Making Peace with Natalie, Two Years After Her Death

Making Peace with Natalie, Two Years After Her Death
10/10/1983

updated 10/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Natalie and R.J. entertained often and well, usually at dinner parties at their English-style Beverly Hills home. The parties could roughly be divided into two categories: star and non-star. The star parties were, of course, the more elegant, but it is difficult to say which parties were more fun. All of their friends had interesting lives, and so it wasn't often one got stuck in the middle of a dull conversation.

As the genial host at these occasions, R.J. tended to get deeply involved in conversations, while Natalie, determined to be the perfect hostess, moved from group to group. Yet, more often than not, Natalie was in bed before the party was over. As much as she liked to entertain, she also believed in getting plenty of sleep. She was also wise enough to go to bed when she'd had too much to drink—which she often did. Natalie was tiny (5'3½" and 105 pounds), so it didn't take much, and she liked her white wine. She also adored a lethal rum drink called a Scorpion, which is served at Trader Vic's restaurants with a gardenia—also her favorite flower—floating in it. Her capacity lasted somewhere into the second sip of the second drink.

Natalie's routine at parties was carefully established. She'd seldom be downstairs to greet her guests and would instead come down after most of them had arrived. She was gregarious, friendly and a good listener, but when she had had enough, she would disappear upstairs and then return several minutes later wearing an elegant nightgown and a robe. She would explain that she was tired and would only be having just one more glass of wine. "But please, everybody," she would say, "stay and have a good time."

She'd sit and sip, then off she'd go. Some nights when I was worried she'd had too much to drink, I'd wait a few minutes and then go upstairs to see if she was all right. A couple of times I found her in the bathroom throwing up. R.J., of course, stayed to the last. He is a man who loves a good party. He, too, likes his drinks, though he can hold them a great deal better than Natalie could.

To almost everyone who knew Natalie and R.J., their close relationship was unmistakable, at parties and everywhere else. Natalie was possessive of R.J., wanted to know everything he did, everywhere he went. Mom tells of a day she dropped by when Natalie stopped talking in mid-sentence and turned to R.J. for confirmation of some fact. He'd left the room. Natalie immediately demanded to know where he was, called him, and then went looking for him. R.J. was in the bathroom, and she stood outside the door and waited for him to come out. She once told me this marriage, their second try, absolutely had to work, and it was up to her to make it work.

As a housewife Natalie performed with a vengeance, and anything that was necessary to keep R.J. happy was done. When he was working—which was often—she'd fly around the house getting things in order, run into the kitchen to make sure dinner would be ready on time, that his vegetables were cooked as he liked them, and on and on. R.J., in turn, was forever giving her gifts. Every time she completed a picture he'd give her another charm for her gold necklace, another disk with the name of the picture and her character engraved on it.

There had been a major change in emphasis in their relationship. When they were first married [between 1957 and 1962], Natalie had been a major star and R.J. wasn't much more than a handsome man with a little acting experience. Now it was different. Natalie was still a movie star, of course, and in the Hollywood caste system that made her much bigger than any television star, which is what R.J. was. She had her scripts, all bound in leather, on display in a bookcase. She had a past, and it was a glorious one. He had the present, and it was more glamorous than glorious. However, there are also practical considerations to such an arrangement, considerations not wasted on anybody who is in show business. R.J. wasn't just a television star, he was in his third hit series [Hart to Hart had followed It Takes a Thief and Switch] and he was making a fortune. Natalie was a film star who wasn't working much.

Her high standards and pride sometimes stood in her way. One time in 1972 when she was actively looking for a picture, she was offered the role of Daisy in The Great Gatsby, playing opposite an old friend, Robert Redford. There was one condition, however, and it proved to be insurmountable. If she wanted the part, she would have to do a screen test. To ask this of an established star, one with miles—a whole lifetime, in this case—of film to her credit was a terrible humiliation. Natalie refused. [Instead Mia Farrow got the role.] Several years later she was offered a role in an Agatha Christie murder, The Mirror Crack'd, playing an aging and impossibly vain movie star. Natalie read the script, put it down and started swearing. She would not, she said, stoop to such shit. At 41, she felt she was not yet old enough to be looked upon as aging, and she refused, absolutely refused, to play such a part. Elizabeth Taylor did it.

