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Who is Natalie Wood?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Natalie Wood (1938-1981) was a Hollywood actress, best known for her roles in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Natalie Wood has been described as one of the most captivating of the Hollywood starlets. She was a striking woman, with lush dark hair and smoldering eyes, who lived a tempestuous life filled with love affairs, drinking, and a hectic production schedule, like many actors and actresses during the golden era of the 1940s and 1950s.

Natalie Wood was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko in San Francisco, California, to Russian immigrants who spoke minimal English. When she was still a toddler, the family relocated to Santa Rosa, California, where her enterprising mother put Natalie forward for a role in Happy Land (1943), where the young Natalie appeared in a bit part as a crying child who loses her ice cream cone. After that, the family moved to Hollywood in an attempt to advance Natalie's film career, which took off in 1947 with Miracle on 34th Street, a movie which has since become an American classic.

Natalie Wood appeared in almost 20 films following Miracle on 34th Street, earning a reputation as a stellar child actress. The filming schedule was very hard on her, as she had few opportunities to interact with other children her age and experienced a heavily disrupted education. Natalie Wood matured early, having affairs with much older men from the tender age of 16.

In 1955, Natalie Wood became a Hollywood superstar playing opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause as the rebellious Judy. In the years to follow, she played Maria in West Side Story (1961), Angie in Love With the Proper Stranger (1963), and Alva in This Property is Condemned (1966). Her later films didn't perform as well at the box office, and Natalie Wood took some time off to develop her own life in 1966, returning in 1969 with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Following this period, she didn't make nearly as many films. Her last movie was Brainstorm, released in 1983, two years after her death.

Natalie Wood first married in 1957, at the age of 19. Her husband, Robert Wagner, was smitten with her on a date arranged as a publicity stunt by the studios. The two remained married until 1962, when Natalie Wood filed for divorce after indiscretions on Wagner's part. Natalie Wood stated to the press that, "Everyone searches for happiness. I guess I haven't found it yet." Natalie Wood later wrote that she felt tormented by her marriage, which she undertook at too young an age, and that she struggled with social expectations put upon her.

She had a number of affairs after this, including one with Warren Beatty, and ended up marrying again in 1969 to Richard Gregson, a British movie producer. The two had a child, Natasha, in 1970. They divorced less than a year later, when Wood discovered that Gregson was having an affair with his secretary. Robert Wagner reappeared in her life around this time, and the two remarried in 1972 aboard his yacht.

Only nine years later, Natalie Wood died in mysterious circumstances off the coast of Catalina Island in California. Though the coroner maintained that she drowned after falling overboard while drunk, insinuations have been made about Wagner and Christopher Walken, both of whom were onboard at the time. Some have suggested that Wood and Walken had an affair, and that a drunken argument may have culminated in her death.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By FernValley — On Jan 18, 2011

@afterall, I think you do have something of a point here. In addition to the tragic death mentioned in this Natalie Wood bio, James Dean died soon after in a car crash, and Sal Mineo was murdered in 1976. Heartbreaking as these deaths were, I find it also sad that both Wood and Mineo are remembered for this movie more than any of their other films, despite being in so many more than Dean was before their deaths.

By afterall — On Jan 17, 2011

While James Dean and Natalie Wood had great chemistry, I cannot help but feel like Rebel Without a Cause is an incredibly overrated movie. The premise was okay, the plot was all but nonexistent, and the directing was not great either. If not for all three of the main stars dying young, I'm not sure it would seem nearly so poignant to us now.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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