Splendor in the Hollywood Hills

Tomorrow marks what would have been actress Natalie Wood’s 75th birthday. Beloved and celebrated for her roles in films such as Miracle on 34th Street, Splendor in the Grass, West Side Story, and Rebel Without a Cause, her life was cut tragically short at age 43 during a boating incident that remains a mystery to this day.

Natalie’s long-time friend, writer-director-producer Tom Mankiewicz, wrote a touching tribute in his autobiography My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey Through Hollywood. Remembered by Mankiewicz as “fiercely loyal to her friends,” his memoir tells stories from happier times, like parties on New Year’s Eve, her love of Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man, and finding her lost dog, Cricket, in Bel Air.

Life Magazine has released a series of never-before-published photos of the star, a few of which you can see below. You can also read an excerpt on Natalie Wood from My Life as a Mankiewicz after the jump.

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Natalie Wood

Jack Haley Jr.’s house was where I met so many people who were so seminal in my life. One of them was Alan Pakula. We became friends, and he was so kind to me. I would spend a lot of holidays at his house, because I didn’t have any family in L.A. He did a couple of pictures with Natalie Wood. I met Natalie through Alan, and we became really fast friends. And really close. She was divorced from R.J. Wagner at the time. He was the guest star of the Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre episode I rewrote. R.J. and I had become friends independently, and he actually hired me to write a screenplay for him, which never worked out.

Natalie was fiercely loyal to her friends. I was so desperate to keep her as a friend. Natalie was the one woman whom I swore to God, under no circumstances was I ever going to have an affair with. She knew it. She was so valuable to me and such a great friend. We would take sauna baths together, and we necked a couple of times. But all I knew was that everybody who’d ever had an affair with Natalie had lost her, meaning was no longer around, with the exception of Arthur Loew. It was instant simpatico. Right away, we just took to each other. Gavin Lambert wrote a book about her, and in it he described our friendship as a “fierce friendship.” Every time I’d been with somebody, I’d lost them. I didn’t want it to happen with her.

Natalie was doing a movie called The Great Race with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. Dorothy Provine was also in the movie, and I was having a short, happy thing with Dorothy. Apparently, Natalie was cruel to her, and she wasn’t a cruel person at all. Dorothy said, “I think she’s jealous. I think she’s saying, ‘I’m better looking than she is.’ What the fuck is he doing with her?” Natalie was a fierce she-bear with her friends.

I really hung on to that friendship; it was amazing to have a friend who was that beautiful, smart as a penny, and really quick. I didn’t have anybody like that in my life, and I thought, I’m just going to fuck this up. We’re going to have an affair; it’s not going to work out. She was four years older than I was. She had just done Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which would be a huge hit, and she was the only actor that had a piece of it, too, so she was doing very well. She couldn’t not work. She’d been working since she was four years old, since Miracle on 34th Street. We used to go to the movies. She got so excited when the movie was starting. She was a great movie fan. She would say, “Let’s go see Claude Lelouch’s film,” and I’d say, “Okay.” We’d bring our Academy cards because you could get in free in those days. She’d say, “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges,” the famous line from Treasure of the Sierra Madre. She would just show up at the theater, and the manager would come running out, “Oh, Ms. Wood, please come in.”

In 1969 she married a British talent agent named Richard Gregson, who was a wonderful guy; I liked Richard. They had a tumultuous marriage and they had Natasha, who’s not an actress. Everything that Natalie wanted in life was to have a child. She quit acting to have that child. I saw her in the hospital. She used to love Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man. She’d memorized the whole album. There’s a piece in there where Carl Reiner says to him, “When you were back in prehistoric times, two thousand years ago—” and Mel says, “We lived in caves.” “So, you didn’t have countries with a national anthem.” Mel says, “No, every cave had a national anthem.” And Carl Reiner says, “Do you remember the national anthem of your cave?” Mel says, “Yeah. Let ’em all go to hell except Cave Seventy-Six.” I walked into Natalie’s hospital room, and there she was with the baby. She looked at me and sang, “Let ’em all go to hell except Cave Seventy-Six.”

Richard, in an act of pure self-destruction, had an affair with Natalie’s secretary when Natalie was out of town a couple of times. Natalie found out about it, and one night Richard came back from being out of town to find all of his belongings in the driveway. The door was locked and there was a security guard. And that was that. Richard was devastated. I was appointed an ambassador to come over to see if she would see him. I rang the doorbell, “It’s Mank.” Natalie was sitting on a couch in the living room. She looked up at me and said, “If this is about Richard, you can turn around and walk right out the fucking door. If it’s not, please come in.”

I was in London a lot because of the Bonds, and Richard was in London and I used to see him. When Natalie was in London on a movie, she called me and we had lunch. She said, “If you’re going to continue to see Richard, you can’t see me anymore.”

