When Lana Wood was a teenager, she ran away from home. “I called Natalie from a phone booth, and she sent [Robert Wagner] to pick me up and bring me to her house in Beverly Hills,” Lana recalls exclusively to Closer. “I stayed with her a couple of weeks. She even started looking into schools for me. I always ran to Natalie for a shoulder to cry on.”
It’s been 40 years since her beloved older sister, Natalie Wood, died tragically off the coast of California’s Catalina Island. Lana, 75, an actress and author, still mourns Natalie every day. “I miss talking to her. I miss her laughter and her being so open and joyful when we were together,” says Lana, whose new book, Little Sister: My Investigation Into the Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood, is out now.
Natalie loved the challenge, excitement and glamour of her acting career, but didn’t take herself too seriously and enjoyed a little mischief. “We did stupid things,” confesses Lana. “One time, Natalie got tired of waiting for someone to help her at Bullock’s [department store]. She just wanted to pay for a pillow, and they kept sending her to different departments. So, finally, we just walked out with the pillow under her arm! She was free enough to do ridiculous things like that when we were together.”
Born eight years apart, Natalie and Lana were both pushed into show business by their mother, Maria, a Russian immigrant. Natalie landed her first uncredited role just before her 5th birthday. Three years later, she became a star playing a precocious child who doubts the existence of Santa Claus in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street. “Natalie loved all the attention,” Lana remembers.
Lana didn’t take to the entertainment industry as enthusiastically. She ran away to avoid going on the auditions Maria set up for her. “I just wanted to be left alone. I wanted to go to school and be like my friends,” she says. Natalie intervened with their mother and extracted a promise that she would stop being a stage mother to Lana. “She always tried to protect me,” Lana tells Closer.
As adults, the sisters saw each other often for lunch and shopping expeditions. “La Scala was our favorite place to go for lunch. We went to Bistro Garden a lot, too,” Lana recalls. “That’s what we did together — lunch, shopping, driving around and talking.”
They were close confidantes. “I always ran to Natalie if I needed somebody to give me a hug after I broke up with a boyfriend. Or if I had an audition to do, I would ask to run the dialogue by her,” says Lana, who costarred on the prime-time soap opera Peyton Place in the 1960s. “The only time we weren’t glued together and talking about things other than just superficial stuff, were the years when she was married to [Robert Wagner]. Those were the times when she seemed almost disengaged.”
As Lana reveals in her new book, Natalie didn’t tell her she’d been brutally raped at age 16 by actor Kirk Douglas until many years after it occurred. “She tried to put it aside, but I think it made her more weary than she should have been,” says Lana, who was about 22 when Natalie finally confided in her. “It affected her deeply. Natalie was trying very hard through her therapy to come to terms with some of the issues she felt she had.”
Natalie didn’t like to talk about her marriage to Robert, whom they all called RJ. The couple initially were wed from 1957 to 1962 before splitting up for a decade. In 1972, Natalie and RJ remarried during a ceremony aboard a yacht anchored off the coast of Malibu, shortly after she ended her three-year union with British producer Richard Gregson. “I didn’t feel good about her second marriage. I openly protested,” admits Lana, who says she never really felt close to her brother-in-law Robert. “I didn’t really engage RJ in anything when I was at their house. It was always just me and Natalie doing things together, but never RJ,” she says. “Perhaps I am to blame for some of that.”
Earlier in her life, Natalie dated some famous men, including Elvis Presley, Warren Beatty and David Niven Jr., but she never confessed to Lana that any of them were the love of her life. Nor did she proclaim her love for RJ. “She never said to me, ‘I can’t live without him,’ or, ‘We are meant to be together,’” says Lana, who felt confused by their marriage. “A psychic once told me that they were together in another life, and it didn’t end well, and they keep trying to make it right,” she says.
On that terrible weekend 40 years ago, Natalie and RJ had been entertaining her costar Christopher Walken aboard their yacht Splendor. The boat’s captain testified the couple argued. RJ says Natalie was not in their cabin when he went to sleep. Sometime in the night, she and the boat’s dinghy went missing.
Natalie’s bruised body, still clad in her nightgown, was found in the water the next day, not far from the missing dinghy. It was never determined how the actress, whose blood alcohol was .14, had entered the water. Lana has always maintained that Natalie was terrified of the ocean and would never go out in a small boat alone at night. “Lt. John Corina in homicide had a very apt remark. He said, ‘All we know is that there were two people on the back of that boat and they were arguing, and then there was one,’” says Lana.
The passage of time hasn’t stopped Lana from wanting answers. “If I could talk to Natalie now, I would say, ‘I will do everything in my power to clear your name, your motives, and to explain who you really were,’” she says. “And I won’t stop until we get the truth