Monday, July 20, 2020

The Russian Orthodoxy of Natalie Wood


By John Sanidopoulos

With today, July 20th, being the birthday of Natalie Wood, I thought I would explore an aspect of her life little talked about - her ethnicity and religion. Too often when the name Natalie Wood is mentioned, immediate focus is on her tragic death. For fans like me, however, my thoughts immediately go to her fascinating life and brilliant work. The focus on her death has unfortunately blurred deeper explorations of her life, making it difficult to uncover and decipher the truth about the stories of her personal life, especially something so personal as her religion. As I write this, I can't say I have all the answers. In fact, I think at this time I am only able to scratch the surface. Don't expect too many details below, so consider this a beginning to an exploration I plan to continue and expand upon in the years to come as my knowledge of her increases.

I will begin by explaining why and how I came upon the exploration of the topic of the ethnicity and religion of Natalie Wood. Then I will get into some of her heritage and delve a little into her psychology, which are all important to the story.

One of my earliest childhood memories was hearing about the tragic death of Natalie Wood. I was five years old at the time, on November 29th of 1981, and had no idea who she was, but if memory serves me right I was watching the news with my mother when it was announced. Hearing that she accidentally drowned to death sparked my imagination with images of what it must have been like for her to die like that. When I asked my mom who Natalie Wood was, the only thing I remember her saying was that she was a famous movie star.

By the time I was ten I would have seen Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street. When I found out the little girl in the movie was the famous film actress Natalie Wood, the only thing I could associate her with was that actress I had heard about that died by drowning. Miracle on 34th Street became a must-watch every year either on or around Thanksgiving time. Later on in life when I found out Natalie Wood drowned to death on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1981, it became an annual tradition for me to watch this early film of hers either on the Sunday after Thanksgiving or on the day of her death which was on November 29th. For years my only image of her consisted of two things: that little skeptical girl in the Christmas movie who finally came to believe in Santa by the end, and the fact that she tragically drowned to death. When you think about it, it is a very confusing image of a person to have, especially when you also know that she was a famous and legendary film actress and star but have no idea what films those were besides Miracle on 34th Street. It wasn't until I saw Rebel Without a Cause in my early twenties that I finally began to understand what the big deal was with Natalie Wood - she was a phenomenal actress and stunningly beautiful. Having seen Rebel Without a Cause at least a dozen times since then, when talking about it I usually say that the first time you watch it you can't take your eyes off of James Dean, such a compelling actor he was, but the second time you watch it you can't take your eyes off of Natalie Wood.

Over the years until about two years ago, I've only probably seen her in about six films, and those alone cemented in me the belief that she is probably the greatest Hollywood actress ever, or at least in the top three, and I have many reasons for believing so, which I won't get into here. But my admiration for her was enough that when I was in Los Angeles a few years ago for the first time, I wanted to at least visit her grave if I got the opportunity. Fortunately for me, her cemetery was part of a tour I went on that featured the dark side of Hollywood. When we arrived at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, while everyone else on the tour went to see Marilyn Monroe's grave first, I decided to escape the crowd and visit Natalie Wood before I headed over there. It was then that I found something shocking. Her memorial was the only one with a distinguishing Russian Orthodox Cross on it, with three bars. Wondering whether if in fact she was a Russian Orthodox Christian, I told myself that I would look it up after the tour. Unfortunately, it slipped my mind and I never looked it up. When I had visited the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Blvd. on a few occasions, I became distracted with other sadder aspects of Natalie's life that I will explain below.

When quarantine began for the coronavirus pandemic in February/March of 2020, I noticed there was going to be a Natalie Wood movie on television I had wanted to see for many years, and since I now had the time, I decided to watch it. Watching how great she was inspired me to proceed to watch all of her movies in chronological order. In the middle of this, I also began to read a lot about her and this is when I discovered she was indeed a Russian Orthodox Christian. In fact, she was surprisingly very Russian. A week later I found out that her daughter Natasha just wrote a book on her mother, primarily to respond to false allegations that her mother was murdered rather than accidentally drowned. The release of the book would be accompanied with a documentary on HBO. Suddenly, while I'm in the middle of a Natalie Wood marathon and discovering she was a Russian Orthodox Christian, now everyone is talking about Natalie Wood again. I watched the documentary and ordered the book. Then I decided to write something too. I wanted to document the Russian Orthodoxy of Natalie Wood based on my findings.

