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Natalie Wood – burning brightly but soon extinguished star
 
Natalie Wood was born in San Francisco, to the family of Russian immigrants Nikolai and Maria Zakharenko, who came to America after the Russian Civil War from Vladivostok via Kharbin (China) and Montreal (Canada). 
 
Her mother dreamed of becoming an actress and transferred those ambitions to Natalie. She would take her daughter to every movie she could, and watching Hollywood child stars on the screen was Natalie's only professional training. 
 
Later Natalie would tell about that period in her life: "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..."
 
The family moved to Santa Rosa, California, where Wood, who was only 7 years old, was noticed during a film shoot in the downtown area and offered the role of a German orphan opposite Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert in Tomorrow Is Forever (1946). Film executives changed her last name to Wood at that time.
 
The girl earned such high praise from colleagues and producers ("She was so good it was terrifying" – Orson Welles) and such admiration from the viewers, that she was almost immediately signed up for another role, destined to become a classic: the Miracle on 34th Street (1947)! She became one of the top child stars in Hollywood, and Macy's invited her to appear in the store's annual Thanksgiving Day parade.
 
According to local laws, she was obligated to spend at least three hours daily in classes, so the whole film crew would sit around on the set waiting for Natalie to finish her studies and arrive to start filming.
 
Natalie's star status was further cemented by her role in the 1953-1954 television sitcom The Pride of the Family, then in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) with James Dean (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress), and then in The Searchers (1956), opposite John Wayne. 
 
Interestingly, in The Searchers she played together with her younger sister Svetlana Zacharenko (stage name Lana Wood), who would go on to become an actress in her own right, many years later playing a Bond girl.
 
Having gained experience, Natalie went on to play in Splendor in the Grass (1961) opposite Warren Beatty, which earned her another nomination for the Academy Awards, as well as Golden Globes and BAFTA Awards, plus in Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), with her third Academy Award nomination.
 
In late 60s, after a string of difficult roles, Wood suffered emotionally, sought professional therapy, and later went on a three-year hiatus. Then she played  Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) and went into semi-retirement due to the birth of her first daughter in 1970 and her second daughter in 1974.
 
Wood's personal life is worthy of a romance or a drama. She was twice married to Robert Wagner, her childhood dream and father of both of her children. The relationship was a stormy one, which ended in her tragic death in 1981 under very suspicious circumstances. She was found drowned during a weekend boat trip to Santa Catalina Island, California. The body showed signs of a struggle, and high levels of alcohol and medication was found in her blood. Interviewed by the police, Wagner admitted he had had a fight with his wife right before her drowning. An inquiry was carried out, with the final verdict being accidental death by drowning and hypothermia.
 
Sources:
"Movie Idols" – John Wrathall; Mick Molloy - New York (2006)
"American Classic Screen Profiles" – John C. Tibbetts, James M. Welsh; Scarecrow Press (2010)
"The Last Hours of Natalie Wood" – Time. December 14, 1981
 

 


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