lambert writes, “Maria succeeded in fabricating a persona (former ballerina, exemplary mother) for herself, and Natalie felt obliged to validate it.” As Natalie’s guardian, she was able to get a clause into her daughter’s contracts guaranteeing her a stipend of a hundred dollars a week for overseeing Natalie’s fan mail. Her daughter’s roles were interchangeably forgettable. In Paul Newman’s film debut, The Silver Chalice, Lambert notes, “Natalie (with fourteenth billing) played Helena, a teenage slave girl who grows up to become Virginia Mayo.”
Adolescence was a minefield for child actresses, and puberty and breasts best unacknowledged. Most of them were unable to cross over from kid sister parts to grownup star roles, where they could be the object of desire or even co-conspirators in sexual license (as long as it did not go unpunished). Shirley Temple failed, as did Peggy Ann Garner and Margaret O’Brien; they lacked either the will or the talent or had left so lasting an impression as child stars that the idea of having sex with them seemed akin to child molestation. Only Elizabeth Taylor and Natalie Wood were able to cross that no man’s land, Taylor because she was so beautiful, Wood because at sixteen she played the female lead opposite James Dean in what became a great American cult film, Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause.
Looked at today, Rebel seems dated, a relic, but it spoke to a generation of the disaffected young, a Sixties movie made in 1955, with death, drag races, and switchblade knife fights. It was also rich with sexual idiosyncrasy and tension, reflecting its offscreen combinations. Even before she was cast, Wood had begun her first serious affair, with Ray himself. Many times married, constantly trolling for women, and occasionally men, Ray, Lambert writes, resembled “an aging Heathcliff.” Much of the cast was equally ambiguous sexually; James Dean was bisexual, as were Nick Adams and Sal Mineo. And Wood, with Ray’s complaisance, was also sleeping with Dennis Hopper, who was acting in his first credited part. It was Hopper who best captured the rigidly structured, moment-to-moment spirit of studio-dominated Hollywood. “I never had a friend like Natalie again,” he told Lambert. “She was a very important part of my life until we lost touch after I left Warner’s.”