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. Natalie would often tell people that she was "very Russian", to the surprise of many, as she neither looked Russian nor was her last name Russian, but even as a Russian she was often associated with being Jewish, which she was not but she remained a Russian Orthodox Christian all her life.

This is when things begin to get complicated. The conventional story above went a bit deeper than I thought as I explored more into the background of Natalie Wood. When I first began to document her Russian Orthodoxy, I thought I would find no more than facts about her baptism, marriage and funeral. In many ways, I was right, but I also came across information that explained more of her story, but there was little documentation of it in any of her biographies. Most books about her concentrate on her films, scandals and tragic death. When her religion is ever mentioned, it is usually associated with her parents, and when various writers write about her parents, they concentrate on her mother, and how abusive and horrible and superstitious she was.


Let's begin with her parents. On November 6, 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power by storming government buildings and the Winter Palace in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). Many rich landowners fled Russia at this time because all that they had was about to be confiscated by the government, but also many who were poor fled because they supported Tsar Nicholas II and were anti-Bolshevik. Among the refugees were two families, one rich, one poor, living three thousand miles apart. A daughter of the rich family and a son of the poor family eventually emigrated to California, met in San Francisco, and were married on February 8, 1938. The Russian Orthodox ceremony took place at the Holy Virgin Cathedral, also known as Joy of All Who Sorrow, on Fulton Street, when the bride was almost five months pregnant, and the following July 20th a future star was born.

Maria Zudilova, the mother of Natalie Wood, was born in 1912, the daughter of Stepan Ilich Zudilov and Maria Andreevna Zudilova, and would later claim to be from an aristocratic family with Romanov connections, which is why she would say she and her family had to flee Russia. In reality, the Zudilov's were rich landowning gentry, and this was enough to be on the Bolshevik hit-list for them to flee. When Tsar Nicholas II and his family were killed on July 18, 1918, and the Bolshevik soldiers were advancing and gaining control over the Russian land, the Zudilov family hurried to a prepared hiding place on the estate, stuffing as much money and jewelry as they could inside loose-fitting peasant clothes. Forgotten in the panic of the moment was eighteen-year-old Mikhail, Zudilov's eldest son, who happened to be out of the house. After the soldiers moved on, the family left their hiding place. Just outside the house, they were confronted by Mikhail hanging from a tree. The sight of her dead half-brother sent six-year-old Maria into convulsions.

Knowing the soldiers were bound to return, the Zudilovs quickly made plans to leave Russia, and in the dead of winter they set out for Harbin in Manchuria, the northeastern province of China. Maria claimed later that they traveled by private train, with a retinue of servants as well as stacks of rubles and the family jewels stowed in their luggage. Although there's no doubt they escaped with enough assets to live very comfortably in exile, the private train is almost certainly another example of Maria the fabulist. Like thousands of other refugees, Zudilov chose Harbin because it was a Chinese city with a strong Russian presence. The dome of the Russian Orthodox cathedral dominated its skyline, and there was an extensive Russian quarter, part business, part residential, with street signs in Russian and restaurants that served borscht and beef Stroganoff.

The sight of her half-brother hanging from a tree had produced Maria's first convulsion. It soon led to others, when something frightened her or when she didn't get her own way. As a result she was considered delicate, pampered and spoiled by her parents and nanny. Years later even Natalie Wood would say that her mother had convulsions when she didn't get her own way. As a further result, Maria learned from a young age that she could get her own way by throwing a fit. She grew cunning, but at the same time incurably superstitious, and most of her superstitions were based on fear. At first they were the conventional ones: the bad luck caused by breaking a mirror, leaving a hat on your bed, or touching a peacock feather. But they grew quite bizarre with time, like her more extreme fantasies. Years later, in California, she told her daughters that she was a foundling, born into a Gypsy family that taught her fortune-telling, explained the dangers lurking in everyday signs, and later abandoned her on a Siberian steppe.

