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.”
In 1962, Natalie Wood made the cover of Life magazine, in those days a certificate of stardom. The most striking image in the multipage layout was a photograph of an impeccably groomed Wood sitting at an enormous conference table in the offices of the William Morris Agency, surrounded by a covey of middle-aged (and older) lawyers, agents, publicists, accountants, and financial planners, all focused on the professional care and maintenance of a twenty-three-year-old actress barely five feet tall and weighing less than a hundred pounds. “You get tough in this business until you get big enough to have people to get tough for you,” she once said. “Then you can sit back and be a lady.” Already a gilt-edged property, she had won an Oscar nomination for Rebel Without a Cause, starred in Splendor in the Grass (gaining another Oscar nomination) and West Side Story, both big hits, and had recently completed Gypsy (her singing voice was dubbed in both musicals).
In films like Inside Daisy Clover, Love With a Proper Stranger, This Property Is Condemned, and Splendor in the Grass, Lambert writes, Wood played “outsiders, at odds with convention and/or their families. But as winner or loser, Natalie remained vulnerable, and when she survived it was always at a cost.” These “lost girls,” as Lambert calls them, had an across-the-board appeal, to men and women, to the macho and to the sexually ambivalent. Like all great movie actors, Lambert says, she performed “with a minimum of ‘acting.'” Less was always more—a look, a silence, a slight movement of head or hand.
In the Hollywood manner, she had also married (at nineteen) and divorced; her husband was the actor Robert Wagner, whom everyone called “RJ.” Wagner was what the studios used to call “a perfect first husband.” He was eight years older, in the business (a friend of Tracy, Bogart, and Bacall), solvent, and not a troublemaker (the proof: his longtime and very quiet romance with Barbara Stanwyck, who was old enough to be his mother). That the two might have had nothing in common was irrelevant. Theirs was a romance made for the fan magazines; Wagner had proposed by leaving a diamond and pearl ring in a champagne glass, inscribed with the words “Marry me.”
They were Hollywood’s happiest couple right up to the moment the marriage foundered. It was for the usual reason: conflicting careers, his going south, hers headed for the stratosphere. Rage, drink, and infidelity were unmentionable side issues. Before the divorce, Wood decided to see a psychiatrist but, ever the star, she insisted that the analyst first be checked out by her publicist. Her instructions, the publicist would tell Lambert, were straightforward: “Tell that son of a bitch not to fuck with my talent.”
She had a battalion of lovers up and down the Hollywood rank structure—officers, NCOs, enlisted men, straight, bisexual, gay. Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra. Nicky Hilton, Elizabeth Taylor’s kinky, abusive, and alcoholic first husband, a practicing Catholic, as Lambert reports, who kept a handgun, pornographic pictures, and rosary beads on his bedside table. Jerry Brown represented politics; Jerome Robbins, her gay co-director on West Side Story, proposed marriage. “Her serious affairs always ended for one of two reasons,” Lambert writes. “They were exciting, as in Warren’s case, but offered no security; or they offered security, but were not exciting enough.” Meeting Beatty by chance sometime after their breakup, Wood went home and overdosed on Seconal. Under an assumed name, her doctor and her secretary checked her into a hospital, where she had her stomach pumped. Her agents were summoned, and when they arrived at the hospital they got right to the point—The Great Race, the picture she was shooting at Warner’s: “If she pulls through,” her doctor was asked, “what are the chances she can make it to Warner’s by six-thirty a.m. Monday?” Wood, however, had already made the star’s decision, insisting on being released the next day so she could make her Monday call. “I’ll get by,” she told her secretary. “There aren’t any closeups scheduled.”
My wife wore Natalie Wood’s clothes before we actually became friendly with her. Natalie gave the clothes to The Colleagues, a Los Angeles charitable organization of rich, largely show business–connected women, who held an annual sale for unwed mothers in which they sold off their expensive previous year’s couture creations. My sister-in-law, a Colleague, was a friend of Wood’s, and although it was contrary to the sale rules, she would put aside Natalie’s contributions for my wife, who was as slight as she was. My wife remembers “a white Saint Laurent evening dress, a water-colored satin Galanos evening dress, and a yellow wool bouclé coat by Edith Head that had been part of Natalie’s wardrobe for Love With a Proper Stranger.” The price was right—ten to twenty dollars an item.
