Heartbreaking Details About Natalie Wood's Life

Discovered by a director when she was still a toddler, Natalie Wood had the talent and "it factor" that helped her go from being adored as a child actress to lauded as one of the top stars during the Golden Age of Hollywood. The Oscar-nominated actress cemented her place in film history through roles in iconic films like Rebel Without A Cause and West Side Story and made tabloid headlines with her many high-profile romances and glamorous appearances. 

But her seemingly dazzling life in the limelight was, in actuality, filled with quite a lot of tragedy. In the background of her public rise to fame, Wood survived some of the worst situations life could throw at someone, just to mysteriously drown in a still-unsolved incident at only 43 years old. From poverty and childhood accidents to brutal abuse and depressive episodes, here are some heartbreaking details about Natalie Wood's life.

Natalie Wood's complicated childhood

As related by biographer Suzanne Finstad, Natalie Wood was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko to Russian immigrant parents in San Francisco and grew up in poverty amid a complex family situation. While Wood was adored by her parents, both had their vices. Her father, Nick, worked hard to provide for his family, but the struggles of trying to survive during and after the Great Depression, as well as anti-immigrant discrimination (the family changed their last name to Gurdin to sound less Russian), contributed to his alcoholism. When sober, Nick was "the tender parent," but his bouts of drunkenness were marked with violence, suspected to have stemmed from his experience of seeing his "grandfather buried alive during the revolution."

Wood's mother, Maria, had her own issues. A spirited yet morally gray woman, Maria was often the one who provoked Nick's "rampages." And while she loved her children, the Russian refugee was described as a pathological liar by her youngest daughter, Lana. One could never be 100-percent sure that what came out of the dramatic, superstitious Maria's mouth was the truth. In a sense, Wood's mother was a bit of an actress herself, reinventing herself as she saw fit and playing new roles in the film of her life. It was likely this fixation with the make-believe, in addition to a fortune-teller predicting that her second child would be "known throughout the world," which led Maria to specifically obsess over Natalie.

Natalie Wood was forced into acting by her mother

While Natalie Wood was renowned for her talent and star quality from a very young age, it's hard to know whether the actress would have entered the entertainment field herself if she'd never been groomed for the cameras by her mother. Harper's Bazaar describes how Wood and her mother, Maria, had a difficult relationship. Since she missed the chance to become a performer herself, Maria feverishly pushed her daughters into the entertainment industry. As a child, Wood was genuinely talented at acting, but she was also impressionable and eager to please her mother. According to Suzanne Finstad in Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, Wood's older sister Olga denies their mother's claims that young "Natasha" (Natalie's nickname as a child) was the one who expressed an interest in acting: "Four-year-old Natasha was a 'natural' when she performed, but she was not movie-struck. Maria was the one stalking movie crews, seeking parts for herself and Natasha; Natasha 'just went along.'" 

Maria's obsession with making her second daughter a star would lead to some harsh behavior. As told by the BBC, Wood's mother once prepped her for a crying scene by ripping the wings off of a live butterfly. Finstad describes similar episodes, with Maria bringing up the family's dead dog or telling other harsh stories about animal cruelty in order to get her daughter emotionally distraught for a scene.

Natalie Wood's childhood accident had lifelong effects

By the time nine-year-old Natalie Wood was slated to do a scene that involved running across a bridge, the child actress was already wary of water. According to Suzanne Finstad, author of Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, Wood was highly influenced to fear water by her mother, who had been told by a fortune-teller that she would die drowning. Olga, Natalie's older sister, explained, "My mother was afraid of swimming, and she was told that she'd drown. So this communicated itself to Natalie." 

This phobia of water manifested itself in the young actress in a number of ways, including a refusal to learn how to swim and a fear of submerging her head underwater to have her hair washed. In a scarily foreshadowing episode, Wood's aquaphobia got worse on the set of The Green Promise, when the nine-year-old was involved in an accident that led to her nearly drowning. As described by Harper's Bazaar and Finstad, the scene involved Wood running across a bridge that would collapse once she was on the other side. Unfortunately, the bridge fell through while the child actress was still on it, leaving her with a broken wrist and a strengthened lifelong fear of water. The starlet would wear bracelets on her left wrist for the rest of her life, in order to cover the protruding bone that remained visible after the accident, according to Harper's Bazaar.

The underage affair that led to Rebel Without A Cause

According to The Hollywood Reporter, scoring the role of Judy in 1955's Rebel Without A Cause would prove to be game-changing for Natalie Wood. Filming alongside James Dean for the landmark picture, her performance would earn Wood her first Oscar nomination and mark a successful shift in her career from child actress to teen star. How she landed that role, though, was sadly marked by the exploitative processes that Hollywood has been notorious for.