What was painfully clear was that those few offers that were forthcoming were not really very good at all. We all knew what was happening, and Natalie made no attempt to hide her dismay or, as in the case of Gatsby and The Mirror Crack'd, her fury. One night we were sitting around her bar, sipping wine and talking about our careers, which was an unusual topic because we tended to talk about our children. "I want to produce a movie for television," I said at one point. Natalie nodded, then was silent. She ran a perfectly manicured finger down the side of the glass, making a small trail in the condensation.

"You know what I want? I want yesterday," she said softly.

Yet she remained determined to cope with the present. Then Natalie found a film, signed for it and got ready to go back to work. It was called Brainstorm, a sci-fi thriller about a machine that can transfer one person's thoughts and emotions to another. Her leading man would be Christopher Walken, five years her junior and one of the hot actors in town. Walken's role in The Deer Hunter in 1978 won him an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.

Near the end of the filming we all assembled at Natalie and R.J.'s for Thanksgiving, a mix of family and friends grown comfortable together over years of dinners. This one was not really like the others. There was something off about it. I remember that Natalie was wearing a purple angora sweater with silver threads running through it and matching purple slacks and shoes. She looked absolutely lovely. She was also incredibly tense, a very different Natalie from the one I had last seen just before she began shooting Brainstorm. It was a film she looked upon as a way of perhaps rescuing a faltering film career. She was thrilled to be working, and nervous, too.

To the dozen or so Thanksgiving guests, Natalie's anxiety was unmistakable. No sooner had everyone arrived than she began worrying that the fireplace wasn't working right, that the fire wasn't big enough. Then she'd sit for a few minutes, only to fly into action—one moment lighting her pine-scented French candles, the next moment putting them out. She had little scented asbestos circles that she placed over the light bulbs of various lamps. The heat released the scent. At least four times Natalie scurried around the room making sure the asbestos was emitting the proper scents.

As for R.J., he was his usual affable self, fixing drinks and acting as though everything was going according to schedule. Chris Walken came by and spoke briefly to R.J. and Natalie; he didn't have much to say to anyone else. He left in less than two hours. Finally the buffet dinner was served. Afterward Natasha, Natalie's daughter by Richard Gregson [to whom Wood was wed between her marriages to R.J.], came up behind her mother.

"Mommy, please don't go this weekend. I feel bad I can't come with you. Go another time," the 11-year-old pleaded.

"Natasha, you've made plans with friends that you can't cancel, and R.J. and I have our plans too," Natalie said gently. "You're going through with your plans and we're going through with ours."

That was it, a brief exchange between a mother and a daughter which normally would have meant nothing, a conversation I would have completely forgotten—except for what was to come.

Turning to her guests, Natalie explained that she and R.J. were going out on their 55-foot boat Splendour for a few days. "Chris Walken is coming with us. The weather should be perfect," she said. Then Natalie asked her friends, one by one, to join them for the weekend. Mart Crowley, Natalie's former secretary, said he had to work on R.J.'s Hart to Hart series (of which he was the producer) but would like a rain check. Peggy Griffin and Delphine Mann, Natalie's close friends, pleaded the press of work. Natalie did not issue an invitation to me, though she certainly knew I loved boats, fishing and diving. It was a part of her life in which I was never included and was something I had come to accept without ever knowing the reasons for it. It was just there, and I honestly don't remember feeling awkward that others were asked in my presence and I was not.

A few minutes later Natalie and I began discussing Brainstorm. How was it going, I asked. "You know how aging actresses make horror films?" she asked. "You know, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and that kind of thing? Well, this is my way of doing something like that. Only this one isn't a horror film. It's science fiction. Me and all those magnificent special effects."

