Left: Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood. Right: Natalie Wood

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
—William Wordsworth

In its heyday, the Patchogue Hotel on East Main Street and Maple Avenue boasted expansive banquet halls. Its popular restaurant was always booked. And in 1960, the whole town had something to talk about, when some 65 movie people checked in.

The dog days didn’t sap the energy of the film crew and cast. At the helm was lauded Hollywood director Elia Kazan; in his first major role was the devilishly handsome Warren Beatty; and cast as the conflicted heroine was the endearing child-star-turned-glamorous celebrity Natalie Wood. 

The cast and crew of Splendor in the Grass endured long, hot, humid days shooting outside at the old Tiger Nursery farm in Brookhaven hamlet, transformed to look like a windswept Kansas oilfield during the Great Depression. 

Wood’s stirring performance was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe. But years later she would meet a tragic end that no one understood — not the hotel guests, not her on- and off-screen lover Warren Beatty, and not the overzealous stage mother who goaded her into stardom. 

SMART MOPPET 

Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko would have turned 81 this month, on July 20. Her parents were Russian immigrants who raised her in San Francisco and struggled economically. Her mother often took her to films featuring young stars and moved the family to Los Angeles. 

Just before turning 5 years old, Wood made her film debut. Notable roles followed: An orphan opposite Orson Welles in Tomorrow Is Forever in 1946 (Welles called her a born professional — “so good, she was terrifying”). Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed her in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), said he had never met a smarter moppet. That year, she costarred in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street.

Her mother pushed her relentlessly, warning her that a fortune teller had predicted death by drowning. That revelation instilled in Wood a lifelong fear of water. 

At age 16, Wood earned an Oscar nomination, costarring with James Dean and Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause (1955); the next year LIFE magazine called her “The Most Beautiful Teenager in the World.”

SPLENDOR IN BROOKHAVEN 

The film’s Brookhaven location was found by Assistant Producer/Unit Manager Charles H. Maguire of West Islip: the old Tiger Nursery farm backlot’s 200 acres, stretching from Beaver Dam Road south to the bay marshes. 

The Town Board gave the okay for filming to the property’s owner, Sullivan Gallo of East Patchogue, reported the Long Island Advance on August 5, 1960. An August 18 Patchogue Advance photo shows Supervisor August Stout Jr. on the set, giving Wood a symbolic key to the Town of Brookhaven. Her husband Robert Wagner, the internationally famous film actor she had married when she was 18, also visited the set. 

Director Kazan cast 22-year-old Wood because he saw in her a “true-blue quality with a wanton side that is held down by social pressure.” Kazan’s directing wizardry of her wrenching portrayal of a sexually repressed, hysterical young woman committed to a mental institution during the Great Depression produced what was arguably her most powerful performance.   

During shooting, gossip persisted about Wood’s alleged affair with Beatty. Ten months later, she and Wagner separated; they divorced in 1962.      

THE FINAL TAKE 

The years went by. Wood starred in West Side Story and Gypsy, setting a record as the only actress to be nominated for an Oscar three times before age 25. The Patchogue Hotel was demolished in 1969 and replaced by an apartment building; Murray Pergament’s once-dominant home improvement downtown store closed, unable to go up against big-box stores Home Depot and Lowe’s; and the Chevy Corvairs advertised in the paper were discontinued. Wood and Wagner reconciled and remarried in 1972. 

On November 29, 1981, they sailed their yacht The Splendour to Santa Catalina Island off the Southern California coast. Late that night, Wood disappeared.

Her body was found floating in a dark, lonely cove.

Ironically, a year earlier, Natalie told an interviewer, “I’ve always been terrified … of dark water; sea water…” Because detectives could not determine why she was in the water,  her cause of death was listed as “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

Fame and glamour fade. But Wood’s onscreen radiance and memorable roles will live forever. Kazan wrote that his favorite scene was the final Kansas-Brookhaven one, when Wood visits her lost first love. 

“It’s terribly touching to me. I still like it when I see it.”

 

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