WASHINGTON, July 12, 2012 — Thirty years after the death of Natalie Wood, her death by drowning is no longer classified as accidental but “undetermined,” sparking a memory for the writer of her own connection to the actress. This week’s guest column is by the wife of columnist Vance Garnett, Geri Garnett.
Our family walked into the cozy corner diner just in time to hear the last few notes of The Platters. “Twilight Time” wafted from the jukebox deliciously, like the arousing morning aromas coming from behind the kitchen’s swinging doors. Sinatra was up next. The diner quieted a bit so folks could hear his legendary voice a little better. It’s going to be a wonderful day, I sighed.
My mother, stunning as always, looked closer to my age than her own. She sat on one side of the red vinyl booth, as my cousin, who resembled Janet Leigh of “Psycho” fame, slid in beside her. My handsome uncle and I sat on the opposite side of the booth and rested our warm hands on the cool gray Formica table.
We excitedly recounted yesterday’s spontaneous decision to hastily pack a bag, jump into our Bonneville Pontiac and head for Atlantic City, looking forward to new adventures.
Now sitting in the diner, our vigor and anticipation renewed itself with the certainty this new day would bring more fun and laughter. The waitress scooted to our table to take our order. Famished, we quickly asked for the usual bacon and eggs fare. She finished writing our order, poured a little more coffee, hesitantly turned to leave, but instead, she spun around and stared at me for a moment, then hurried off.
“Is my nose on upside down again?” I wryly asked the group.
They all knew what my question meant. It was our family way of conveying to each other that, eyes, for some unknown reason, are curiously upon one of us. Today, they were fixed on me. I didn’t have to see them, I could feel them.
My thoughts like driftwood floated then settled in place, for a while. Did she stare because she had thought I resembled Natalie Wood? Not a vain thought, for I had been told since I was child that I looked like her. I had often experienced this, particularly, around the Christmas holiday when “Miracle On 34th Street” sweetly played out on television in the 50s. Just four years her junior, we appeared, however, to be the same age. As teenagers, the resemblance remained.
Uncanny coincidences and similarities linked us ironically, if not eerily, through the years. She had nearly drowned as a child, and so had I. Consequently, we were both deathly afraid of deep water, yet loved to be near or on it. We both wore one silver bracelet given to us by someone we loved and had vowed, to ourselves, to always wear it.
I still do. Natalie had worn a mantilla as a veil, attached to her short wedding dress, when she wed, as I had, unusual at the time. Our dresses were nearly identical.
Often, I would change my hairstyle, turn the page of a screen magazine and see her wearing nearly the same coif, or very similar earrings or sweater or something. Friends would find it remarkable and would sometimes tease, I had copied her. But, I hadn’t. An inexplicably shared psyche, I thought. In my star-struck teen-age years, I felt proud to think of Natalie as my alter-ego until….well, until the day she drowned. A part of me, that day, was lost too.
The waitress returned with more cream, leaned closer to me, excitedly smiled and said, “You’re Natalie Wood, aren’t you? Can I have your autograph?”
Like the feel of the ocean’s first splash of cold water, it caught me completely off guard, because, until now, I had never been actually mistaken for Natalie. Thoroughly flattered and with regained composure, I quietly responded, “No, I’m not really.”
She turned to face my mother sitting across from me and leaned in to speak. With a conspiratorial tone, hand cupped to her mouth, she whispered, “She really is, isn’t she?”
“No, Honey, she really isn’t. And I should know. I’m her mother.” Whereupon, the disgruntled and disbelieving waitress, murmuring under her breath in disgust, haughtily turned on her heels, scurried from our table, Chaplin-like, with her exasperation undeniable. The waitress suddenly spun around and blurted, “Oh, you Hollywood types are all alike!” Then she scampered away.
We couldn’t restrain our laughter. We laughed until our sides ached, which surely served to convince her that not only were we lying, but we were also very rude “Hollywood types.” A piece of me regrets I didn’t sign that autograph for her. It would have been a thrill for both of us. But truth won out.
My mother and uncle, sorely missed, are gone now. Sadly and mysteriously gone, too, is Natalie Wood. I often wonder what really happened to her, but, unapologetically, I more often wonder what happened to the waitress in the diner? It’s probably too late, but I would love to thank her for the precious memory.