Natalie Wood's secret traumas haunted her throughout her life, especially the inappropriate relationships she shared with older men in power. But in the end, fate had a horrible twist in store for her. Just when her life seemed to find some much-needed stability, she passed in the most horrific way imaginable—a demise that remains a mystery to this day.
1. She Had A Disturbing Childhood
Although Natalie Wood was destined for Hollywood, her beginnings were anything but glamorous. Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, her loving Russian immigrant parents had undeniable dark sides. Having suffered through the Great Depression, Wood's father Nick had a fraught relationship with the bottle, and his addiction turned him from a tender protector into a violent aggressor. And that wasn't all.
2. She Had A Wild Mother
Wood had more than just her father to deal with. With her talent for manipulation, her mother Maria may have been even worse. With a skewed moral compass, Maria would purposefully spark her husband's temper. Not only that but her daughter Lana later called her a pathological liar. Leading the family with her flair for melodrama and bizarre superstitions, Maria did not provide her children with a stable upbringing.
Little did Wood know, however, this was only the beginning of the nightmare.
3. Her Fame Was Predicted
When a fortune-teller predicted Natalie Wood's future fame—that she would one day be "known throughout the world"—her mother clung to this information and ran with it. From then on, Maria turned into the most domineering stage mom imaginable. She became obsessed with getting Wood into the entertainment industry. Sadly, little Natalie didn't have much choice in the matter.
Dragged into the spotlight against her will, Wood's road to stardom was far more chilling than most people know.
4. She Wasn't Crazy About The Movies
There's a good chance that without her impertinent mother, Natalie Wood may never have become an actress. Although she possessed a natural talent for acting, she wasn't as keen on the movies as her mother was. Maria was the huntress who nailed down roles for her daughter, and Wood "just went along." However, once she got Wood a platform, that's when the true horror show began.
5. She Broke Down
Wood's mother wanted her daughter to be the best—but that came with a staggering price. You see, for emotional scenes, Wood had her mother coaching her from the sidelines in the most demented ways possible. To ensure that a crying scene went smoothly, Maria once presented a struggling butterfly to Wood..and then proceeded to rip off its wings in front of her.
Of course, this cruelty worked like a charm and had little Natalie breaking down right before the director yelled, "Action!" Oh, but these un-motherly antics didn't end there.
6. She Was A Puppet
Maria mothered Wood ruthlessly, only caring about the caliber of her daughter's performance—and she certainly steered her daughter's emotions. Besides the butterfly disaster, Maria would also regale Wood with horrifying stories about animal cruelty, or talk about their beloved family dog who'd passed. Poor Wood was a mere puppet, and it led her down an unbelievably treacherous path.
7. She Feared The Water
Perhaps one of the most unsettling truths from Natalie Wood's childhood was her fear of water. Considering the role water played in her tragic demise, it's even more chilling to know the source of Wood's phobia. Once again, it all came back to her mother. Wood's older sister, Olga, later said, "My mother was afraid of swimming, and she was told that she'd drown. So this communicated itself to Natalie."
However, this fear was bound to follow her for the rest of her life after one traumatizing filming experience.
8. She Almost Drowned
Natalie Wood's phobia of water was extreme. It prevented her from learning how to swim, and even when she took baths, she couldn't put her head under the water. And then it got even worse. On the set of The Green Promise, nine-year-old Natalie almost drowned when a scene went horribly awry. She was told to run across a bridge that was only set to collapse after she made it to safety.
Unfortunately, the bridge gave way while she was still on it, sending Wood into the watery depths and causing her to break her wrist. Poor Natalie Wood had no idea that this early trauma weirdly foreshadowed her disastrous future.
9. She Was A Beloved Child Actor
Natalie Wood became known as a child star and was most famous for her role in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. However, she couldn't stay a little girl forever. As she grew through her awkward years, it was time to see if Wood could make the perilous jump from child actor to young starlet. But opportunities in Hollywood rarely came free.
As Wood grew into a beautiful young woman, brand new dangers arose.
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10. She Attracted An Older Man
Wood was an adorable child and as she navigated her teen years, she blossomed into a stunning young woman. Unfortunately, this put her in the crosshairs of lecherous studio executives, and in Wood's case, one very creepy director. When 16-year-old Wood auditioned for Rebel Without a Cause, she caught the eye of 42-year-old director Nicholas Ray.
With some serious power dynamics at play, Wood's introduction to the adult world of acting was anything but innocent.