There's much more that can be said of Natalie's mother, but that is not my intention. I will end by saying that while in Harbin, Maria met a fortune-teller who told her that she will have a famous daughter who would be a great beauty known throughout the world and who was to "beware of dark water." These words had a powerful impact on Maria, and from that time forward she avoided going in water, especially dark water. She also developed a belief in reincarnation. Years later before her death, in a television interview, Natalie spoke about how she inherited many superstitious beliefs from her mother, and that she was most afraid of dark water. Not a few would later see this as an ominous sign of her death, since she drowned off Catalina Island in the middle of the night when the water was dark. After Natalie's body was found floating in the dark waters off Catalina Island, Maria would say of her daughter, "God created her, but I invented her." And indeed she did, for she did everything in her power to make Natalie into a perfect little girl so that she would become a famous and successful actress. Her other two daughter's were neglected while Maria focused solely on Natalie. Often Maria would go to extremes for the prophecy of the fortune-teller to take place.

My point in reporting all this is to convey that the Russian Orthodoxy inherited by Natalie Wood was not pure, but tainted by her mother and her superstitious beliefs. There is a story that I will mention below which speaks of Maria using her icons in the house to perform magic rituals, but I found it very interesting that Natalie grew up with many portraits of Tsar Nicholas II and the royal family in her house, probably because Maria believed she had Russian royal blood. In her mind, she was royalty, and when she came to America she left everything behind. Her only chances of regaining her lost royal status was through her daughter Natalie. Natalie once recalled how her earliest memories were of the Romanov family hanging over her crib. When Natalie, then known as Natasha, was baptized at the Holy Virgin Cathedral, also known as Joy of All Who Sorrow, on Fulton Street in San Francisco, she was dressed in a white baptismal gown with a golden cross, and paraded by her immigrant parents through Golden Gate Park each morning in her royal carriage; meanwhile Natasha's family was dirt poor. At the same time their oldest daughter, Olga, who was ten years older than Natasha, was completely neglected and would grow up to be more involved in the Russian church (she sang in the choir) than her two younger sisters, the youngest being Svetlana, who also later became a famous actress and Bond girl known as Lana Wood.

Natalie would later recall moments of her childhood in Santa Rosa, where she moved when she was two: "When we walked down the street, Mother would put coins on the sidewalk when I wasn't looking and when I found them, she'd tell me it was magic, and that I was destined to be someone magical. For years I believed in magic." When Maria would take Natalie to the movies as a child, and at the end of the newsreel the camera would point to the audience, Maria would whisper to her dramatically, "Natasha! It's taking your picture!" "I'd pose and smile," recalled Natalie, who thought the camera was directed at her. "My mother told me all these things and I'd believe them." By three, Natasha would sit through two hour films without moving. Natasha's personality - intelligent, eager to please, and "dutiful," the word she later used to describe herself as a child, formed the tragically ideal combination for Maria's manipulation. According to her older sister Olga, Maria would hypnotize little Natasha in her dramatic whisper and heavy Russian accent, conjuring up visions of stardom and magic in one ear; warning, "Beware of dark water," in the other.

Natalie Wood lived a very tragic life in many ways, and much of the blame could be put on her mother, but Natalie was always a good daughter and took care of her mother till the day she died. Natalie grew up in a house of paranoia - fear of Communists, gypsy curses, hysterical convulsions and drunken demons. As an adult, Natalie would remark that she "didn't like mystery" as a child, and how Russian superstitions had created paranoia in her she did not want her children to have. Fear was the air Natalie breathed. As tempting as it is to get into some of these details, I will leave it to be researched elsewhere for those who desire to read about it. As for her father Nicholas Gurdin, Natalie loved him very much, though she hated when he was drunk. Nick would read to her Russian fairy tales as a child. She carried a romanticized image of her father and of Russia because of him throughout her life. "He loved to read," she later said. "Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin and Turgenev...he was a scholar."