Wood was 16 when she auditioned for the 42-year-old director of the film, Nicholas Ray. Ray and the underage Wood then became involved in a "sexual liaison," as described by biographer Suzanne Finstad, writing for Vanity Fair. But even with that illegal affair (California's age of consent has been 18 since at least 1920, according to YR Media), it seemed that Wood was still not promised the part of Judy. In a later interview, Wood described how she tried to convince Ray to give her the role after she got involved in a car crash. When Ray came to see Wood at the hospital, "the doctor called Wood a 'goddamn juvenile delinquent.' She yelled: 'Did you hear what he called me, Nick? He called me a goddamn juvenile delinquent! Now do I get the part?'"

Frank Sinatra's suspicious relationship with Natalie Wood

In 2003, George Jacobs, Frank Sinatra's personal valet for nearly two decades, released a memoir titled Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra. In the book, Jacobs exposes Sinatra's affair with Natalie Wood, who was 15 or 16 when they first got involved, which was kept secret because she was underage. Apparently, the singer had taken a liking to Wood since he saw the nine-year-old actress in Miracle on 34th Street, but it wasn't until Wood was in her teens that her mother took her to Sinatra's apartment. According to Jacobs, the "insanely ambitious Russian mother had pushed her on Frank, who needed no pushing himself. [...] She had her kid all dolled up, total jailbait, in a form-fitting black party dress, and Mr. S went for it in a big way."

While Jacobs never explicitly describes what transpired between the two, he does allude to an illegal relationship. The first meeting involved the nearly 40-year-old Sinatra playing Wood his music and offering career advice. Later, according to Jacobs, "Natalie began coming over [...] without her mom, for 'singing lessons.' Mr. S would send me away when she was there. 'I don't want you to testify,' he joked. He wanted to be 'In like Flynn,' but he didn't want to be ruined for it." Indeed, while the affair allegedly lasted on and off until Wood was over the age of consent, Sinatra's actions with the underage actress would have been illegal.

A traumatizing attack

After years of research on Natalie Wood, biographer Suzanne Finstand released her findings in Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, revealing a tragic episode that occurred when Wood was only 16. Called up to a hotel suite to read for a part for her childhood idol, Wood was then brutally assaulted by "a powerful, married movie star more than twenty years older than she." Threatened and traumatized, Wood never reported it, telling only a handful of friends. The details of the event differed depending on who Finstand interviewed, but "the essence of what each recalls Natalie confiding to them is the same: that the same married film star lured or tricked Natalie, raped her so brutally she was physically injured, and she was too frightened or intimidated to report it to the police." While Wood would forever despise her rapist, the attack remained a secret.

In 2018, on the podcast Fatal Voyage: The Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood, Wood's sister Lana confirmed the attack, adding in the details that it occurred at the Chateau Marmont Hotel and that, "Many, many years later [...] Natalie only alluded to the fact that something bad had happened and in a way blamed my mom for being too eager for Natalie to get roles" (via US Weekly). While the perpetrator was never named, rumors heavily implicate Kirk Douglas, to the point that Natalie Wood trended when the actor passed away in 2020, according to The Guardian and Indy100.

Natalie Wood was temporarily suspended by Warner Bros.

According to MSN, Natalie Wood worked during an era in Hollywood when studios had full ownership over actors' careers. Actresses like Wood, who was trapped under this system since she was a child, rarely had control over the roles that they took on. Over the years, though, as she became older and more successful, Wood began to fight back. In 1959, the actress refused roles in The Miracle and A Summer Place. To drive her point even further, she refused to appear on set for the filming of The Young Philadelphians. Rather than simply letting her go, Warner Bros. proceeded to put her on suspension for 18 months, the punishment being "that if you wouldn't work for them, you couldn't work anywhere else either," as explained by Wood in an interview.

According to old articles by The Washington Post, the studio would publicly claim that Wood's break from acting was due to salary disputes, but the young actress made it clear that it was about parts. Fortunately, her standoff with studio head Jack Warner actually led to a small victory, with Wood was winning the right to choose one picture a year. Her first choice? The blockbuster West Side Story.

Natalie Wood's "fairytale" first marriage may have ended due to her husband's secrets

According to Biography, when teen star Natalie Wood and up-and-coming heartthrob Robert Wagner first got together, they were Hollywood's fairytale couple and a hot topic for teen gossip. Their relationship was actually set up by the studios in 1956 as a way to promote both the 18-year-old actress and 26-year-old actor, but the feelings became real and the two married a year later. Unfortunately, the so-called perfect couple suddenly called it quits in 1961, stirring up rumors that the marriage failed due to Wood's infidelity, according to Suzanne Finstad via Los Angeles Magazine. For decades, an affair with her costar Warren Beatty was the accepted killer of the Wood-Wagner union, but recent digging by Finstand unveiled that this was untrue.