11. She Had Stiff Competition
Preyed upon by director Nicholas Ray, underage Natalie found herself a victim of an inappropriate "liaison". And yet, she still really wanted the part of Judy in Rebel Without a Cause. Unfortunately, entertaining Ray didn't necessarily mean she'd landed the role. Other amazing actresses were up for the part, including Jayne Mansfield and Debbie Reynolds.
A vexed Wood found herself in casting limbo, that is, until one reckless night changed everything.
12. She Was Irresponsible
One fateful evening, Natalie Wood and Dennis Hopper embarked on a very irresponsible outing filled with drinking and fun—and it ended in disaster. Both actors wound up in a car crash and landed Wood in the hospital. But it wasn't all doom and gloom. When her lover Nicholas Ray arrived at her bedside, he heard the doctor call Wood "a goddamn juvenile delinquent."
This perked Wood right up, and her response may have won her the role of a lifetime.
13. She Was A Rebel
Even tucked into a hospital bed, Natalie Wood had only one thing on her mind: Getting the part in Rebel Without a Cause. And that's when it occurred to her...She'd just been in a car accident...She literally was a rebel without a cause. When the doctor insulted her, she turned to Ray and excitedly said, "Did you hear what he called me, Nick? He called me a goddamn juvenile delinquent! Now, do I get the part?"
14. She Sealed The Deal
Okay, so we don't actually know if Natalie Wood's irresponsible car crash won her the part, but nevertheless, creepy Nicholas Ray eventually came through for his unethical conquest and sent Warner Brothers a message that sealed the deal: “We just spent three days testing 32 kids. There is only one girl who has shown the capacity to play Judy, and she is Natalie Wood.”
After all of the questionable liaisons and one reckless night out, Wood finally had her foot in the door—and she wasn't about to let this opportunity go to waste.
15. She Followed Her Heart
Turns out, Natalie Wood truly was the best fit for Rebel Without a Cause. In fact, her performance was so impressive, she even walked away with a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. However, it also signaled a turning point. For Wood, this was the first script that had really spoken to her—a project she genuinely wanted to be a part of.
Still, Wood faced down a new challenge. Although her controlling parents hadn't approved of the role, she took a stand and followed her heart. The film was a huge success—but, unfortunately, the excitement of her career only masked one of Wood's darkest secrets.
16. She Led A Double Life
On the surface, 16-year-old Wood seemed like she had it made, but behind closed doors, she lived a very different life. See, it was only years later, after her biography by Suzanne Finstad was published, that one of Wood's most haunting chapters came to light. Allegedly, she'd been invited to one of her idol's hotel suites for an audition—and it took a horrifying turn.
17. She Kept A Dark Secret
Reportedly, a very renowned and married star had brutally and intimately assaulted her when she was just 16 years old. Wood left the encounter petrified, injured, and too terrified to ask for help. She never went to the authorities, but instead, confided in some of her closest friends. Later, even Wood's sister, Lana, confirmed these rumors and revealed that it had happened at the Chateau Marmont Hotel. But who was the guilty perpetrator?
18. She Never Revealed His Identity
Although Wood never outrightly named her rapist she absolutely hated him to the day she died. Moreover, the rumors about his true identity still run rampant to this day, and the number one suspect seems to be Kirk Douglas. In fact, when he passed in 2020, it was Natalie Wood's name that started trending on social media. Beyond that, however, the story seems to end there.
There's a likely chance that we'll never learn the truth behind one of her hardest moments. Unfortunately for Natalie, however, fate had a lot more curveballs in store for the luckless actress.
19. She Had A Celebrity Crush
When she was 18, Natalie Wood had a very strong celebrity crush on none other than the hip-swinging Elvis Presley. Dazzled by his music and good looks, she desperately wanted to meet him. Upon her request, Wood's old co-star and friend, Dennis Hopper, introduced the two stars. When these two set eyes on one another, sparks began to fly—but it was doomed to an incredibly messy end.
20. She Fell For A Rock Star
When it came to impressing his new girlfriend, Elvis didn't hold back. On one of their first dates, he flexed his star power by renting out an entire theater. Magnanimous gestures such as these certainly charmed Wood, and soon the couple were ready to take their relationship to the next level. Elvis wanted to take Wood home to meet his family—but this was a huge mistake.
21. She Hated His Mother
Wood eagerly followed her famous boyfriend back to Memphis to meet his mother, Gladys. But, upon arrival, her excitement quickly turned to horror. You see, Elvis was a mama's boy through and through, and he shared a rather intimate bond with his mother...perhaps too intimate. On one unsettling occasion, Gladys even asked Elvis to "Come and sit on Mama's lap."