Later that night Mom and I discussed the dinner and tried to pin down what was wrong, what was off about the evening. Neither of us could figure it out.

"Something's going on with Natalie," Mom reflected.

The call came at 8 o'clock Sunday morning, three days after that unsettling Thanksgiving dinner. I had spent a restless night, and at one point Mom, who was staying with me, and I got up and went to the kitchen for a snack. I had what Natalie and I called shpilkes, a Yiddish expression for being antsy. The call was from Sheri Herman, a girl I had met in second grade who had remained a good friend. I heard the ring and pulled my head further under the covers. Mom answered it.

"Lana, it's Sheri. You want to talk to Sheri?"

"Tell her I'll call her later," I said, and promptly went back to sleep.

Sheri called again, and again. Finally, on her fourth try, I heard Mom say: "Sheri, what is wrong? You sound terrible." Then there was a long pause, which ended when Mom began screaming, "Are you sure? Are you sure?" I jumped out of bed and grabbed my phone, and from where I was standing I watched as Mom collapsed to the floor.

Sheri had heard a report on the radio that Natalie's body had been found off Catalina Island.

I knew Natalie, R.J. and Chris Walken had sailed to Catalina Island, 26 miles off the coast, but I told Sheri: "That's impossible. There's obviously been a big mistake. Let's wait and see what happens."

My memories of the next few hours are hazy. Friends arrived. Mom lost consciousness. I remember the paramedics telling us that her blood pressure was over 200 and that she needed a doctor's services, which we attended to in the middle of everything else.

As the hours passed, we knew the report was true. We'd seen on TV the helicopter bearing Natalie's body leave Catalina and come to the mainland. We'd heard bulletins on the radio. Finally R.J. called. He had stayed behind in Catalina and then flown home with her body.

"What happened, R.J.?" As I remember it, there was an edge to my voice, not accusatory but angry.

"Lana," said R.J., his voice cracking, "it was an accident. You must believe me. Do you believe me?"

"Yes. But what happened?"

"I don't know. Chris and I were talking, and she went off to bed. She must have fallen overboard or something like that."

"Didn't you hear her hit the water?"

"I didn't hear a thing."

"Had you all been drinking?"

"Yes, yes of course. It was after a big dinner on shore, and it was late."

There was a pause, and then R.J. continued: "I don't know what happened. If I knew what happened I'd tell you. Do you believe that?"

"Yes. But how could something like this happen?" I started shouting into the phone. "I'm angry. She's my sister and I have a right to be angry. R.J., I'm sorry if I sound out of control. It's not because of you. It's not directed at you." I don't remember anything else of the conversation, except that I kept saying "I'm sorry" and he kept saying the same thing to me.

Later that afternoon we went to Natalie and R.J.'s, to the house she had loved so much. There were quite a few close friends. I found R.J. upstairs sitting on the edge of their bed, weeping. Marion Donen Wagner, his former wife, was with him, consoling him. I hugged him and held him for a time, but there was no reaching through his grief, no way in. Not then. It was too personal, too private.

During the services I could see the tears in R.J.'s eyes and the whiteness of his hands as he held onto his daughters. He had wept openly at the house and had made no attempt to hide his emotions. I thought it uncharacteristic of him and admired him for it. Afterward we returned to the house. There was endless food, prepared by Willie Mae, who had been Natalie's cook and nanny for years. The house, which was big, had never been so full of people. I never recall feeling crowded in it, but this time I did. At one point I eased my way to the bathroom only to find the door locked. I waited outside for what seemed an unusually long time, and finally Chris Walken emerged, looking a bit odd. I went in and was immediately engulfed by marijuana smoke. We all have our ways of getting through sad occasions, but knowing Natalie's dislike of marijuana, I couldn't help feeling offended.

Finally it was over. The relatives left, my friend Alan Feinstein returned East to perform onstage in A View From the Bridge, and my life resumed. Mom, my daughter, Evan, and I stayed close together during the next weeks, and I spoke every day with Alan. We heard nothing from R.J.