“We don’t go for strangers in Hollywood,” Cecelia Brady says in The Last Tycoon. Outsiders like my wife and me had to be thoroughly vetted before receiving passports into that closed community, usually via a network of acquaintances. Gavin Lambert was a friend of ours, as were Natalie’s secretary, a writer named Mart Crowley, and a dancer named Howard Jeffrey, a confidant who was quite possibly the funniest man I have ever known (and later an AIDS victim). Natalie was like a hen mother for what she called her nucleus; she paid for Crowley’s analysis in order to get him dried out and back to work; it was during this period that he wrote his play The Boys in the Band, the first theatrical super hit with openly gay characters, in which the most memorable role was the Howard Jeffrey surrogate. Toward her “nucleus,” however, Natalie could sometimes be demanding. One year at the San Francisco Film Festival, where she was being honored, Crowley, who had accompanied her (as had Lambert), was entertaining a trick in his hotel room when she burst in on them, wearing a nightgown, drunk and out of control. “You’re not good enough for my friend,” she screamed at the startled young man, then upset the table full of sandwiches and cake that Mart had ordered for the youth.
She had married a second time, an English agent named Richard Gregson, and had her first child, a daughter called Natasha. The marriage lasted until she discovered that Gregson was having an affair with her new young female secretary; she threw him out that day, refusing to accept his excuse that it was “just a fling.” A year later, she remarried Wagner, and a year after that, they had a daughter, Courtney. It was as if second time lucky, two veterans of the Hollywood marital, sexual, and professional wars were now contented, at peace. Motherhood was the part she was playing now, and she gave herself over to it as completely as she had given herself over to stardom. She had worked steadily since she was four years old, and although she considered scripts and plotted career moves, she in fact did not make a picture between 1969 and 1975.
We would see Natalie and RJ occasionally at dinner or at parties, usually when we were in the company of one of the nucleus. She was fun to be with and extremely perceptive. She was also as acute about the business of Hollywood as anyone we knew, aware of her own worth and the worth of everyone else, and understood money the way a French bourgeoise did. Like most people in the movie industry, she was an enthusiastic gossip; she not only knew where all the bodies were buried, but under how much dirt.
I asked her once what it was like being a child star, and she replied, “They took care of you,” they being the studio. The studio—whichever one was employing her—was more protective of her, or of their investment in her, than her parents were. When Nick Gurdin killed a pedestrian in a drunk-driving accident, the studio was able to bury a manslaughter charge and get his penalty reduced to a six-month suspension of his driver’s license with no jail time. But of course in shielding the actress from the demands of real life the studio left her with the sense that anyone who got too close to her would ultimately want something from her; only the men in the nucleus were exempted from this suspicion.
In the late 1970s, my wife and I flew to San Francisco to meet with the Wagners about a screenplay idea a producer friend of ours and theirs wanted us to pitch to them. Nothing came of the meeting, but at a waterfront dinner in Sausalito, we became aware of a subtle change in the ecology of their lives. After his movie career crashed, RJ had turned to television, and had become a major TV series star, making an immense amount of money (they were in San Francisco because he was on location). In the restaurant and outside afterward, people would ask for his autograph or to have their pictures taken with him and only then seemed to recognize her.
She was working sporadically, and had not had a hit since 1969, with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. (She had done the picture for a fraction of her fee, but had made $3 million from her share of the profit.) With her daughters in school, the career urge had returned, and with it the tensions and accusations and the wandering eye that seemed to fall on her leading men. “Swishing her tail,” she would call it, and claim it was innocent, but it caused alcoholic eruptions in the marriage. The parts she was offered were generally in junky movies like Meteor (1979)—a science-fiction thriller with cheap special effects—that promised little hope for a big-screen comeback, and as she approached forty, her best work was in television; she and RJ did Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Laurence Olivier as a kind of caricature Big Daddy, and she played (very effectively) the Deborah Kerr part in a six-hour miniseries of From Here to Eternity, with William Devane in the Burt Lancaster part.
