In the 20 years since Natalie Wood drowned, under circumstances that were never fully explained, the lingering mystery over her death at 43 has often threatened to overshadow her life as beloved child star turned Hollywood screen icon.
Now a new book suggests that Wood's life was also strange, compelling and painful, revealing her rape at age 16 by a major movie star, her split from actor Robert Wagner, and a controlling, sometimes delusional mother who once tore the wings off a live butterfly to make her young daughter cry on cue.
"Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood" (Harmony Books) is the work of author Suzanne Finstad, who interviewed more than 400 people during four years of research into the life of the Oscar-nominated star of such film classics as "Miracle on 34th Street," "Rebel Without a Cause" and "West Side Story."
But even Finstad cannot finally explain the drowning of Wood - who was haunted throughout her life by fears of dying in dark water - during a 1981 boat trip to California's Catalina Island with Wagner and actor Christopher Walken.
Authorities two decades ago ruled Wood's death an accidental drowning and said she may have fallen into the water while trying to step into a rubber dinghy tied to her 60-foot yacht, the Splendour. Alcohol was cited as a possible factor.
Coroner's officials said at the time that Wood, whose body was found the next morning floating in the water about a half-mile from where the Splendour had been moored, might have struck her head as she fell.
Questions over why she was trying to leave the Splendour wearing her nightclothes or why, according to the book, more than an hour may have elapsed before authorities were alerted that she was missing, were never fully answered.
Finstad's nearly moment-by-moment account of that night can only supply tantalizing new clues, in part because Wagner, Walken and the only other person who was on board the Splendour that night, hired boat captain Dennis Davern, declined to grant her interviews.
Finstad reports what she calls an "explosive argument" between Wagner and Walken that evening and suggests that Wagner and Wood also may have quarreled.
A publicist for Wagner referred calls to his attorneys, Larry Stein and Ann Loeb, who vigorously disputed Finstad's account of the night that Wood drowned.
"The book did not accurately depict what occurred on that evening and there were many inaccuracies in the book," Stein said. "We're upset that these inaccuracies have been published."
Said Finstad in an interview: "I'm not sure any one explanation really answers all the questions about that night."
Finstad added that she considers suicide by the devoted mother of two girls out of the question and said Wood was not typically a heavy drinker. "I just find it to be a very disturbing scenario and I think in the end, it has to be considered an alcohol-related accident," she said.
If Wood's final hours remain murky after 20 yearand 450 pages of "Natasha," Finstad, who gained unprecedented access to the actress's family, sheds new light on the rest of her life, which has been clouded by time, myth and Hollywood publicity.
According to the book, Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko was one of three sisters born to Russian immigrant parents and pushed into movies by her obsessed mother, Maria Gurdin, after a gypsy fortuneteller predicted that the little girl known as Natasha would become a great beauty known the world over.
The gypsy also warned Gurdin to "beware of dark water," predicting that Natasha would drown and instilling the fears that would haunt mother and daughter for the rest of their lives.
"Natasha" details Gurdin's desperate push to get Wood into show business, contradicting a half-century of Hollywood legend that the 4-year-old Wood was discovered serendipitously by a film director shooting on location in her California hometown.
Wood's mother was determined to make her a star at all costs, according to the book, which describes the butterfly incident and another during filming of "The Green Promise" when the actress, then 10, broke her left wrist in a staged bridge collapse and plunged, terrified, into the rushing water below.
Gurdin concealed the accident, and Wood's broken left wrist, which was never treated, resulted in a deformity she covered with a bracelet for the rest of her life, the book says.
Based on interviews with friends and family, "Natasha" also reveals Wood's rape at 16 by a man who Finstad will describe only as a "powerful, married movie star" of the time.
"I chose not to name him because I wanted people to focus on the horror and trauma to Natalie," Finstad said. "I'm sure it was always in her psyche. When you've been raped it never really disappears - particularly when it's someone you've idolized and when your mother conspires to keep it a secret."
"Natasha" discusses Wood's breakup with Wagner, which occurred about the time she was shooting "Splendor in the Grass" with co-star Warren Beatty. Hollywood gossip magazines floated a rumor the marriage was broken up by involvement with Beatty.
Of course, Wood was a film star for most of her 43 years, and "Natasha" offers a glimpse into Hollywood's golden age, including her friendships with Elvis Presley, her "Rebel" co-star James Dean, Frank Sinatra and a young Dennis Hopper.
The author said Gurdin never recovered from her daughter's death, refusing to accept that she was gone and retreating into a fantasy world, kept company by a painting of the actress on her living room wall.
"And at some point after Natalie died, her mother took a knife or a pair of scissors and cut a slash in the left wrist of the portrait," Finstad said. "Then she took a real bracelet and glued it over that left wrist."
By Dan Whitcomb
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