As a child actress who only attended school in between films, most people would find it difficult to understand Natalie's familiarity with literature. Because her father developed a heart condition when she was a child, Natalie had to support her entire family and was put under enormous pressure, especially by her mother, to always work and be perfect in her auditions, for which reason she was admired by Orson Welles and was known as "One Take Natalie". When she was seventeen, she began dating an eighteen year old actor named Scott Marlowe. One of the things she loved about him was his intelligence, and she had a hungry intellect. Marlowe would later say of Natalie: "I was into philosophers, and I'd given her Spinoza and Schopenhauer, and a lot of kid stuff - Nietzsche and stuff like that - because I was going through a phase of learning, and wanting to know everything. I gave her a lot of plays - a book of 'twenty best plays' - she had never read stuff like that. All she'd ever read was movie scripts, and bad movie scripts, usually." This is how Natalie developed a lifelong love of reading and intellectual pursuit.

Before I go further, it should be explained how Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko became known as Natalie Wood. As she succinctly explained in a television interview later in life, "My original real name was Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko. Zakharenko was always being mispronounced and was very difficult, so my parents changed their last name to Gurdin, and then that was mispronounced a lot, so when I was five years old and William Goetz put me into my first film, he thought that Gurdin was not a good name, and at this point I was being called Natasha, which was really the nickname for Natalia, so he chose Natalie, and he chose Wood in honor of his friend Sam Wood, the director. So that's how I got my name."

In the book Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography by Suzanne Finstad we read how Maria would take her daughters to the movies very often, sometimes to see the same movie over and over again. The author then explains of Natalie: "Natasha may have been baptized Russian Orthodox, but movies were her religion, the cinema her place of worship. The Gurdins did attend an Orthodox church in Santa Rosa, but its influence on Natasha was minimal compared to movies. Before she was able to read, Natasha could identify all the stars in fan magazines the way other children might name characters in Bible storybooks. Maria filled Natasha's head with fantastic visions of the Hollywood studios, where she would be a great actress, as temples of gold."

When Natalie was around the age of five, Maria decided to have the whole family move to Hollywood to pursue her goal of making Natalie into a movie star. To come to this decision, she resorted to gypsy magic mixed with her Russian Orthodox beliefs. As Olga recalls: "My mother put little notes behind icons in the vespers everywhere in the house. And actually the note said not to go, but she went anyway!"

Natalie never attained stardom as a child, like Shirley Temple did, but she was an accomplished child actress who was in many films. By the time she was fifteen, she wanted to break out of her role as a child actress and become a serious actress who took on adult roles and was not owned by the movie studios. This is when her teenage rebellion began against her mother and against the Hollywood studios. Her breakout role as a serious actress was when she starred alongside James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, which earned her an Academy Award nomination as a teenager (by the time she was twenty-five she was nominated three times but never won). But to get the part she had to convince the director Nicholas Ray she could play a role like that and not be seen as a child actress. For this she resorted to delinquent behavior.

Nicholas Ray had bungalow #2 at the Chateau Marmont where he was holding auditions and readings for his future celebrated film. According to Natalie's younger sister Lana Wood, as she and her mother were waiting in the car for hours outside the Chateau Marmont while Natalie was inside trying to get the part, Maria, who had basically prostituted her daughter, arranged for something terrible to happen that day in order for her to get the part, which was allow her to get brutally raped by various men Natalie had once admired. Natalie never spoke about this while she was alive, even when asked before she died if she had ever been treated inappropriately as an actress, but her younger sister swears by it, as do others who knew her, and there were rumors about it for years. Natalie probably feared that if she did say anything publicly, her career would be over, and she would probably be right.

An obsession with stories of Hollywood stars would inevitably lead Natalie to an obsession with their sex lives and a desire to imitate them. At sixteen Natalie began an affair with Nicholas Ray, with whom she fell in love, despite the fact that he was in his forties. When she was done having sex with Nicholas Ray in his bungalow at the Chateau Marmont, she would get picked up by Dennis Hopper with whom she was also having a sexual relationship. It would become common for Natalie to have multiple relationships at a time. Hopper explains in an interview how when Natalie read something in a magazine, she wanted to do it too, so when she read about a threesome, she tried to have one, but when she got naked and entered into a bathtub full of alcohol, it burned her so bad she had to go to the emergency room. At this time also Natalie began to smoke and drink, which became a lifelong habit. Natalie did all this as an act of rebellion and to form her own identity and forge her own path as a grown up apart from her mother and the Hollywood film studios who controlled all aspects of her life.