In 1981, she agreed to play the lead in an improbable sci-fi film called Brainstorm, opposite Christopher Walken. From the start, there was trouble. Although he had made many pictures, Walken had the New York stage actor’s disdain for film acting, and if this dismissiveness made RJ angry, it found a receptive listener in Natalie, who had agreed to play her first theatrical part, in the venerable potboiler Anastasia, about the Romanovs’ putative (and fraudulent) surviving daughter. Wagner was convinced she and Walken were having an affair, as were the members of the nucleus, and Walken made no effort to allay the suspicions. “She was,” Lambert writes, “disturbed, overmedicated, and attracted to him.” Over Thanksgiving, the Brainstorm company had a break, and despite the charged suspicions, the Wagners invited Walken to spend the holiday with them on their boat at Catalina Island, off Los Angeles.
The weekend was a disaster, Lambert writes, an alcohol-fueled free-for-all during which RJ and Natalie quarreled incessantly. The first night, Natalie took the dinghy ashore to escape and slept in a motel; back onboard the next day, a patina of amity returned. “The undertow is very strong today,” Natalie wrote in her daybook, the first of the last two entries she made while on the boat; the last was “This loneliness won’t leave me alone.” That night, the drinking and emotional outbursts again boiled over. RJ was angry with Natalie and with Walken, who “kept encouraging Natalie to pursue her career as an actress, to follow her own desires and needs.” Intoxicated, Natalie went up on deck. It was some time before RJ missed her. Hours later her body was found miles from the boat, floating face down on an ocean swell.
What happened will probably never be known. Everyone was too drunk, the two survivors assaulted by guilt and memories best forgotten. The speculation about that night was scurrilous. Walken and Wagner each made two statements to authorities. There are some contradictions in their accounts, but they are only about the timing of events, and Lambert believes the discrepancies are the result of nothing more sinister than excessive drinking, poor memory, and “the natural desire of both men to protect their own and Natalie’s privacy.” Walken has never publicly mentioned the weekend since. Natalie Wood was forty-three years old.
Her funeral was by invitation only, with valet parking, and paparazzi hanging over the walls of the Westwood Memorial Park, where Marilyn Monroe was also buried. Maria Gurdin was quietly moaning, her last bow as Natalie’s mother. Richard Gregson had flown in from England, and he and RJ stood with their daughters, Natasha and Courtney. It was a fearsomely hot day, and Hollywood’s nobility and yeomen had turned out in force. After the brief Russian Orthodox service, my wife and I dropped by the Wagner house to pay our respects. In the absence of a hostess, Elizabeth Taylor greeted every guest as they came through the door, clasping each to her substantial bosom and intoning mysteriously, “I am Mother Courage.” In the living room, the family Sinatra—Frank, his first wife, Nancy, their children, Tina, Nancy, and Frank Jr.—had commandeered a couch, and they sat silently, arms folded, as if they were at a funeral in Palermo. There was one mesmerizing moment when the sound seemed sucked out of the room: the arrival of Christopher Walken, who strode the length of the house, looking neither right nor left, and went out into the garden.
Wagner gave Lambert unconditional access to Natalie’s diaries and notes; no topic was out of bounds, no friend asked not to cooperate, no approvals or any preliminary reading of the manuscript sought. He talked at length to Lambert about the drinking and the rages and the fears, his and hers. It is the access and the freedom from having to dissimulate or resort to innuendo that give Natalie Wood its power and its grace. She was a movie star, from probably the last period when stars were still icons and not like other people, and she made all of stardom’s stops—multiple lovers, marriages, substance abuse, suicide attempts, some serious, some not. If she was a victim of changing times, she was neither unaware of it nor unamused by it. When she had to play the star, Lambert writes, she would say it was time to “put on the badge,” and put it on she did, with a jade cigarette holder, expensive clothes, “coordinated” jewelry, perfect hair and makeup.
Lambert’s special gift is the ability to understand perfectly both the star and the complicated child woman. In death, she was still putting on the badge. When she was in the mortuary, Sydney Guillaroff, for decades the senior hair stylist at Metro, was asked to prepare Natalie’s hair. He “brought along a fall he had created for Ava Gardner, whose hair was almost exactly the same color,” Lambert writes. “He shampooed Natalie’s hair by hand, blow-dried it, then began very carefully to comb the front over Gardner’s fall.”
That was stardom.
January 15, 2004