After starring as Susan Walker in Miracle on 34th Street, Natalie Wood was one of the few child actors able to grab hold of adult fame—until her tragic end ripped that all away. From her humble beginnings to her mysterious death, here are 45 facts about Natalie Wood.
1. From Russia With Love
Though Natalie Wood looked like the all-American girl, she was actually Slavic to her core. Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko to Russian immigrants, she was fluent in both English and Russian from a young age. Even as an adult, she never forgot her roots, and liked to remind people that, “I’m very Russian, you know.”
2. Courting the King
As is typical of many child stars, Natalie Wood always liked a rebel. In 1956—when she was still a teenager—she briefly dated Elvis Presley.
3. Cinema Verite
When the young Natalie Wood was once unable to cry on cue for a scene, her mother Maria “helped” her out and tore up a butterfly right in front of the little girl. Lo and behold, Wood started sobbing. We’re sure Maria felt very proud of herself.
4. Wood’s the Word
Studio executives made the young girl change her name to “Natalie Wood” because it was more star-friendly; they chose the surname “Wood” after director Sam Wood.
5. The Creepiest Award in the World
In 1955, Life magazine named Wood as “The Most Beautiful Teenager in the World.” I’m just going to back away real slowly from this one.
6. Our Little Girl
As a child, Wood’s parents called her “Natasha,” the Russian diminutive of Natalia.
7. No Small Roles
Wood’s first role was a meager 15-second part in 1943’s Happy Land. She was only four years old at the time.
8. Mommy and Me
Growing up in Russia, Natalie Wood’s mother Maria dreamt of becoming an actress or a ballerina. When life dealt her much different set of cards, Maria started loading all of her lost ambitions on to her young daughter. She would often take Wood to the movies, sit her in her lap, and tell her she should be up on the screen.
As Wood remembered her makeshift Hollywood education, “My mother used to tell me that the cameraman who pointed his lens out at the audience at the end of the Paramount newsreel was taking my picture. I’d pose and smile like he was going to make me famous or something. I believed everything my mother told me.”
9. Ready for my Close-up
At the height of her fame, Wood was extremely image-conscious—and she went to chilling lengths to keep her perfection. According to some sources, she wouldn’t leave the house without a full face of makeup on, even if she were just dashing out to get her mail.
10. Tinseltown Trek
When Hollywood called, Natalie’s mother came running. The little girl’s brief appearance in Happy Land was so impressive that director Irving Pichel later called up the family to get Wood to do a screen test. At the time, they were living in Santa Rosa, but Maria got so excited at the prospect, she packed up all their things and drove them to La La Land permanently.
11. Terrifying Talent
When she was just seven years old, Natalie Wood nabbed a part in Orson Welles’ film Tomorrow is Forever. Even at this tender age, the girl was precocious enough to impress the infamously persnickety Citizen Kane auteur. Speaking of Wood, Welles later admitted that she was “so good, she was terrifying.”
12. Where There’s Smoke
Hollywood makes you grow up way too fast. While idling around sets as a child, Wood got exposed to a lot of adult habits, not all of them good. When she was 16 years old, she took up smoking like it was going out of style. As one of her co-stars said, “I never saw Natalie without a cigarette, ever.” She only quit when she was 40.
13. Holiday Cheer
Wood’s biggest role as a child came in Miracle on 34th Street, where she played little Susan Walker. The film became an immediate success and an instant classic upon its release, and so did Natalie Wood. She was so popular, Macy’s even invited her to appear in their Thanksgiving Day Parade.
14. Golden Girl
In 1955, the 16-yeard-old Wood went from child star to teen idol after she appeared in the James Dean classic Rebel Without a Cause as the surly teenager Judy. But the best was yet to come for the young girl—following her stellar performance, the Academy duly nominated her for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
15. Making the Grade
Even as a kid, everyone could see that Wood was one smart cookie. During her legally-mandated school lessons on set, she was one of the very few child stars who could master arithmetic. As Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz said of the straight-A student, “In all my years in the business, I never met a smarter moppet.”
16. Role Model
Vivien Leigh was one of Wood’s idols, particularly for her performance in A Streetcar Named Desire.