By the time Natalie was eighteen, when she met and married her future husband Robert Wagner, Natalie was in a number of relationships and love affairs with famous people in Hollywood. Robert Wagner and nineteen year old Natalie Wood married in 1957 in Scottsdale, Arizona to avoid the spectacle of a Hollywood wedding. Their ceremony was at the nearby Scottsdale Methodist Church, where Robert Wagner's family was from. My speculation as to why she didn't get married in a Russian Orthodox Church was because she had no connections to a church outside of California, and they wanted very much to have a private and quick wedding, so she went to where he was from in Arizona. The windows at the Scottsdale Methodist Church were covered with butcher paper to keep the several hundred onlookers who managed to find out that two huge celebrities were tying the knot there from seeing inside. The reception was held at the Hotel Valley Ho, touted as the former playground of some of Hollywood's biggest Golden Age stars.

By 1962 Natalie and Robert divorced and she took part in a number of relationships and love affairs. Ever since she was a kid, her mother hovered around her and with all the work she did, she came to a point where she could never be alone or else she would get depressed and suicidal. The older she got, the worse she became mentally. 1962 was also the year Marilyn Monroe died of an overdose, of which Natalie wrote in her diary: "I had known her and seen her days before her death. Her beauty, charming wit, and joy of life seemed paradoxical to the tense loneliness which she faced in her life, and was to me, clearly apparent. I realized that her tragedy reminds us all how vulnerable we are, and I chose to try to be stronger." After her divorce from Robert she was trying to find someone to have a connection with and to escape her loneliness. Eventually everything came crashing in on her, and she attempted suicide by taking a handful of sleeping pills. She barely survived and recovered. Wood then started intense psychoanalysis, later quipping that her therapy bills were "at least the equal of the annual defense budget of most Central American nations." She attended psychoanalyses for about eight years five days a week. This helped her very much, and she made her life center around it. She gave up many important roles in famous films because they required her to travel which would prevent her from attending psychoanalysis. It should also be noted that the film choices Natalie made for herself were often biographical and seem to usually reflect some aspect of her life and the troubles and struggles she either had gone through or was going through, especially with films that depict a conflict with her mother and of self-liberation.

Natalie married a second time to British producer and theater agent Richard Gregson on May 30, 1969 when she was pregnant. Robert Redford served as best man. The wedding this time was an elaborate ceremony with extravagant costumes held at the Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles. The couple welcomed daughter Natasha (who grew into actress Natasha Gregson Wagner) on September 29, 1970. The birth of Natasha became the sole focus of Natalie's life, putting aside her acting career to finally live life as a normal person, as a wife and mother, which she longed for. This was a time when she was one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, when she could have done anything with her career. But when she held her daughter in her arms, she would say, "Why have showbiz when you have this."

A year after the wedding, Wood overheard a sexual conversation between Gregson and her secretary and she found out he was having an affair. The two finalized their divorce on April 12, 1972. Natalie and Robert Wagner found each other again and married three months later, on July 16, 1972. Only a few friends and family members, including their respective daughters, were in attendance at the ceremony, which took place aboard a 55-foot yacht called the Ramblin' Rose, anchored off of Malibu's Paradise Cove. The newly re-wedded couple spent their honeymoon cruising up and down the coast, also making a visit to Catalina. Wood reflected on their second go-round, "When R.J. and I were married [the first time] we were like two children acting out a studio script. We deliberately hid our weaknesses from each other. Now we found that we could really talk to each other. We were not afraid to be ourselves. But we realized that we needed those years apart to reach that understanding."

In 1974 they had their daughter Courtney and were settled in Beverly Hills. Soon after Natalie began to take acting roles again, but she put her priorities as a mother first. She had her parents move from San Francisco to a condo she purchased nearby. When her father died on November 7, 1980, which was a year before she died, she arranged his funeral at the private chapel of Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, where Natalie had purchased a burial plot for herself and where her funeral would take place a year later, and sent his casket to be buried in San Francisco. Her mother then would live between her three daughters, but mostly with Natalie, which caused her a lot of grief.

