In the years since, Wood has remained a figure of immense public interest — her films, her legend, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding her death permanently cementing her place in Hollywood history. Amidst speculation and tragedy, Wagner, who was only 11 when her mother died, came of age, grappled with grief, and went on to pursue an acting career of her own.
Now, in the new memoir More Than Love, Wagner writes openly of her grief, her struggles to move forward, and her childhood memories of her mother. She also, for the first time, addresses many of the outstanding questions regarding the night of her mother’s death to clear her beloved stepfather’s name. (Robert Wagner, who was married to Wood and on board their yacht The Splendour at the time of her death, was named a “person of interest” in the case in 2018 after the investigation was reopened in 2011.)
EW can exclusively reveal the cover for More Than Love, as well as share an exclusive excerpt reflecting on Wagner’s childhood memories of Natalie Wood.
Wagner begins her story on the morning after her mother’s death, where she hears the news on the radio. From there, she jumps into recollections of her childhood bond with her mom, what it was like growing up as the child of two stars, and her struggles to come to terms with her grief.
She is also a prominent figure in the new documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
See the cover and read the excerpt below. More Than Love hits shelves May 5.
Excerpt from More Than Love: An Intimate Portrait of My Mother, Natalie Wood by Natasha Gregson Wagner.
My first memory is an awareness of comfort and love, a feeling of being held in the cocoon of my mother’s embrace. All is right with the world. I can see her face above me, her velvet brown eyes, doe-like, smiling down at me. Her dark hair falls in my face in soft waves as she bends down to kiss me. The unmistakable scent of her gardenia perfume. Her sweetly musical voice she uses just for me, “Hello, my little Natooshie, I love you,” the sound of it sighing slightly upward. These are my earliest sensations.
My mother loved to sing, and I loved to listen. At night, when she tucked me into bed — or anytime I was tired or upset — she sang a lilting Russian lullaby called “Bayushki Bayu.” Later, I learned the song was about a wolf that comes in the night and drags little babies out of their beds and into the forest. My mom’s parents were Russian immigrants and she had grown up hearing the language all around her. She could speak it a little, although not fluently, but when she sang to me, the sounds seemed to come to her naturally. Other times, when we were driving in the car, she sang “Frère Jacques” or “My Favorite Things” or a silly song called “Fried Ham.”
When I picture my mother during the days of my childhood, she isn’t dressed up for a party or working on a movie set. She’s at home, in her favorite white cotton nightgown with the pink or blue rosettes, or wearing soft, gauzy dresses in Indian printed fabrics, or down by the pool with a caftan thrown over her bikini. Her skin is tawny and lightly freckled. Her hair is tied back. She rarely wore much makeup, maybe a dab of gloss on her lips. If people came over, she would do her eyes, but even then, makeup wasn’t a form of armor, just a natural extension of her routine, like brushing her teeth or putting on her perfume.
Her hands were pale and slender, with long, delicate fingers that always glinted with a fresh French-tip manicure. Mommie not only spoke with her hands, fluttering them like butterflies to express her meaning and mood, but she was forever touching me with a loving caress. If we were in the same room, her smooth hands would be stroking my forehead, playing with my hair, brushing gently against my face. Ruby and sapphire rings adorned her fingers like Christmas tree lights, her gold bangles and charm bracelets tinkling as she moved.
On her left wrist she wore a larger gold or silver bracelet, more like a cuff, to camouflage an injury she’d gotten as a child while working on the film The Green Promise. I knew that my mom had been working as an actress since she was a little girl and that in one of her movies, she had to run across a wooden footbridge that was supposed to collapse when she got to the other side. Instead, the bridge caved in too early, while my mom was still on it, and she broke her wrist. The bone had never been set properly and so she wore the cuff on that arm. “I have this horrible bump on my wrist and I like to keep it covered,” she used to say. I never thought the bump was that terrible. I liked it. It was part of her.
My mother named me Natasha. Before Hollywood renamed her Natalie Wood, she had been Natasha Gurdin. She was Big Natasha, and I was Little Natasha. We were Natasha. She was Mommie and I was her “Natooshie.” She also called me “Natashinka,” or her pet name for me, her “petunia.”
For as long as I can remember, people told me I took after her.
“You look just like your mother when she was a little girl,” friends and even strangers said.
“Natasha, you’re just like me,” my mom repeated, taking my face in her hands, smiling.
We did closely resemble each other, especially as children. Aside from a few slight differences — her eyes were larger, while mine were more almond-shaped — we were both petite, elfin brunettes with the same turned-up nose, tall forehead (although mine was taller than hers), and high cheekbones.
The first time I saw my mother in a movie was a TV broadcast of Miracle on 34th Street one Christmas. I was about four or five. I remember sitting cross-legged in front of the screen while my mom stood behind me buzzing with proud excitement, watching me watching her on TV. In the film, she played Susan Walker, a little girl who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, even when she meets him. After each scene, my grown-up mom looked at me expectantly, to see how I was reacting. Was I smiling? Was I laughing? Was I scared? “That’s me when I was your age,” she told me. “See how much you look like me?” This little black-and-white girl shooting skeptical looks at Santa Claus did resemble me. I remember getting up and walking behind the television set to see how she managed to get in there.
Excerpted from MORE THAN LOVE: An Intimate Portrait of My Mother, Natalie Wood, by Natasha Gregson Wagner. Copyright © 2020 by Natasha Gregson Wagner. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.