Wood cringed in the face of Elvis' gooey affection for his mother. She didn't care for Gladys at all, and unsurprisingly, the resentment went both ways.
22. She Incited Jealousy
Although Elvis thought that bringing a successful young starlet home would impress his mother, quite the opposite happened. Not only was Glady jealous, but she did not approve of Wood in the slightest. Seeing this beautiful girl flit around their home wearing nothing but a skimpy nightdress absolutely scandalized the matriarch. It was all downhill from there.
23. She Ran Away
After Wood met Gladys, nothing could salvage her relationship with the rock n' roll king. Only days after arriving, she called up her sister Lana in a panic and said, "Gladys has wrecked everything. I don’t have a chance. Get me out of this, and fast." As such, Wood lied to the Presley's about having a family emergency and dipped out of there as fast as she could.
However, although it seemed that Wood was perpetually unlucky in love, her greatest romance was just around the corner.
24. She Knew She'd Marry Him
To tell the story of Natalie Wood and Richard Wagner, one must start at the very beginning. When she was only 10 years old, the actress saw 18-year-old Wagner swaggering down the hall at the 20th Century Fox studios. In a 1976 interview, she recalled the fateful moment she laid eyes on him: "I turned to my mother and said, 'I'm going to marry him.'"
With a life practically embued with odd coincidences and prophecies, it's no wonder that this prediction actually came true.
25. She Dated Him For Publicity
Years later, Wood and Wagner got the opportunity to meet for real, and this time, Wood was a proper adult (thank goodness). However, their meet-cute wasn't all romance and butterflies. In fact, the pair were set up by the studio who believed that such a tryst could churn up some much-needed publicity for the up-and-coming actress.
They were right, of course, and thankfully, the date went off without a hitch. Wood thought she'd finally found her prince charming...but only time would reveal his true colors.
26. She Said "Yes"
From there on out, Wood surrendered to her fairytale romance with Wagner. As a couple, these two beautiful actors truly seemed like a match made in heavy, and by the next year, a shiny pearl-and-diamond ring sat on Wood's slender finger. Wagner had proposed with a classic move, placing the ring a glass of champagne for Wood to find.
However, while her romantic life was on the road to happily ever after, her career faced utter oblivion.
27. She Stood Her Ground
Because her studio dictated her entire career, Natalie Wood became increasingly unhappy with her roles. In an effort to stand her ground, she did something that almost ruined everything. She refused to act in both The Miracle and A Summer Place. It was a bold move, but Warner Brothers didn't take kindly to this act of rebellion and suspended Wood for 18 months.
Thankfully, Wood's stubbornness wasn't in vain, and after feuding with studio head Jack Warner, she eventually had the right to hand-pick one film per year. Even so, her career was in danger.
28. She Had One Saving Grace
When Wood returned to the fray, she faced a career caught in a downward spiral. But although he seemed like she was on her way out, she managed to land a role that saved her from obscurity. When director Elia Kazan cast her in 1961's Splendor in the Grass, he saved Wood's career. Not only that but working with Kazan was a dream of Wood's.
Since Kazan's 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire, Wood had been a huge fan of his work—and so, it was rather fitting that her most transformative project allowed her to collaborate with the director she most admired.
29. She Pushed Her Limits
Natalie Wood's experience working on Splendor in the Grass allowed her to dig deep into herself and push her acting to the limit. Her biographer later wrote, "working with Kazan brought her to the greatest emotional heights of her career. The experience was exhilarating, but wrenching for Natalie, who faced her demons on Splendor."
However, the film challenged Wood in more ways than one...In fact, it even challenged her marriage.
30. She Overshadowed Him
As Natalie Wood's career began to skyrocket, her success far outweighed that of her husband Robert Wagner. By the time she played her most famous role of Maria in 1961's West Side Story, Wood had become a household name. Down the road, however, Wagner claimed that he never competed with his wife, and that, instead, it was the pressures of her newfound celebrity that wore their marriage down.
Although his reasoning seems sound, at the time, the gossip mill ran red-hot with some very scandalous rumors.
31. She Sparked Scandalous Rumors
After Wood and Wagner called it quits in 1962, it wasn't long before she had a brand new beau on her arm, and the sight of him put the press in a tizzy. You see, Wood began dating Warren Beatty, her old co-star from Splendor in the Grass. It wasn't hard to do the math. On the surface, things just didn't add up. Had Wood cheated on her husband with Beatty? Did her infidelity spark their separation?
