How Natalie Wood Tried To Save Her Sister—And Failed?
Natalie Wood, the girl who couldn’t save her own marriage, fought to save the marriage of her sister Lana and young Jack Wrather III. This is the remarkable story of how she tried to save Lana—and how she failed.
“Strange, isn’t it?” sighs Lana with a wisdom far beyond her eighteen years. “Nat did all that a sister can do to keep Jack and me from making the same mistake she made in marrying so young. And then she tried to keep cur marriage—it lasted only twenty-six days—from falling apart just as fast as it came together. I wouldn’t listen. I suppose in the back of my mind was the idea, ‘You made your mistakes, now let me make mine.’ Only I didn’t really think it was a mistake.
“There couldn’t be a better sister than Natalie. She’s kind and generous, and when the going gets rough she’s so patient. We’re a close-knit family and this may be an odd thing to say—but the breakup between Jack and me, with all its aches and pains, has actually drawn Nat closer to my heart. I always loved her, but now I’m be- ginning to really appreciate her at her true value. I hope she’ll take my word that I’m a reformed character. I can’t say I won’t go balmy about another young man, but next time I’ll try not to be so headstrong. I don’t want to be a problem or make problems for Nat or my family and friends.”
Lana is the youngest daughter of Maria and Nicholas Gurdin. Natalie, at twenty-four, is the middle one, and Teddy is eight years older than Nat. In looking back on her abrupt and ill-starred elopement, Lana seems to feel that “it was never meant to get off the ground.” Rather ruefully she says, “It’s like one of those terrible airfield tragedies you read about. The plane zooms up like a rocket. Beautiful! But it never does clear the field.
“Jack and I were so sure we were madly, desperately, passionately in love. When we talked it was like singing. When we walked, like flying. We just couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t cheer us on to take the big jump. Not that Nat or Mother or Dad or Nat’s boy friend, Warren Beatty, tried to stop us. They simply warned us not to go too fast.
“But of course we weren’t in a mood to listen. Couldn’t they feel what was pounding inside us when Jack and I looked at each other? Were they too old? Silly, isn’t it? Two infatuated kids wondering if a Natalie Wood and a Warren Beatty, still in their early twenties, could be too old to understand romance? That should show how immature we were. They weren’t too old at all. We were just too young. Terribly, terribly young.”
So sudden was the wedding of young Lana to the eighteen-year-old son of the TV producer of “Lassie” (Jack’s stepmother is the actress, Bonita Granville), that Hollywood was caught by surprise. Even their most intimate friends had no idea the pair were more than acquaintances in the early stages of dating. When the marriage took place on December 18 in Juarez, Mexico, they had been going around no more than ten days. Someone who saw them during this brief period describes it as “one of the fastest romances this town ever had, and we’ve had them all. They were like a couple of cubs, pawing and nuzzling, getting to know each other— then bang!—the announcement was in the papers. They were married! It was one of those things that just—throw you!”
Though everyone else may have been taken off guard, Lana’s family was not. “I’d never have dreamed of doing it with- out first letting my parents and sisters know,” Lana insists. “The moment we realized we were so much in love that to be separated even for one night was misery, we went straight to my family and told them. Jack wanted it that way, too. I can still see Mother’s face. It was startled, glad, and just a wee bit worried. My father’s even more so. They were very nice to us, though. Mother said, ‘I want you both to be happy. You’re both awfully young, but you’re old enough to think. Lana will be eighteen in March. What do you say to an engagement now and a wedding in June?”
“It was a reasonable suggestion—but it wasn’t exactly what we wanted. I looked at my big sister Natalie and said, ‘Nat, you were only nineteen when you got married.’ She smiled. She might have pointed out that her marriage to Bob Wagner was a flop and that she’s been proceeding with caution since—even with Warren, who’s supposed to be the man she’s in love with. But she spared me any wisecracks. She just said something I shall never forget. I’ve thought about it ever since Jack and I parted. ‘I do understand how you feel, Lana,’ she said. ‘The young can’t wait until tomorrow—the very young think tonight may never come.’ ”
Their romance may have “zoomed” but it can hardly be classed as a case of “love at first sight.” Lana and Jack met at a party in March, 1962. According to Jack’s version, he was “hardly impressed.” Lana had driven up in Natalie’s glittering Continental and jack decided she was “a little girl trying to play it big by wearing her big sister’s shoes. I didn’t even ask her for a dance.”
