Remembering mum with a scent

Actress Natasha Gregson Wagner created the Natalie perfume (above) to honour her late mother, Natalie Wood. Wood died in a drowning incident when Gregson Wagner was 11.
Actress Natasha Gregson Wagner created the Natalie perfume (above) to honour her late mother, Natalie Wood. Wood died in a drowning incident when Gregson Wagner was 11.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
Actress Natasha Gregson Wagner (above) created the Natalie perfume to honour her late mother, Natalie Wood. Wood died in a drowning incident when Gregson Wagner was 11.
Actress Natasha Gregson Wagner (above) created the Natalie perfume to honour her late mother, Natalie Wood. Wood died in a drowning incident when Gregson Wagner was 11.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Daughter of late actress Natalie Wood creates a gardenia-based fragrance to honour her

LOS ANGELES • The home that Natasha Gregson Wagner shares with her husband, his sons and their daughter in Venice, a seaside neighbourhood 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 Gregson Wagner, 46. It is 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 in her kitchen. "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 (1947) as a little girl, Rebel Without A Cause (1955) as a teenager and Splendor In The Grass (1961) and West Side Story (1961) as a young woman.

From the age of four and over the next four decades, 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, aged 43, having drowned during Thanksgiving weekend somewhere off the coast of Catalina Island, California, where she had been staying on a boat with her husband, Robert J. Wagner, and a friend, actor Christopher Walken.

At the time, Gregson Wagner was 11 and her sister Courtney Wagner was seven. Gregson Wagner was on a sleepover at the Hollywood Hills home of her best friend.

The girls went to sleep with the clock radio on. The news was broadcast as they slept.

"I woke up and I was like: 'Is this real? Is this really what's happening?'" she recalled. "They said, 'Natalie Wood drowned off the coast of Catalina.'"

Then she got home. "It was all real," she said. "I remember all these adults; my dad was just in bed, he was in bed not able to function at all.

"Daddy Gregson was there the next day and my stepmum, Julia," added the actress, who has appeared in films such as High Fidelity (2000) and Two Girls And A Guy (1997).

She was born to Wood from her marriage to English agent- producer Richard Gregson.

"My mum's three best friends - Mart Crowley, who is a playwright; Howard Jeffrey, who passed away and was assistant choreographer on West Side Story; and Delphine Mann, who is still alive - were really taking care of us and of course our nanny. It was kind of like a Fellini movie with people coming in and out. It was very extreme. Very bizarre."

She was devastated and scared.

"Her bed and sheets smelled like her," said Gregson Wagner who, at 1.6m tall with almond-shaped brown eyes, bears more than a passing resemblance to her mother.

"I slept there for a lot of nights. Especially with one of her pillows. It just smelled like her in the days after."

More than 30 years later, the memory of that death and the decades-long controversy that surrounded it remain a powerful one for Gregson Wagner, one that she has rarely spoken about publicly.

But, now, working with her mother's estate, she has created a perfume to honour her mother, called Natalie.

It is a gardenia-based fragrance in a square glass bottle adorned with Wood's signature. Next autumn, there will be a coffee-table book she is contributing to, to be published by Turner Classic Movies and Running Press, with essays and vintage film studio and family photos.

The occasion has led her to speak about Wood's death and - of greater importance to her own 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. She was the overshadowed daughter of a movie star who died young, rather than Natasha, daughter of Natalie.

But raising her daughter Clover, three, with her husband, actor Barry Watson, has shifted her perceptions.

"When you grow up with a mum who is so enigmatic and gorgeous and full of charisma and power, 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."

At the time of her death, Wood had been married for nearly a decade to Wagner, whom she first married in 1957, then divorced in 1962 before marrying him again in 1972. It was between those two marriages that Gregson Wagner was born, in 1970, a product of a marriage to Richard Gregson. Wood added "Wagner" to Natasha's name when she remarried the actor.

Gregson Wagner was later raised by Wagner in the Pacific Palisades, spending summers with Gregson in Wales. Courtney is the younger child of Wood and Wagner.

Wood's death was declared a drowning, but some of the details around it remain unknown. The tragedy has long been a favourite focus of conspiracy theorists.

Recently, Wood's sister Lana Wood approached Wagner in a hotel lobby in view of a videographer, asking him to answer questions about the night Natalie died.

The video ended up on RadarOnline.com and kicked up a little dust on the Web. This irritates Gregson Wagner, who is very close to and fiercely protective of Wagner.

What she wants is to tell people more about her mother.

"She was hilarious," she said. "She was always so funny. She would walk into our house and everything would be better.

"My mum and my dad were always laughing at each other's jokes. Her laugh was this deep 'Hahaha'. She would always say to my dad: 'Oh RJ, just stop it. I can't. Just stop it.'"

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'Remembering mum with a scent'. Print Edition | Subscribe