I said, “Natalie, listen, whatever happened between you guys—I love you; you’re my friend, but you can’t start ordering me as to who to see and who I can’t have lunch with or have dinner with.”

She burst into tears. She said, “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She was very complicated.

Natalie is having some construction done on her house. This is before she remarried R.J. She is going to spend a month in Leslie Bricusse’s house, which is in Beverly Hills, some five or six miles away from her home. Natalie has two Australian shepherds, Penny and Cricket. Two days after arriving at Leslie Bricusse’s, Cricket runs away. Natalie is beside herself. She puts ads in the newspaper and has a service out looking for the dog. Nobody can find Cricket. Natalie is miserable. A couple of nights later, Natalie and I are going to dinner at some friend’s house. We will be driving by Natalie’s house. On the way home, she says to me, “Let’s stop by my house if you don’t mind. I just have a feeling . . .”

I say, “Natalie, Cricket would have no way of knowing how to get to your house. It’s six, seven miles away through Bel Air and Sunset Boulevard. She’s never been out of the house before.”

Natalie insists. I think she is just going to get her heart broken again. We drive up to the house where the construction is going on. It is the middle of the night. We get out of the car. There is silence. Natalie yells, “Cricket, Cricket!” More silence. She hangs her head. I open the car door for her to get back in, when suddenly, bursting through the hedge by the side of the driveway, is Cricket! Neither of us can believe it. Cricket is jumping up and down, we are in tears. It is a scene out of Lassie Come Home. I still cannot understand how that dog could walk seven miles through territories she had never been through before and wind up at her own house.

Natalie had an interior decorator’s card. When I bought my home in the early seventies, she said to me, “Listen, don’t pay retail for anything. I’ve got a decorator’s card.” She beat her little buns up and down Robertson Boulevard for me. We would go in a store and she would say, “No, don’t take those towels. Here are the towels.” This was the essence of Natalie. She said, “We’re going to have a big housewarming party for you.” I had a lot of friends; I thought it was a nice idea. She showed me the guest list, and there were people like Laurence Olivier and Henry Fonda. Natalie said, “Oh, they’re not going to come. But when I invite them, they’re going to send a gift.” I got a set of twelve crystal glasses from Laurence Olivier! She invited studio heads that I’d never worked for. She said, “They’ll send something, believe me,” because it was signed “Natalie Wood” and everybody wanted her. That’s how her little mind worked. Son of a bitch, a gift showed up from Lew Wasserman. They were all really good gifts. She said, “That’s how you get the loot.”

One night we were sitting in her living room, talking. She turned around and started to cry. I asked, “What the hell is it?”

She said, “I met him again, and I’m in love again.” It was R.J. They had been divorced years ago. She saw him at John Foreman’s party, he took her home, and she just dissolved into tears, she loved him so much. And they remarried.

What supposedly happened did happen, and this is what it was. If you knew Natalie Wood, you would understand it. Christopher Walken was doing a movie with Natalie, Brainstorm, and Natalie and R.J. invited Walken out on their boat. In those days, R.J. would drink a little, Walken (as Mel Brooks calls it) smoked different barks from different trees, and Natalie would imbibe. Walken and R.J. got into an argument about acting. The radio was playing music. When there was anything uncomfortable or at a certain time of the evening, even if there was a big party, you’d suddenly turn around and Natalie would be gone. You wouldn’t see her again. R.J. and Chris Walken were keeping up this argument. Natalie went to their stateroom and disappeared, which, for R.J., would be totally normal. She was just going to sleep. The Zodiac boat was banging against the side of the big boat, the Splendor, named for Splendor in the Grass. I spent many a trip on the Splendor. Natalie put on a navy pea jacket to go outside and pull the Zodiac up to tie it. She was scared of dark water—when she was doing Splendor in the Grass and had to swim, Charlie Maguire was holding her up. She slipped, and the minute the pea jacket hit the water, she went right under. She couldn’t swim very well. Natalie was 105 pounds, fighting weight. They would not have heard anything because the radio was going, and as I said, it was not unlike Natalie to disappear. That was really common with her. She might not have had time to yell if she went into the water that fast. It was at night, the water was cold, and that pea jacket just filled up, and suddenly, it weighed as much as she did. Apparently, she had had quite a few drinks. Didn’t take much to fill her up. I’m sure she was under the influence of alcohol when she slipped. She was, we would say, drunk. I know for a fact that it wasn’t suicide. Two things: number one, she had been drinking; number two, she was going to play Anastasia at the Music Center heading for New York, and she was looking forward to it like crazy. It was going to be her debut on the stage; she was so excited about it. Bobby Fryer was producing it. That was all she was looking forward to.