17. Teenage Dream
Wood got a disturbing “present” for her 18th birthday: a studio-arranged date with handsome 26-year-old actor Robert Wagner. As the actress herself confessed, she had nursed a crush for the Hollywood heartthrob ever since she was a little girl. Not a single iota of this information is creepy in the slightest.
18. Youth Without Youth
After a string of failures in “girlfriend” roles before she was 25 years old, directors thought Natalie Wood was a “wash-up,” and it didn’t look like she could make a full transition into adult acting.
19. Show Me What You’ve Got
In 1951, director Elia Kazan wanted to cast Natalie Wood in his upcoming film Splendor in the Grass. Though Kazan had heard the common opinion that Wood’s glory days were over, he decided to see for himself. When he met her, she convinced him with just one response: She told him that she was currently being psychoanalyzed.
Apparently, her revelation of dark, tormented depths was enough for the director hire her. After the release of the film, Wood’s career was back on the rebound.
20. Naughty Natalie
During her heyday, insiders called Wood a Hollywood “bad girl.” According to rumors, she’d kissed 47 men before she turned 30. More disturbingly, she reportedly had an affair with the 43-year-old director Nicholas Ray when she was still just 16—although, to be fair, that really isn’t on her.
21. Whirlwind Romance
Wood’s mother never approved of her relationship with Robert Wagner (wonder why), but that didn’t stop the lovebirds from marrying in 1957—the same year they started dating.
22. The Eyes Have It
According to Elia Kazan, Wood’s greatest talent was that “she clings to things with her eyes.”
23. Time Out
Wood did not get out of child stardom unscathed. In a four-year period, she had to get her stomach pumped three times after sleeping pill overdoses—all before she was 28 years old. As a result, she spent most of her late 20s and a long stretch of her 30s focusing on her mental health rather than Hollywood stardom.
24. Low Praise
Not everyone was a fan of Wood—and some people were downright cruel. Infamous film critic Pauline Kael once lambasted Wood with expert prose, calling her “clever little Natalie Wood … [the] most machine-tooled of Hollywood ingénues.”
25. A Tall Order
Wood was small—and I do mean small. Without heels, she stood at a tiny 5 feet, 2 inches.
26. On the Up
In 1961—the same year that Splendor in the Grass came out—Wood nabbed arguably her most famous part, the role of Maria in the film version of West Side Story. She beat out Hollywood heavy hitters like Audrey Hepburn and Jane Fonda for the part.
27. Throwing in the Towel
In a move that shocked approximately no one in Wood’s family, her teenaged wedding to Wagner didn’t last. After four years together, the couple separated. By 1962, they had officially called it quits.
28. Third Time’s the Charm
In 1963, Wood got her third Academy Award nomination for Love With the Proper Stranger. At just 25 years old, she was tied for the record of the youngest person with three Oscar nominations.
29. Paging Dr. Freud
Wood was an enormous fan of psychotherapy, and the sensitive actress often used the practice to get over particularly difficult roles. She even turned down the part of Bonnie in Bonnie and Clyde—a role made famous by Faye Dunaway—because her latest films had taken a toll on her and she didn’t want to be apart from her analyst.
30. Put Me in, Coach
As a young actress, Wood was so desperate to shake her goody-two-shoes reputation and get the part of Judy in Rebel Without a Cause that she went to disturbing lengths to prove herself. Director Nicholas Ray had been doubtful about her ability to play a wild teen—until she got in a car crash one night while out with friends.
Ray rushed to her hospital bed and saw that Wood was still in a state of shock. While he was there, the attending doctor muttered his annoyance and called her a “goddamn juvenile delinquent.” Even in her condition, the desperate Wood yelled out, “Did you hear what he called me, Nick?! He called me a goddamn juvenile delinquent! Now do I get the part?!”
31. Brace Yourself
Wood always wore a large bracelet on her left wrist, but it wasn’t just for show. Her childhood accident in the river had damaged her wrist and left it with a bone protrusion; Wood used the bracelet to cover up what she thought was an unsightly flaw.
32. Back at It
After finalizing her divorce to Robert Wagner, Wood splashed back into the dating pool in a big way. She soon met and then married producer Richard Gregson, and the couple even had a daughter, Natasha, together. Sadly, it was far from happily ever after for Wood’s second chance at love.