Shortly after Natalie's death I was dispatched one day to pitch a story idea to Warren Beatty. It was a part of my job as an assistant to TV producer Ron Samuels, but I didn't want to go. Natalie and Warren had had a passionate, year-long affair that began when they filmed Splendor in the Grass in 1961. After they broke up, Natalie, a friend and I had dinner with Warren. That night Warren tried to come up to my hotel room. I was only 16 at the time, and I didn't let him.

I was uncomfortable about seeing Warren. Also, I felt certain he would turn the project down. He did, but not before listening to it politely. Natalie was not mentioned until I was about to leave, and then I couldn't help it. I wanted him to say something about her, about how he would remember her. I wanted to know that it had been all right between them at the end.

"Do you miss Natalie?"

"No, not really. She's gone and I'm sorry. But that's it." Then he reached out and pulled me to him. Warren simply could not let the opportunity go by. I could, though.

"Goodbye, Warren," I said as I ran out the door and jumped into my car.

As the months passed, I began to feel worse and worse. I had a great deal of trouble sleeping. I had nightmares, dark dreams in which Natalie would appear and I would awake in tears. Finally I went to a psychiatrist.

It took several sessions of pouring out my sorrow before he sat back and told me that what I was experiencing was "textbook grief." What was particularly difficult for me—and still is, though to a lesser extent—is my lifelong habit of imagining Natalie's reaction to everything I did. Would she approve? Would she be proud? Would she disagree? Would she look up and give me that sly, conspiratorial wink? Never again.

The inevitable rash of rumors that surrounded Natalie's death was also painful for me. I have heard all of them. They involve every sexual combination imaginable.

My theory, and it is the one most of us who were close to Natalie share, is a simple one. Its simplicity makes it all the more tragic. In the years before she died, the pressures had mounted and Natalie had responded by occasionally drinking too much. She was not an alcoholic by any stretch of the imagination, but it was conceivable that trouble of some sort lay somewhere in the future. I was told by R.J. that what happened that night was that she got up out of bed to retie the dinghy the three of them had used to return from shore a few hours before. It may have been banging against the side of the boat. She slipped, fell, knocked herself out and went into the water. The coroner said there was not much water in her lungs, and that indicates she was unconscious when she hit the water. She did not struggle. She did not suffer. She was probably not even conscious when she died. She was spared the terrible terror of confronting her fear of the water.

There were any number of stories about heated arguments, on and off the boat, a report that Natalie and Chris—the stories have varied—had spent the night before she died in a motel on Catalina. Very possibly, but so what? Underlying those stories, mentioned almost as a casual aside, is that there were also separate rooms.

Chris Walken might well have appealed to Natalie. He is good-looking. He is a respected New York stage actor. In Brainstorm Natalie plays Walken's wife. It would not have been the first time Natalie fell in love with her leading man. After all, there was Warren Beatty.

But this time, filming Brainstorm with Chris, Natalie was perhaps at her most vulnerable. Her career was not going well, at least not as well as she wanted it. Some people find consolation in work. Natalie found hers in success, the sort of success as it is defined in Hollywood. That means hit films, awards and stardom. She had only stardom, and for Natalie that was not enough. She made cracks about one day being as fat as Elizabeth Taylor, and just as addicted to attention and adulation as Elizabeth was. "God, I hope I have enough sense not to be that pathetic," she said to me.

But despite her career problems, Natalie seemed to be relatively secure. Her marriage was considered one of the best in Hollywood, and there is no question but that she was a devoted, loving—even adoring—mother to Natasha and Courtney and stepmother to R.J.'s daughter Kate. She and R.J. had begun with love and built from there. But, as with anybody else who has settled into making a long marriage work, there is bound to be occasional boredom. Even an occasional infidelity. There are two kinds of infidelity: imaginary and real. Show me a husband or a wife who doesn't occasionally imagine a love affair and I'll show you a liar. Or a fool. I don't know if Natalie had an affair with Chris, though my strongest suspicion is that it was all in her mind, and that perhaps she was wishing the affair to be real. So be it. She would never have allowed another man to threaten either her marriage or her children.

