In the memoir More Than Love (out now from Scribner), Natalie Wood’s daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner offers an intimate portrait of the iconic actress, who died tragically at a young age. Gregson Wagner recounts family life with Wood, her stepfather Robert Wagner and half-sisters Courtney and Katie growing up in Hollywood in the 1970s. A companion documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind (out now on HBO after premiering at Sundance earlier this year) explores the mother-daughter relationship in and out of the public eye. Below is an excerpt from More Than Love.
My mother had grown up on movie sets, always surrounded by a cast of characters and crew, with a mother who followed her everywhere. Even now that she was a grown woman, she wasn’t comfortable being alone. She was someone who needed to be surrounded by people and a bustling household most of the time. When we first lived all
together on Canon Drive in the mid-1970s, my dad was working on a TV series called Switch, an action-adventure detective show. As the lead, he had to work twelve- to fourteen-hour days, but he called regularly from whatever set he was on, and the two of them were always making plans.
“R.J.,” my mom would say, cradling the receiver, “we’re having dinner with the Pecks tonight. What time do you think you’ll be wrapped?”
Then she would nod and say, “Okay … amazing … incredible … I love it!”
She’d laugh her musical laugh and hang up.
A constant stream of lunch and dinner dates, parties, phone calls, visitors, and house guests vied with me for my mom’s attention. Oftentimes it felt like I had to share her not just with my dad and my extended family, but also with the world. Although I wasn’t happy when my parents went out to parties or for dinners, I loved it when they stayed home to entertain. I always knew when my parents’ friends were coming over because my mom did her eyes. I’d watch as she got ready, sitting with her at the vanity in the dressing room area that led to her white-and-green bathroom….I can still picture my mother in front of that mirror with five or six hot rollers framing her face, doing her eyes. To start, she dipped a long, thin brush in water, then into the palette of black pressed powder to form a liquid eyeliner, which she used to paint a fine outline around each eye. With a smaller brush, she coated her eyelid in brown eye shadow and blended it with an upward motion. Next she curled her lashes with a mysterious metal contraption before stroking a wand of mascara over them. Once the eyes were done, pale pink lipstick and a swab of gloss were the finishing touches. She could talk to me or Daddy Wagner or a friend on the phone throughout her makeup routine and never make a mistake.
As my mom got ready, she’d often walk around in a nude bra and undies, curlers in her hair, one eye painted, buzzing the kitchen to ask Kilky what time the guests were arriving, how long the wine had been chilling, what Courtney and I were having for dinner. Or she would waltz into my dad’s office next door to their bedroom and carry on a conversation in various stages of undress. Then she’d pick up something to wear from her enormous walk-in closet shimmering with dresses, blouses, pantsuits, hats, shoes, and fur coats. A spritz of her gardenia perfume, the same kind given to her by Barbara Stanwyck when she was a little girl, and she was ready to be the hostess….
Though bedtimes were strictly enforced, Courtney and I were allowed to join the parties early in the evening. Mommie and Daddy wanted us there to meet and greet their guests, to talk, and to enjoy the festivities. We’d wander in, fresh from bath time, wearing our nighties, our hair still wet. I would scoop a handful of cashews from one of the silver bowls and eat them while my parents and their friends drank wine and told each other funny stories, clouds of cigarette smoke wafting to the ceiling….
Like my mother, I had an instinct for performance from a young age. I was keen to shine in social settings as long as I felt surrounded by people I trusted. I loved making my parents and their friends laugh. I could do an impersonation of a monkey that my mom had taught me, just like the one she’d done in Miracle on 34th Street. Or I would tell a knock-knock joke. If I didn’t have a joke to tell, I’d scoop up one of our dogs or cats and wander around with them. I passed through wafts of perfume mixed with cigarette smoke, the sounds of laughter and storytelling in my ears, the beautiful ladies saying hello, asking for a hug, the silks and satins of their clothing smooth against my freshly washed arms….
Both my parents had grown up in the studio system, and their careers spanned many generations of actors and filmmakers. As a result, guest lists for my parents’ parties included a mix of the not famous at all, the so-so famous, and the very famous. Celebrities I remember seeing at our house were Bette Davis, George Segal, Gene Kelly—who lived down the street—and Gregory Peck and his wife Veronique. I was too young to appreciate that these people were legends.
I just knew I enjoyed it if they were nice and paid attention to me. I remember dancing legend Fred Astaire was always immaculately dressed in vests, ties, and cashmere blazers. He had a wide, clean face and, usually, a yellow silk scarf around his neck, and he always smelled clean, like a fresh bar of soap.