32. She Never Cheated
In the 2020 documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, infidelity is not cited as the reason for Wood's divorce. And apparently, she never even cheated on Wagner. However, when it came to rumors, the most stunning allegations about the split came from Wood's own sister, Lana. According to her, Wagner was the real guilty party—and the details weren't pretty.
33. Her Husband Had Secrets
Lana claimed that Wagner was at the center of the marriage's collapse. Allegedly, Wood had found him in a very compromising position: in bed, tangled up with another man. Of course, Wagner has vehemently denied these rumors and has stuck to his very neat and tidy explanation. Still, an excerpt from Natalie Wood's unpublished memoir only heightens the mystery surrounding the breakup...
She wrote, "It is too painful for me to recall in print the incident that led to the final break-up. It was more than a final straw, it was reality crushing the fragile web of romantic fantasies with sledgehammer force."
34. She Fought With Him
Wood hopped from one messy relationship to another. Her time with Warren Beatty wasn't exactly a walk in the park. The two of them were at each other's throats all the time, and their fighting went hand in hand with their passion play. She later said, "Our affair was a collision from start to finish." After only two years, they called it quits—but the fallout left Natalie in shambles.
35. She Tried To End It All
In the wake of another breakup, Natalie began to flounder. Her mental health began spiraling, and soon, even acting became utterly draining. Her experience on the set of The Great Race really took it out of her, and after making it through the project, she attempted to take her own life. After swallowing too many sleeping pills, however, Wood came to a sudden realization: She wanted to live.
Luckily, she sought help in time and survived. But although Wood was falling apart, the public only saw the face of an extremely successful actress. However, she couldn't hide the truth forever.
36. She Was One Of The Greats
Natalie Wood reached peak stardom in the mid-60s. In fact, she was one of the most sought-after leading ladies, sharing the room with other greats like Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn. However, beneath the mask of fame, her emotions were out of control. She needed therapy to work through her inner demons, but even that didn't quite cut it.
Wood realized that she needed to make a drastic lifestyle change.
37. She Fired Them All
When it came to Wood's mental health, Hollywood was not exactly a curative balm—quite the opposite. It was time to run away, at least for a while. She decided to pay Warner Brothers $175,000 to escape her contract. And that wasn't all. Everything had to go, and before long, Natalie Wood had purged her acting life: She fired her agents, publicist, accountant, managers, and attorney.
38. She Played The Field
By the end of the decade, the troubled actress would find herself married once again. However, before she said "I do," she certainly entertained romances with a number of famous suitors, including Michael Caine and David Niven. Her love life was all over the place, and for a brief moment, she was also engaged to Ladislav Blatnik, a shoe manufacturer.
However, it wasn't until 1969 that she found a seemingly perfect match.
39. Her Husband Betrayed Her
Natalie Wood's marriage to film producer Richard Gregson was fruitful but incredibly short-lived. A year after tieing the knot, the happy couple welcomed their first child, Natasha. For a brief time, they were happy...that is, until Gregson dealt Wood a terrible betrayal. She caught her husband having a sordid conversation with his secretary, and after that, all her trust flew out the window.
But Natalie Wood had no intention of being alone. Only months after securing her divorce, she fell into the arms of another man.—and his identity shocked everyone.
40. She Rebounded
In 1972, Natalie Wood returned to her first husband, Robert Wagner. The turnaround was fast, but it seemed that the pair still shared a deep love for one another. They rekindled their romance after Wood visited him in Palm Springs. Later, she told People, “We talked about what had happened to our marriages. He had become a man instead of a boy.”
41. She Found Peace
Two years later, the reunited couple welcomed a daughter named Courtney. Wood seemed to have bounced back from a very dark place: She found therapy, made peace with her husband, and had a loving family to raise. She dedicated almost all her time to her children and worked on a few projects here and there. Even Wood's fans supported her, adoring her picture-perfect, celebrity family.
Everything seemed to fall into place for Wood—but, little did she know, her time in the sun would be tragically cut short.
42. She Would Never See Land Again
In 1981, 43-year-old Natalie boarded her husband's yacht Splendour, completely oblivious to the dangers ahead of her. The fateful evening of November 28th began innocently enough. Wood and Wagner were hosting her co-star and friend, Christopher Walken, and the three stars had planned a night of camaraderie...But what started as a relaxing hangout ended in infamy.
43. She Went Missing
The next morning, everyone on the Splendour awoke to find that Wood was missing—but the truth of her whereabouts was downright chilling. At 8 am, authorities discovered her body about a mile away from the yacht, as well as a dinghy that had washed up on land nearby. The beloved actress, who absolutely feared water, had tragically drowned.