Natalie dies at night, and I don’t hear about it until six o’clock in the morning when Margot Kidder, who had been up early and heard the news on the radio, calls. I am devastated. I get a call from Roddy McDowall, a very close friend of Natalie’s, saying that R.J. Wagner will be returning home in a couple of hours. He thinks it would be a good idea if I was there along with him, Paul Ziffren, their friend and attorney, and Guy McElwaine, her agent and longtime friend, to provide some comfort. I get over to the house and join the others, and we wait for R.J., who finally arrives. They have tried to keep the news from the two little girls—Natasha, who is six, and Courtney, who is two—but they already know somehow. R.J. walks in, ashen, moving like a zombie. He recognizes the four of us standing there, nods, walks into the living room, and looks up at the staircase, where the two little girls are staring back at him. There is an endless silence, and then Natasha says, “I guess you’ll have to be both the mommy and the daddy from now on.”

I was one of the guards at R.J.’s door, along with Mart Crowley and Roddy McDowall. Everybody wanted to rush over to R.J.’s. He didn’t want to see a lot of people. So we were screening at the door. Army Archerd came up to the house—everybody knew Army Archerd—but we said, “Sorry, Army. No columnists allowed,” because nobody from the press was allowed in.

Army said, “But guys, my God, I’m not going to say anything. I’ve know R.J. since 1949.”

We said, “Okay, come on in.” It was Army Archerd. Next day, that prick put everything in his column, everybody who was there. Chris Walken was there sitting at the bar, drinking. He was devastated.

R.J. takes to bed, totally drained. I am talking to him as Willie-Mae comes in. Willie-Mae is the housekeeper, surrogate mother to the children, one of the strongest women I have ever known. She looks down at R.J. and says, “I’ll tell you one thing, come Monday morning, my children are going back to school.”

R.J. looks up at her, nods, and says, “I’d like an English muffin if I could, Willie-Mae.”

She says, “Sure, and I’ll cut it up for you just like I do for Courtney. Why don’t you come on down if you want an English muffin and have one in the kitchen?” Slowly but surely, Willie-Mae is getting this household back on its feet again.

Gene Kelly was very close to R.J., and Fred Astaire was really close to R.J.; played his father in It Takes a Thief. Gene was on the bed talking to R.J., and I was sitting in a chair nearby. All of a sudden, standing in the doorway was Fred Astaire with his wife, Robyn. Fred said, “Hi, Gene.”

It was very dark, and Gene said, “Who’s there?”

He said, “It’s Fred.” Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Fred walked around to Gene and talked to R.J.

Later, as Fred Astaire was leaving, Gene said, “I’ll call you, Fred.”

And Fred said, “You always say that, but you never do.”

The next day was Natalie’s funeral. A car pulled up just before the funeral started, and out stepped Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, together. They must have talked that night. It was such a sad occasion, but it was a historic moment to see Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly exiting the same car together. It was unbelievable.

Natalie’s funeral is held in a small cemetery right in the middle of Westwood. It is attended by, it seems to me, about every notable person in all of show business. The press is not allowed. However, they fill the windows of the surrounding buildings, which look down on the cemetery. Helicopters fly overhead. I am one of six pallbearers who are to carry the casket some fifty yards from the funeral home to the burial site, where a couple of hundred people are waiting. The casket is enormous and extremely heavy. I don’t see how the six of us are going to carry it. We take a deep breath and pick up the casket. I can’t believe how much it weighs. I think of tiny Natalie inside there somewhere; someone who had a fighting weight of 103 or 105 pounds. I don’t know how we carry it, but somehow we manage, staggering to make the fifty yards to the burial site. At a moment like that, I suppose everybody has a little bit of human strength.

I had sustained a series of losses among women in my life. I was thinking about that as I was carrying the coffin; my mother, Bridget, could have been Tuesday, now Natalie. I had a tremendous fear of abandonment, that if I really fell in love and took the plunge, I was going to lose that person. It even affected my relationship with animals. I had a cat for nine years. A female. She was indoor/outdoor, and a raccoon got her one day. There she was on the lawn, and I cried so hard. It was reminiscent of my mother dying, oddly enough, because there was so much bottled up inside me for so long. The cat and I were glued together for nine years. We woke up together and went to sleep together. Losing her was like being abandoned again; you and the animal are the only two beings in the house, always together, interacting all the time.

excerpted from My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey Through Hollywood by Tom Mankiewicz and Robert Crane. Copyright © 2012 by The Estate of Tom Mankiewicz and Robert Crane. May not be used or re-printed without permission.

1 thought on “Splendor in the Hollywood Hills

  1. robert crane

    Thanks, Cameron, for a wonderful piece. Hopefully, Mank and Natalie are sharing laughs in the great unknown. Best, Robert Crane



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