Then in the fail of ’62 came the Deb Star Ball at which the industry’s promising young lovelies are presented to the public by the Hollywood Makeup Artists and Hair Stylists. Lana was one of the debs, and this time Jack. who was escorting starlet Cheryl Holdridge, took a second look when Lana passed, smiled and said “Hi.”
“She was very striking,” he allows, then grins self-consciously. “But I remember wondering what tunnel she got caught in. You see, she had a way-out sophisticated hairdo. It would have been far more fitting for Natalie—the kid looked ridiculous.”
A couple of nights after this, they met again at a house party given by their mutual friends, Sandy Descher and Beverly Washburn. This time Lana was gussied up in a flowered silk that clung to her youthful body and showed cleavage. Jack didn’t care for the outfit, but he and Lana somehow found themselves hovering nearer and nearer each other. Finally their eyes met. It was as if a signal had burst in both their minds. They came together for the next dance without a word spoken. It was sheer chemistry, and it was the beginning of an obsession that compelled them to see each other the next night and the next and the next for a solid week.
Getting in deep
Says Lana. “We did the usual things kids do in Hollywood—took in movies, lunched at Hamburger Hamlet and dined in the grand manner at LaScala. Let’s face it, we only had a limited amount of money, so LaScala saw us only twice. I couldn’t sit across from Jack at dinner. Every time I looked at his sandy hair, magnificent six-three and his easy smile, my stomach filled with butterflies. So I asked him to sit alongside me. But when our shoulders touched, the same darn thing happened.”
Says Jack, “Lana’d laugh or crinkle up her eyes and I’d flip. I couldn’t help myself. I must say she looked better every time I saw her. She never wore that lowcut dress again and I told her right out I couldn’t stand her ratty haircut. Next day her hair was changed, and so was she. Stunning! When I began to see Lana as Lana, not as a carbon copy of some sophisticated actress who knew how to carry it off, I knew I was falling in love. By the time I put it to myself, I was already in too deep to escape or control my emotions. That’s when I told her we’d better go to her family and tell them how we felt.”
And that was when Mrs. Gurdin got them to settle for a June wedding. As it turned out, the plans fell through. Three days after first laying their cards on the table to Lana’s family, they came back with the plea that they couldn’t wait that long. They wanted written permission to marry sooner. Lana would have been considered under-age in almost any State they eloped to. But once again Mrs. Gurdin showed concern. Natalie now added her appeal to her mother’s. “I want to be at your wedding, but I must fly to New York for a few days. Please Lana, Jack—can’t you just wait until I get back and then we’ll all make plans for a wedding?”
But that’s the very point, the young lovers argued. Why couldn’t they go to New York, too, get married, and have Natalie supervise the proceedings? Then they could have a Christmas honeymoon. “It will be so romantic,” Lana begged. Unable to resist this heart-to-heart logic, the family weakened and yielded.
But now, with all apparently settled in favor of New York, the youngsters found their passionate obsession was too much even for this brief delay. Suddenly, they tossed the second plan to the winds and eloped to Juarez.
“It was,” Lana recalls glumly, “completely unromantic, ugly, I didn’t even have the illusion of feeling like a bride. I guess Jack felt just as bad though he didn’t say much about it. I remember he said, ‘It cost $45 and they didn’t even give you a corsage or have music . . . well, anyway the only thing that matters is, we’re married.’ ”
From Mexico they drove to Dallas to see Jack’s grandmother. She was shocked and none too pleased. “It wasn’t that she was against Lana,” Jack points out. “She wasn’t used to seeing her eighteen-year-old grandson as a bridegroom, that’s all.” But Lana got Natalie on the phone and Nat took it well. She laughed and cried a little and then she said, “Who am I to stand in the way of young love—may you have all the happiness in the world!”
Their trouble began, it appears to Lana, when they returned to Hollywood. “Up till then we were like a couple of lucky kids, picking good times out of thin air. We played at courting instead of working at being married. Jack would go out—we were staying at Nat’s house—and he’d call up and ask me for a date. We’d go to drive-in movies, eat hot dogs and smooch like the kids in the other cars around us. Jack was still being supported by his father, but since we hadn’t asked his blessing to the marriage, we felt embarrassed about asking for an increase in Jack’s allowance. Besides, Mr. Wrather, Sr., was in New York on business at the time. Even after he got home, Jack felt it was best to stay out of his dad’s way until things cooled off.”