Although the events leading up to Natalie Wood's disappearance have remained mysterious for decades, there are some clues as to what may have happened.
44. Her Disappearance Was Mysterious
Natalie Wood's sudden demise had a huge question mark hanging over it. Wagner claimed that when he fell asleep, his wife wasn't with him. But there's quite a lot of evidence that casts suspicion upon Wagner himself. For one, his story changed. When the captain, Dennis Davern said that he'd heard the couple fighting earlier in the evening, Wagner completely denied it.
However, when Wagner published his memoir, he confessed that he had indeed fought with his wife before her disappearance. Already, his unreliable retelling shrouded the truth—but that wasn't all.
45. Her Autopsy Report Contained Clues
When Wood's autopsy report came through, it raised even more questions. Her body bore evidence of some obvious injuries: bruises on her body as well as a scrape across her cheek. And yet, the coroner couldn't pinpoint how she actually sustained such inflictions. Instead, he hypothesized that the mixture of alcohol and painkillers exacerbated her intoxication. While trying to board the dinghy, the unsteady actress could have accidentally fallen.
But even this hypothesis seemed weak.
46. Screams Were Heard
Wood's sister, Lana, didn't believe for a second that her sister would have left the yacht by herself. After all, Wood had a terrible phobia of water. But perhaps the most chilling piece of evidence came from some people aboard another boat. At the time that Natalie Wood vanished, witnesses remember hearing a woman crying out for help.
All this conflicting evidence pointed to something sinister, and yet, too many pieces of the puzzle were missing. It was only years later that Splendour's captain came forward with some horrifying new evidence.
47. They Reopened Her Case
In 2011, Natalie Wood's case reopened after Dennis Davern confessed to lying to authorities about the night of her passing. Along with revealing the tell-tale argument between Wood and Wagner, he also claimed that the actress had been outwardly flirting with her guest, Christopher Walken. This enraged Wagner, so much so, that when Natalie couldn't be found onboard, he did the unspeakable.
According to Davern, Wagner allegedly told the captain not to search for her in the water and not to call for help. Basically, the captain opened up a whole new can of worms: He placed all the blame on Wagner. Suddenly the grieving widower was cast as the murderous villain.
48. Her Husband Is A Suspect
As recent as 2018, Robert Wagner became a person of interest in the investigation of Natalie Wood's passing. He was undoubtedly the last person to see her alive, and officials say that there is a distinct possibility that the actress was beaten before drowning in her watery grave. Wagner, of course, denies all accusations.
Now, when it comes to Natalie Wood, her mysterious demise wasn't the only sensational thing about her. The gossip mill continued to pull the deceased actress back into the limelight—and in 2003, another one of her scandalous secrets came to light.
49. She Had A Forbidden Affair
Back when Natalie Wood was only 15 or 16, she became involved with a very high-profile star who was much older than her. His name was none other than Frank Sinatra, and because their relationship was morally wrong, they had no choice but to keep it a secret. However, there was one person who bore witness to the disgusting seduction of an underage girl—and that was Sinatra's personal valet.
50. She Was Too Young
Sinatra's valet, George Jacobs, went on to write a sordid memoir titled Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra, and its pages completely revealed his boss's creepy relations with Wood. Apparently, the blue-eyed crooner had become very taken with Wood when she was only nine years old. Her performance in Miracle on 34th Street captivated him—but he had no idea that, in just a few years, he'd have the opportunity to woo her.
51. Her Mother Pushed Her On Him
When it comes to Wood's relationship with Sinatra, her ambitious mother was partly to blame. As George Jacobs wrote, the "insanely ambitious Russian mother had pushed her on Frank, who needed no pushing himself. [...] She had her kid all dolled up, total jailbait, in a form-fitting black party dress, and Mr. S went for it in a big way." But the horrid details didn't end there.
52. Her Lover Was Immoral
In the beginning, Wood's initial moments with Sinatra seemed harmless. He spoke to her about her career prospects and even sang to her. But from there on out, the relationship became more intimate. Soon, the actress would have alone time with Sinatra, who gave her "singing lessons." The older star would even send his valet away to ensure their privacy, disgustingly jesting with him, saying "I don't want you to testify."
Poor Natalie Wood's secrets were deep and scarring. Clearly, her life from child star to acclaimed actress is a true cautionary tale filled with mystery and scandal—so much so, that it continues to captivate the imaginations of fans everywhere.