Thirty-five years after Natalie Wood drowned while sailing off Catalina Island, her former husband Robert Wagner 86, speaks to PEOPLE in this week's cover story about his family's heartbreak and his close bond with his stepdaughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner.
"We were all so shattered by the loss, and we were hanging on to each other," Wagner tells PEOPLE. "My bond with Natasha is very, very intense. We've hung onto each other through the years and she means the world to me."
After Natalie's death on November 29, 1981, Wagner and Natasha's father, Natalie's second husband Richard Gregson, decided that Wagner would continue to raise Natasha, her younger sister, Courtney (his daughter with Wood) and his older daughter Katie (with second wife Marion Marshall). "They'd always been together," he notes. "So Richard [Gregson], her birth father, and I sat down and came to the conclusion that we felt it was best that Natasha stay with her sisters and be raised in the environment that she'd been raised in up to that point – to the point of Natalie leaving us."
In this week's PEOPLE, Natasha speaks movingly about the years of sadness that followed her mother's death. As Wagner recalls, "You just take it moment by moment and hope that it gets better and more light comes into her life. As an adult and as a man, I could not climb into her head. All you can do is truly love and care for them."
For much more on Natalie Wood, including never-before-seen family photos, and pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE.
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Looking back, Wagner says, "Natasha worked very hard on her life. She was really concerned about being happy and going on. She was trying to make her life be something."
He's proud of the new fragrance called Natalie that Natasha and her sister Courtney have created, inspired by their mother's signature scent, Jungle Gardenia.
"I think it's wonderful," says Wagner. "She really has a passion for this and it's not just a venture. It's out of love and out of caring."
Wagner, who wed actress Jill St. John in 1990, remains very close to Natasha, 45, who has a 3-year-old daughter, Clover, with her husband Barry Watson. (She's also stepmom to Watson's two boys from his first marriage.) "Just watching her grow up has been amazing," Wagner says. "Sometimes I see the way she moves or the way she walks or laughs and she just reminds me of Natalie," he says. "It’s not a continuous thing, just a moment, a turn, her hair, some kind of look. It's quite extraordinary."