Natasha Gregson Wagner
It's been nearly 40 years since the death of Hollywood star Natalie Wood, and her daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner has come to realize that she will always miss her mom, no matter how many years have passed.
"I was eleven when my mother died and this year I'll be 51," Natasha tells PEOPLE. "You can be fifty and still miss your mom."
Wood, famous for films like Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and West Side Story (1961), died at the age 43 in a drowning accident on Nov. 29, 1981, while on a boat trip to Catalina Island accompanied by husband Robert Wagner and actor Christopher Walken, with whom she was costarring in a film. In the years that followed, the questions surrounding what happened that night eclipsed much of Wood's story, her life and her body of work.
Last year, Natasha examined the events leading up to her mother's death as part of a greater exploration into her life in her memoir More Than Love, newly out in paperback, and the HBO documentary What Remains Behind. "I feel like I did the right thing terms of trying to reestablish the narrative of who she was," Natasha says. "Now I'm a voice that should be taken seriously regarding her life."
"I needed to write the book and claim my own story, my insecurities, my grief, my grieving process," says Natasha, the daughter of Wood and her second husband producer Richard Gregson. "I was ready to talk about it. My Dad [Robert Wagner] was ready to talk about it and everything came together." (Natasha considers Gregson, who died in 2019, and Wagner, the man she calls "Daddy Wagner," as her two fathers.)
It was only recently that Natasha began to open up about her mom, first with her fragrance line, Natalie, inspired by the star's signature gardenia perfume. She continued on that path with the release of her memoir last year. "I realize the celebrity aspect is the most obvious aspect," she says, "but to me, the book is really about mothers and daughters. It's about grief and it's about finding yourself."
Now that she's helped reframe her mother's story, Natasha reflects, "I think I've been on this course without knowing it. I didn't want people to tiptoe or for there to be hushed secrets. I wanted it to be out in the open and I wanted that for my daughter Clover (age 10.) I want her to feel great pride and great peace about my mom."
Now she says, "I feel at peace. Even though my Daddy Wagner is a robust 91, not a day goes by that I don't know that he's 91 -- and I think my mom is happy too. I think she's happy that people have rediscovered her and that the reaction to the film and the book was so positive. There were so many things people didn't know about her. She was so brave and ahead of her time and such a business woman and so emotionally articulate so I do feel a lot of peace, I really do."
The new trailer of the upcoming West Side Story remake, directed by Steven Spielberg, was also bittersweet. "When Clover watched the trailer, she said, 'Where is Grandma Natalie?'" says Natasha. "I explained she's not in this one and that someone else [Rachel Zegler] will play Maria. I feel that Steven is retaining the original essence of the film so maybe in the same way grief and joy can exist at the same time when I think of my mom, maybe the old West Side Story and the new West Side Story can also exist together."
This year, as Mother's Day approaches, Natasha says she thinks about Wood "every day."
"Like an ocean, the ebbs and flows are different," she says. "The idea of mothering my mom, I feel comfort in that. The more I mother, the more I feel like it heals me too and I feel gratitude for the book, and the experience and that I got to tell my story."