As to when or how often Natalie attended church, there is no information as far as I can tell. She certainly wasn't an active attendee at church, as most of her weekends were spent on her and Robert's yacht the Splendour off Catalina island. She was often away working on weekends too. According to Archpriest Alexander Lebedev of the Transfiguration Cathedral in Los Angeles, Natalie Wood was one of his parishioners.

If you watch interviews of Natalie Wood on the various talk shows of her time, she was often asked about being Russian and her knowledge of the Russian language. It seems that the public was first introduced to Natalie Wood as a Russian who spoke fluent Russian at the 41st Academy Awards in 1969. War and Peace won Best Foreign Language Film for Russia, which was accepted by Lyudmila Saveleva from Natalie Wood who appeared and gave her the award while speaking in Russian. Before this, in 1959, when Nikita Khrushchev requested to meet Marilyn Monroe, Marilyn asked Natalie to teach her to welcome him in Russian, so she taught her to say: "We the workers of 20th Century Fox rejoice that you have come to visit our studio and country." Before she died, Natalie even took on Russian roles. Being a mother and now a middle aged woman in her early 40's, Natalie Wood wanted to rediscover the Natasha Gurdin within her. It was her lifelong dream to travel to Russia. A two-week trip was planned with Robert when she was asked to film an NBC documentary called Treasures of the Hermitage, an on-camera tour of the Hermitage featuring Natalie Wood and Peter Ustinov. Natalie envisioned the trip as a romantic odyssey to her homeland.

When Natalie landed in Moscow in 1980, she encountered a Russia that was nothing like the magical place in her mind. "I went through so many different emotions: seeing the place where my parents were born, viewing all the things I'd read about ... I found it a very moving experience, and yet, it made me feel more deeply American than ever." The repression of the Russians in the Soviet era was sad to her.  In one interview she talks about how she really wanted to see what it was like in an active Russian church while filming in Leningrad. She therefore attended a church service at a church dedicated to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of her father, which was full of people and many baptisms were taking place. However, as she was lighting her candle, her coat accidentally caught fire. This may have been the last time she attended church before she died.

When Natalie returned to Beverly Hills, she began to work on an autobiography, scribbling notes at night on a yellow legal pad. She asked her mother about her family history in Russia, to include her Russian heritage. The only other thing we know that she wanted to include in the book was her fear of dark water. After her last movie Brainstorm, she was preparing to make her onstage debut with Anastasia in early 1982, about the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, which she was then going to make into a movie. However, due to her death on November 29, 1981 at the age of forty-three, this production never took place.

Her 15-minute funeral service was led by Reverend Stephen Fitzgerald of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Virgin Mary in North Hollywood, and Russian music played in the background as a tribute to Wood’s roots. They wanted everything as low-key as possible, though over a hundred high-profile celebrities showed up, and Robert Wagner specifically requested that there was to be no religious music. As for Maria Gurdin, what the fortune-teller had told her many years before was confirmed, and she grieved in very dramatic ways, mourning and convulsing and fainting and blaming others for the death of Natalie.

To conclude with what little we have so far, it appears Natalie Wood did consider herself a Russian Orthodox Christian all her life, but it was something she made to accommodate her own lifestyle which often sought privacy in personal matters. She certainly was not as religious as her older sister Olga. Before she died, Natalie was looking more and more into her Russian roots and taking on projects that reflected her heritage, and one could only imagine where it would have led her.

If anyone has any further information to give us further insight to her Russian Orthodoxy, please contact me. I will update this article as new discoveries come along.

The first video below shows Natalie speaking Russian at the 41st Academy Awards. The second video shows her on the Merv Griffin Show talking about her trip to Russia and when she lit her coat on fire in church. Below that are a few photos of Natalie and her parents, of Natalie's second wedding in a Russian Orthodox church, of Natalie and her family before she died, and of her trip to Russia. The photo of her in bed shows her with some Russian icons on the wall, which I'm not sure whether it is from a film or from her house, but if anyone knows please contact me.