33. When a Stranger Calls
In August 1971, Wood happened to overhear a phone call between her husband and his secretary—and it made her blood run cold. Though the exact content of the call is unknown, it was steamy enough to spur her to divorce Gregson, even as their daughter Natasha was still a vulnerable newborn.
34. Good Sport
In 1966, Wood received the “honor” of the Harvard Lampoon award for “Worst Actress of Last Year, This Year, and the Next.” Not the most flattering accolade. However, Wood had a healthy sense of humor. she was actually the first person to ever attend the spoof award ceremony and collect her trophy. Um, get it, girl?
35. The Lost Romanovs
True to her dreams of gold and glory, Natalie Wood’s mother always claimed she and her daughter were descended from the Imperial Romanovs.
36. I Can’t Quit You
Natalie Wood had something in common with Elizabeth Taylor: she was married to the same man twice. Though she and Robert Wagner divorced in 1962, they reconciled and remarried a decade later. This time, they were sure it was going to work, and Wood’s sister confessed that, at least on the surface, “Her marriage was considered to be one of the best in Hollywood.”
37. Innocence Gone
According to both Wood’s biographer and her sister, when she was 16 years old, an incredibly powerful Hollywood actor assaulted her during an audition at the Chateau Marmont. Although the actor’s name has never been released or definitively proven, accusers do have a main suspect: Kirk Douglas.
38. Fateful Phobia
After she fell in a river and almost drowned while filming The Green Promise as a child, Wood suffered from an intense fear of water. It was so bad that director Elia Kazan later had to trick her into even going near a quarry for one of her scenes in Splendor in the Grass. Are you getting a sense of foreboding? I’m getting a sense of foreboding.
39. A Twist of Fate
On November 29, 1981, fate came for Natalie Wood. She was in the middle of filming Brainstorm when she, her husband Wagner, and her co-star Christopher Walken decided to take a weekend boat trip on Wagner’s yacht Splendour. When the party went to bed on November 28, everything seemed fine. When they woke up, the world had changed.
Wood was missing, and Wagner claimed she wasn’t there when he had gone to bed. Police soon recovered her body, drowned, a mile away from the boat. An inflatable dinghy was nearby, but there were very few other clues on the initial scene of the tragedy—those would only come much later, when the investigation deepened.
40. It’s All a Big Mistake
Wood’s autopsy results revealed some chilling information. Wood had a blood alcohol level of 0.14% —above the legal driving limit—as well as motion sickness and painkiller pills that may have increased the alcohol’s effects. Because of this, some suggested that Wood had gotten drunk, boarded the inflatable dinghy, and then fallen out.
41. The Plot Thickens
From the very beginning, Wood’s sister Lana was dissatisfied with this conclusion. Since Wood was terrified of water and couldn’t even swim, Lana felt there was absolutely no way she would ever get into the dinghy by herself. More disturbingly, two witnesses reported that they heard a woman screaming for help at the time of her death.
42. A Secret Revealed
In 2011—almost exactly two decades after she drowned—the cold case of Natalie Wood’s mysterious death blew wide open again. The captain of the yacht, Dennis Davern, finally admitted his dark secret: He had lied to investigators when he said that nothing suspicious had happened on the boat before the actress dried. Something had happened.
The evening of her death, Wagner and Wood had gotten into a heated argument after a jealous Wagner accused her of flirting with Christopher Walken. Suddenly, detectives had a motive.
43. The Cover-up
Another disturbing tidbit: In the hours after her disappearance, Wagner forbid Captain Davern from turning on the searchlights to look for his lost wife. Davern has confessed that he believes that Wagner is guilty of her murder. By contrast, the authorities cleared Walken of any wrongdoing.
44. Person of Interest
Although police first ruled Wood’s death as “accidental drowning,” in the light of these new allegations, they switched it to “drowning and other undetermined factors.” Then, in 2018, they listed Wagner as a person of interest in the case. It may be all the closure fans and mourners of Natalie Wood will ever get.
45. So Long, Natalie
Among the pallbearers at Wood’s funeral were acting luminaries like Laurence Olivier and Frank Sinatra. Her grave reads, “Beloved daughter, sister, wife, mother & friend. ‘More than love.’”