The inevitable question arose. How to manage until Jack could come to some arrangement with his father or get a job? They had to have money. Jack sold his car. But in Los Angeles, which is a sprawling metropolis without adequate bus or subway facilities, a car is a necessity. It was at this juncture that Natalie, sensing the start of a small inconvenience which could soon become a big irritation between young people, stepped into the danger zone and gave the newlyweds a Jaguar XKE.
“Don’t worry about money or practical problems now—you’re still on your honeymoon,” Natalie urged. “There will be lots of time for Jack to find ways and means of supporting his little family. Meantime you can stay at my place. Anything you need, ask. That’s what big sisters are for.” Another time when a squabble arose between the newlyweds over some small matter, Natalie counseled, “Don’t make everything so intensely, stop making a big production out of each thing that comes up. Being happy in marriage is a long hard process of adjusting to each other and to all the inevitable small and big problems.”
“Love is worth saving”
One afternoon, after a particularly bitter quarrel, Lana met Natalie for lunch. “Things just aren’t working out, Nat. We fight more than we love,” Lana confessed. Natalie, who has often said that love is the mainspring of personal happiness and fulfillment, listened to Lana in silence. She seemed to the younger girl to be probing for some answer within the depths of her own experience. Finally she said in a tone whose seriousness was tinged with a complex of emotions Lana could not quite fathom, “Even if love takes a bumpy course—and that goes for marriage—it may still be worth fighting for and saving. Sometimes an accident, or a sickness or some other kind of misfortune strikes, and a home loses its happy air. This doesn’t mean the end of the marriage. Every clue must be examined to find a way back to the good life together before you start looking for loopholes to break the ties.”
Lana, who had been a Roman Catholic convert for some months before meeting Jack, bowed her head in understanding. Jack was also a Catholic, and she knew that with neither of them could marriage—even the quickie they’d had—be taken lightly. Once again Natalie made an effort to hold the crumbling parts together. “Maybe the trouble is that your marriage wasn’t as beautiful as a marriage should be. Let me arrange for a St. Valentine’s Day wedding in a church, with all the trimmings. I promise, it will be something you and Jack will remember with pride all your lives.”
Lana went away from that lunch with a heavy heart. Her instinct told her not to compound her problem with a Catholic wedding that would tighten bonds that already seemed to be cracking.
She was right. At home, Jack told her he had taken a job as a publicity man. Lana asked him what he knew about it. His reply was a shrug. He reminded her that he had once appeared in an Alan Ladd movie when he was fourteen. Maybe he ought to try acting. “I’ve done a few ‘Lassie’ pictures,” he brooded. One thing led to another and the discussion grew hot. Things were said that are not easily forgotten or forgiven. The result was a separation neither made any attempt to bridge.
“I moved in with my family,” said Lana, “and Jack lived with a friend. Mother and Natalie thought I should let things cool off and not rush to a lawyer. Then on January 25, Jack’s father filed suit to annul the marriage. Jack explained to me that his father had filed the action so that I wouldn’t have to go into court. It was considerate of Jack to spare me that.
“Any bitterness that might have existed at the start of our separation has now passed. Jack and I realize we were much too young and that it’s better to admit a mistake and write it off before it ruins two lives and maybe the lives of children.”
The word “children” seems to stir in Lana an ember of glowing resentment. “I understand there’s been some vicious gossip going around that I was pregnant when I entered the hospital recently for a minor operation. It’s a lie, as the records can show. It was a small cyst I had to have removed and unfortunately it came at the time of our separation which probably set off the rumors. Anyway, as far as rushing into marriage again, I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll be at least thirty-five before I say ‘Yes’ again . . .”
But Natalie, gazing amusedly at her sister’s shapely five-four frame, tip-tilted nose and rich warm coloring, only pats the youngster’s dark brown hair and, with a wink at Warren Beatty, says, “I doubt if the Hollywood stag lines will let you keep that vow, Honey.”
Natalie Wood will star next in Warners’ new picture, “Sex And The Single Girl.”
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE MAY 1963