19 Nov The New York Times remembers Natalie Wood
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LOS ANGELES — The home that Natasha Gregson Wagner shares with her husband, his sons and their daughter in Venice, a seaside neighborhood here, smells clean in a non-antiseptic way and, on a recent visit, faintly of the lilacs that rested in a vase on the kitchen countertop.
Scent matters to Ms. Gregson Wagner, 45. It’s an emotional trigger and conjurer of memory. In every home that she has lived in as an adult, she says she has planted a gardenia bush, because the smell of gardenias reminds her of her mother. “The smell is what I remember, the comfort of the smell,” she said as she sat on a banquette in her kitchen, wearing jeans and a flowered, billowy blouse. “I knew when she was home because I would smell her perfume. She would waft through the house.”
Her mother was Natalie Wood, who appeared in “Miracle on 34th Street” as a little girl, “Rebel Without a Cause” as a teenager and “Splendor in the Grass” and “West Side Story” as a young woman. Beginning at the age of 4, and over the next four decades, Ms. Wood starred or appeared in more than five dozen films and television shows and was an emblem of Hollywood glamour and beauty, wholesome but sensual — a good girl growing up in front of American moviegoers during the squeaky-clean 1950s and the sexual revolution and era of women’s liberation that followed.
She died in 1981, when she was 43, having drowned Thanksgiving weekend somewhere off the coast of Catalina Island, Calif., where she had been staying on a boat with her husband, Robert J. Wagner, and a friend, the actor Christopher Walken.
Working with her mother’s estate, Natasha Gregson Wagner has decided to embark on a commercial project. She has created (and is planning a major rollout for) a perfume to honor her mother, called Natalie. It is a gardenia-based fragrance in a square glass bottle adorned by Ms. Wood’s signature. Next fall, there will be a coffee-table book she is contributing to, to be published by Turner Classic Movies and Running Press, with essays as well as vintage film studio and family photographs.
The occasion has led Ms. Gregson Wagner to speak about her mother’s death — and, of greater importance to her daughter — her life.
She has spent years talking to therapists while trying to extricate the mother who died from the celebrity whose legend lived on. The process, at times, was confusing and isolating, she said, and left her feeling insecure: the overshadowed daughter of a movie star who died young, rather than Natasha, daughter of Natalie.
But raising her daughter, Clover, 3, with her husband, Barry Watson, has shifted her perceptions. “When you grow up with a mom who is so enigmatic and gorgeous and full of charisma and power,” she began, “well, because I was 11 when she died, I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I am different from her and how I am similar, to help me have my own individuality.”
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