In talking with a few of Wood's close friends, her mother's best friend, and Wood's sister, Finstand found that it was actually Wood who was cheated on: She caught her husband having sex with his longtime butler. In an unreleased memoir, Wood wrote, "It is too painful for me to recall in print the incident that led to the final break-up. It was more than a final straw, it was reality crushing the fragile web of romantic fantasies with sledgehammer force." Still, while the incident was serious enough to lead to the dissolution of their first marriage, the two were able to reconcile, remarrying a decade later. To this day, Wagner denies the affair.

Natalie Wood's tumultuous love life and failing films

After her first marriage to Robert Wagner ended, Natalie Wood went through an unfortunate downward spiral. She began a relationship with Warren Beatty, which lasted two years but was filled with toxicity. In an unpublished piece for Ladies' Home Journal, Wood wrote, "Our affair was a collision from start to finish. While [Robert Wagner] never did express hostility, Warren couldn't stop and I contributed my share of fireworks too. In fact, we were both so confused that we thought fighting and hostility meant real emotional honesty" (via Heavy). Following her breakup with Beatty in 1964, Wood continued to go through a string of famous men, such as actor Michael Caine and Ladislav Blatnik, the shoe king of Venezuela. As described by Warren G. Harris, Wood's personal life also included affairs with a married director, which ended badly, with her withdrawing from the movie after she saw him with his wife.

Meanwhile, the mid-'60s proved to also be unforgiving to her career. According to MSN, many of her films during this time flopped, including Sex and the Single Girl (1964) and The Great Race (1965), and she even was awarded Harvard Lampoon's Worst Actress of the Year award. Her failed films and rocky love life had the actress in a bad state mentally and emotionally, with Wood at one point staying in bed and refusing to see anyone but her psychiatrist and former secretary, as told by Harris.

Things could have ended in 1966

By 1966, the failures of her recent films and relationships had taken a serious toll on Natalie Wood. According to Warren Harris, author of Natalie and R.J.: The Star-Crossed Love Affair of Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, Wood was already in a bad psychological state when ex-boyfriend Warren Beatty showed up without any warning in order to convince her to join his next movie. She had already refused once, adamantly against the idea of not having access to her therapist for those months of filming in Texas. While no one knows how the exchange between the two went, what is known is that right after Beatty left, Wood "attempted suicide by swallowing a handful of barbiturates."

Somewhere between taking the pills and falling unconscious, Wood must have changed her mind because her housemate, former secretary Mart Crowley, heard her call for him. He found her unconscious on the stairs and immediately took her to the hospital, where they pumped her stomach. When her sister visited her at the hospital, Wood confessed, "I didn't want to live anymore. [...] Now I do." According to MSN, after the incident, the actress took a break from working for three years in order to "focus on her mental health."

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

The Thanksgiving trip that ended tragically

In an awful incident that is remembered and pondered to this day, Natalie Wood died on November 29, 1981, at only 43 years old, according to Biography. The exact circumstances of her death remain unknown, but the details of the events leading up to it go like this:

As documented by Harper's Bazaar, Wood and her husband Robert Wagner frequently visited Catalina Island on their yacht, Splendour, and had decided to embark on the familiar trip after Thanksgiving. Actor Christopher Walken and the yacht's captain, Dennis Davern, joined the couple. After a boozy night out on Catalina, the foursome left a restaurant and stumbled their way back to the yacht around 10:30 pm. About a half-hour later, the group noticed that Wood had disappeared, along with the boat's dinghy, but it took over four hours before the Coast Guard was called at 3:30 am. It wasn't until 8:00 am that her body was found, about a mile from the yacht.

During the autopsy, it was discovered that Wood's blood alcohol content was 0.14 percent and that she had several bruises across her body, prompting the Medical Examiner's Office to declare on November 30 that her death was an accident, with Wood likely drunkenly falling overboard when trying to board the dinghy. The case was officially closed on December 11, but speculation over the real details of her death would persist long after.

The truth about Natalie Wood's death remains elusive

The suspicious aspects of Natalie Wood's death would keep the public from accepting it was an accident for four decades. In 2011, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department reopened her case "after receiving 'additional information' from unidentified sources who contacted the authorities," according to Harper's Bazaar. That same year, Dennis Davern explicitly stated that he had lied to the police during the first investigation, claiming that Robert Wagner, who he heard get into a heated argument with Wood, was responsible for the actress' death. By 2013, Wood's cause of death was changed to "drowning and other undetermined factors," and five years later, Wagner was declared a person of interest in the case, although he continues to deny any involvement. 

In 2020, Suzanne Finstad revealed that she had found additional information which suggests that Wood's death wasn't an accident (via Vanity Fair). Most enlightening was Dr. Michael Franco's observations from when he was an intern at the LA Coroner's Office. He had noticed that the abrasions on Wood's legs were in a direction that suggested she was getting pushed off a boat, not trying to get on, but his concerns fell on deaf ears, with the coroner telling him, "Some things are best left unsaid." It would take nearly 40 years for Dr. Franco to come forward, sharing his suspicions of a cover-up with the investigators in charge of the reopened case.