After I finished paying my respects to Don Knotts, I turned my attention to the other celebrities buried on the plot of land known as Westwood Memorial Park. I was in Los Angeles for an escape from the snowy, cold Pennsylvania winter, touring the cemeteries to visit the resting places of Hollywood’s notables. Note: more about Westwood Memorial Park and Don Knotts can be found here: Don Knotts.
“Who are we looking for next?” mom asked as we headed for the grassy center of the cemetery. Glancing around the small plot of land, I was surprised how many people were either walking laps around the cemetery or wandering around the garden of stone.
“Natalie Wood,” I replied as I read my notes for the burial locations within the cemetery. “She appears to be the next closest one.” We crossed the roadway and entered the grassy lawn in the middle of the cemetery grounds. We walked a short distance when we saw the plaque that marked the grave of Natalie Wood. The stone had her name, birth and death years, and an Orthodox Cross in its center. Two quotes are on the memorial: the first states “Daughter, sister, wife, mother & friend” and near the bottom of the stone is “More than love.”
Natalie was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko on July 20, 1938 in San Francisco. The daughter of Russian immigrants, Natalie started acting at an early age. At the age of four she made her acting debut when she appeared in Happy Land as a little girl who drops her ice cream cone.
In 1946, Natalie appeared alongside Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert as the orphan Margaret Ludwig in Tomorrow Is Forever, following it with her portrayal of Anna Muir as a child in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Her first starring role was appearing alongside Maureen O’Hara and John Payne in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street. The Christmas classic made Natalie Wood a star and she appeared in numerous movies and television shows over the next eight years.
While filming The Green Promise in 1949, Natalie fell into a river and almost drowned. The traumatic event followed her the rest of her life as she had developed a deep fear of drowning, something that would cause her friends and family to question her death years later.
Wood played Ann Morrison, the teenage daughter in The Pride of the Family, the series, which ran from 1953-54, preparing her for her teenage acting years. In 1955, she appeared as Judy in Rebel Without A Cause featuring James Dean and Sal Mineo. Natalie received a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Judy. The following year she appeared alongside John Wayne in The Searchers. Natalie married Robert Wagner for the first time in 1957. Their marriage lasted until 1962.
In 1961, Wood starred opposite Warren Beaty in the coming of age movie, Splendor in the Grass. Also in 1961, Wood starred in the movie musical that modernized Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, appearing as Maria in West Side Story. Natalie did not do her own singing in West Side Story – the songs were performed by Marni Nixon. Wood followed this with another movie musical, Gypsy, where she played the title character and also did her own singing.
In the early 1960s Natalie made the gossip columns a number of times, but not for positive events, but instead for attempting suicide. It would take her failed attempt in 1966 for Wood to take a break from making movies to undergo therapy. That same year, Wood was given The Harvard Lampoon award for the “Worst Actress of Last Year, This Year, and Next.” Natalie became the first performer to attend their ceremony and accept the award in person.
During her time away from acting, she married Richard Gregson in 1969 and she appeared that year in one of her last big screen appearances in the comedy Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.
The short marriage to Richard produced one daughter, Natasha. Natalie and Richard divorced in 1972 and Wood remarried Wagner the same year. They had one daughter, Courtney, in 1974.
During the last fifteen years of her life, Natalie would only make four movies for the big screen, choosing to make television movies and mini-series instead. She appeared in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1976 and the 1979 miniseries From Here to Eternity, which earned her a Golden Globe. She was working on the film Brainstorm when died and a stand-in had to be hired to fill her role in the final scenes of the movie.
At the age of forty-three, Natalie’s life came to a tragic end. Her death has been connected to the urban legend of “Curse of Rebel Without a Cause” in which three of her co-stars died mysterious, tragic deaths. Unlike the other three, Natalie managed to avoid the “curse” longer than the other actors – James Dean, Sal Mineo, and Nick Adams. Note: more about Nick Adams can be found here: Nick Adams .
On November 29, 1981, Wood joined her husband, Robert Wagner, and Christopher Walken on a trip to Catalina Island. What happened that night has been debated, but it is agreed that the trio had been drinking and an argument erupted. At some point during the night, Wood disappeared from the boat.
Wood’s body was discovered the next morning floating in the water near a dinghy from the boat. It was theorized she fell into the water while trying to get into the dinghy. Friends and family immediately questioned her drowning due to Natalie’s known fear of water. The cause of death was originally listed as accidental drowning. In 2012, her cause of death was changed from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other undetermined factors.” To this day, what happened that night to cause Natalie’s death remains a mystery.
I finished paying my respects to the actress, whose three famous movies – Miracle on 34th Street, Rebel Without A Cause, and West Side Story – had been a part of my life growing up. As memories from those movies scrolled through my mind, I noted more people walking about the sacred grounds. Mom had already left the grave site, reading the nearby plaques, while an older couple stood a short distance away, obviously waiting their turn to visit Natalie’s resting place. I finally stepped away to allow others to pay their respects to the famous actress who slumbers in the quiet location hidden among the buildings of Los Angeles.
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