When the time came to deal with Natalie's will, we learned that it was very complicated, in part because she had invested wisely and was enormously wealthy. She owned office buildings, the works. I had known this but hadn't given it a great deal of thought through the years. It was, Natalie had said, her money working for her. She had done everything on the advice of her business manager and lawyers. Almost everything was left to R.J. and the girls, which is as it should be. The most poignant request in the will was that the three children be permitted to grow up together as one family, with R.J. the head of that family. It was a plea to Richard Gregson and Marion Donen Wagner to allow their children to grow up in another household, in Richard's case with another man as Natasha's father. The request was granted.

Natalie's bequest to me was a surprise. She left me all of her clothing and all of her furs, even the lavish Blackglama she had just been given for posing for one of those "What becomes a Legend most?" ads. It was a wonderful, generous thing for her to do. She knew I often had money problems. I waited a month and, on a weekend when I had free use of a friend's van, I called to ask if it would be okay to come and pick up the clothes and furs. Willie Mae answered and said yes. I was shaking as I walked into Natalie's bedroom, and I was standing there, crying, when R.J. walked into the room. He was cordial but cool. We exchanged greetings and then he asked me if it would be okay if he kept the furs and the ski clothes for the girls.

"Of course. Anything you want."

"I'll pay you for them."

"Anything you say, R.J."

"Do you need some help?"

"No, no thanks." I'd brought a couple of friends to help load the clothing, and I was having second thoughts of my own. "I think I'd leave everything for one little memento," I said to him. Tears were dripping off my cheeks. R.J. left the room and returned a few minutes later with a big oil portrait of Natalie, one that had been hanging in the hallway of the house.

"Here. Take this. It's the girls' and they want you and Evan to have it."

I dissolved, and R.J. waved away my thanks with a pat on the back. "Now take the clothes. They're yours."

It took six trips from Natalie's to my apartment to gather Natalie's clothes. They filled every available space in my apartment. I took down all of the pictures on the big oak wall above my fireplace and hung Natalie's portrait there.

Gradually I began sorting through the clothes. We were both size 6, so nearly everything fit me. Keeping everything was impossible unless I rented storage space or found myself an apartment twice as large. So, several weeks later, four vanloads of clothing went to the resale shops I knew Natalie used from time to time. And I came home with almost $15,000. I know that is what Natalie would have wanted.

Soon after, R.J. sent a check for the furs: $20,000. I let out a whoop of surprise when I saw it; Alan made a shout of protest. He insisted the Blackglama alone was worth that much [$10,000, according to the Blackglama people] and asked me how many furs there had been in the closet. I told him six or eight, everything from mink to sable. Alan insisted I was being given a very short end of the deal, but I refused to say anything to R.J.

Later word came back to me that R.J. was furious that I'd sold Natalie's clothing. I asked Mom if he had said anything to her, and she was the picture of innocence. I called him immediately, and when he had not returned my call two days later, I figured he was angry about something. And so I wrote him. No answer. On R.J.'s 52nd birthday, Feb. 10, I brought him a small gift (a pair of antique glove stretchers made of ivory) and another note. I begged him to explain to me what had made him angry. Again, there was no response.

I did not see R.J. or my nieces again until we all returned to the cemetery on the first anniversary of Natalie's death, a Russian Orthodox tradition that we knew Natalie liked. I considered sending a letter to R.J. and offering not to go to the cemetery if my presence would upset him, but I wanted—needed—to be there. The psychiatrist I had seen for a brief time after Natalie's death had said I was beginning to transfer my need for approval from Natalie to R.J. and that, he said, was a fatal move. And so, for the first time, after months of feeling like an outcast, a social criminal of some sort, of wondering why there had been no response to my calls or letters, I said to hell with R.J. and went.

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