Wednesday, March 23, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Room To Grow

Natalie Wood with her daughters, Natasha and Courtney.
by Liz Smith

Thursday's Throwdown — Natalie Wood ... Pearl Bailey ... and the good works of  New York's Room To Grow charity. 

"SHE WAS hilarious. She was always so funny. She would walk into the house and everything would be better. If she came into a room and it was sepia, it suddenly became bright colors."

Natasha Gregson with her mother in 1973, by Allan Warren.
That is Natasha Gregson, one of Natalie Wood's daughters, talking to The New York Times earlier this week. The interview was rare and unusually intimate. Natasha was 11 at the time of her mother's unspeakably tragic death in 1981. Her sister, Courtney, was 7.

The point of the interview, conducted by Katherine Rosman, was, clearly, for Natasha to get a few things off her chest, to make it clear she utterly rejects the lingering question marks surrounding her mother's drowning, to emphasize the great relationship she has with Robert Wagner. (Natasha was Natalie's first child, from the star's brief marriage to producer Richard Gregson.)

Also, to try to give voice to the pain she suffered, not just in the loss of her mother, but the loss of a mother so famous and beautiful — how it affected her life and sense of self-esteem. Not surprisingly, Natasha spent a lot of time in therapy.

And there are, finally, tributes to Natalie. Natasha has created a fragrance named after her mother — which debuts on Mother's Day — and in the fall there will be a coffee table book dedicated to the actress.
The fragrance inspired by the story of Natalie Wood's signature scent.
I couldn't be more pleased. This column has always expressed a fine appreciation for Natalie. She died too young to totally fulfill herself, career-wise (she was preparing to make her stage debut in "Anastasia," at the time of her death) but much of the work she left behind is lovely and often intense — that intensity, speaking, I believe, to her own issues, in which she found an outlet and relief in her art.
Natalie Wood as Anastasia. She was to open this play in February of 1982.
It's long overdue for a great big Natalie Wood film tribute at, let's say MoMA — beginning with her charming and wise child acting turns ("Tomorrow is Forever," "Miracle on 34th Street," "Our Very Own") ... her anguished teen in "Rebel Without a Cause" ... the lyric/sexual torment of Deanie in "Splendor in the Grass" ... her mighty and moving battle against miscasting in "West Side Story" ... the tender and tough of her "Gypsy" characterization ... a modern girl facing very modern issues in "Love with the Proper Stranger" ... the semi-autobiographical turn in the flawed but fascinating "Inside Daisy Clover" ... as Alva Starr, the desperate fantasist of "This Property is Condemned."
As wise child in "Tomorrow is Forever."
With James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause."
As Alva Starr in "This Property is Condemned."
Navigating her feelings of f sexual repression in "Splendor in the Grass"
Even her lesser efforts — "All the Fine Young Cannibals" ... "Sex and the Single Girl" ... "Penelope" had their charms. Well, they had Natalie! I would add to this Miss Wood's great performance in a TV movie, "The Cracker Factory."
In "The Cracker Factory."
Despite some inevitable unhappiness and occasional high-drama, personally Natalie Wood was one of the more "together" of the major movie ladies. She was not self-destructive, and worked tirelessly on her family and on herself — always wary of show biz pitfalls; she walked the tightrope of career and motherhood, of girlish passions and realistic mature love, and of time marching on. She remained remarkably balanced. (If Natalie worried over encroaching middle age and big-screen opportunities no longer at her fingertips, one senses she would have adjusted, without being a mess about it.)

I'm glad Natalie is being re-appreciated. Her family lost the most when she left, but the worlds of movies, stage and TV were denied a still-flowering talent.
IN Wednesday's Daily News, dream columnist Lauren Lawrence writes how her grandfather, producer I.G. Gaumont, told colorful stories about his trials on the failed 1952 revival of "Shuffle Along" with Pearl Bailey playing the lead. Lawrence says, "Pearl Bailey was relatively unknown at the time, but after a successful opening night, she demanded he triple her salary ..."

Hmmm. This is not quite accurate. If you look up the cast of 1952's "Shuffle Along," the great Miss Bailey is not listed. This is because she quit before the opening night. According to the book "Lost Sounds," by Tim Brooks and Dick Spottswood, Bailey was indeed signed to play the lead. "Then" write the authors, "the 'show doctors' went to work, reshaping, recasting, and rewriting until almost nothing was left of the original concept ... Pearl Bailey quit before the opening ..."

As to Miss Bailey being "relatively unknown" in 1952 ... She made her B'way debut in 1946's "St Louis Woman" for which she won a newcomer award. After that, she also appeared onstage in "Arms and the Girl" and "Bless You All." By 1952 she had recorded three albums, enjoyed a hit single "Takes Two to Tango" — 17 weeks at the top of the charts — and she had appeared in several films.
Pearl Bailey taking a curtain call in "St Louis Woman."
(Although she was still two years away from the 1954 smash "Carmen Jones" in which Pearl received almost as much attention and praise as the dazzling Oscar-nominated star, Dorothy Dandridge.) Still, hardly unknown in '52.
Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, and Diahann Carroll in "Carmen Jones."
Ms. Lawrence's granddad also supposedly remarked "She was quite the bitch!" And in this, we might find the seeds of truth and the source of producer Gaumont's long-simmering discontent. Bailey was known to be notoriously difficult at times, much like another great African American stage and screen icon, Ethel Waters.

Well, back then to be a big female star on your own was hard enough, throw in the racial element, and — you've got tough women, who have to watch out for themselves, and take care of their careers!
Pearl Bailey and Ethel Waters.
NOW, here is something really worthwhile in which you might invest time and money, and your big heart. (Because I know you have one!)

On April 14th, Room to Grow holds its annual spring benefit at Tribeca Three Sixty (10 Desbrosses Street) in Manhattan. This organization is dedicated to enriching the lives of babies born into poverty, throughout the critical, formative first three years of their development. Parents receive vital information, customized support, and all the essential baby items, ensuring a healthy, happy, secure and hopeful start for their child.
Sponsored by Polo Ralph Lauren, Navigant, Pearhead, and the Pimco Foundation, this is a truly worthy cause. The honorary event chair is the very much involved Emma Willis (aka Mrs. Bruce Willis.) She believes deeply in the goals of Room to Grow.

There will be a standing dinner reception, a silent and live auction. For tickets or donations call 212-620-7800 or go to

With Denis Ferrara

Contact Liz here.