Natalie Wood rarely wore makeup around the house, but she always put on her favorite gardenia perfume. “The smell is what I remember, the comfort of the smell,” her daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner says.
“I knew when she was home. [Her scent] would waft through the house.” Natasha, 49, reveals many small, sweet details of her mother’s personal life in the upcoming HBO documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind and a memoir, More Than Love: An Intimate Portrait of My Mother, Natalie Wood, due out in May.
By sharing her memories, Natasha hopes to erase the perception that Natalie was a victim. “She was a joyful person and she had an amazing life,” says Natasha, who believes her mother’s 1981 drowning death overshadowed her accomplishments. The three-time Oscar nominee left behind a tight, loving family and performances in seminal films like Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story. “The narrative has been skewed toward the tragic,” explains Natasha. “That’s not the mom I knew.”
The daughter of Natalie and the late British producer Richard Gregson notes that despite her mother’s fame, Natalie was not a diva at home. “She knew she was a movie star, she knew what her duties were, but she never confused them with being a real person,” says Natasha. “She knew how to balance that.” The acclaimed actress was a terrible cook, but she made up for it by being a hands-on mother who tried to raise strong, smart daughters. (Natasha has a half-sister, Courtney Wagner, and a stepsister, Katie Wagner.)
“She was so brave and she wanted us to be brave, too,” says Natasha. “[My mother] became her family’s sole earner when she was 12, so she had a savvy business sense. I remember her talking to us about money…about the importance of saving money.” Natasha also remembers Natalie’s life with Robert Wagner as a happy one.
The couple initially married in 1957, split in 1962 and wed again a decade later. “He and my mom had been my model for relationships, for love, intimacy and connection,” says Natasha, who grew up calling Robert “Daddy Wagner.”
“My mom and my dad were always laughing at each other’s jokes. Her laugh was this deep ‘HAHAHA!’ She would always say to my dad, ‘Oh RJ, just stop it! I can’t! Just stop it!’ ” Over Thanksgiving weekend when Natasha was 11, Natalie died after falling off the couple’s yacht in the middle of the night. “I’ve spent the rest of my life dealing with it,” says Natasha.
And she refuses to believe theories that Robert somehow caused Natalie’s death, even though he was named “a person of interest” when the investigation was reopened in 2011. “It’s so preposterous I can’t even relate to it,” she says dismissively. “I know that she drowned and I know it was an accident.” The scandal used to keep Natasha from talking about Natalie, but becoming a mother herself in 2012 changed her feelings. “My mom was someone who made me feel safe in the world, and the love I felt for [my daughter] Clover reminded me of the love I knew from my mom,” she says. “I am shepherding her legacy out into the world. It’s come full circle and has been incredibly healing.”
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