Happy Birthday, Natalia

Natalie Wood 1963

No, she never played a ‘stiletto gumshoe’. Never appeared in a noir, and to call any of her films mystery or crime movies would be a stretch at best. Say she doesn’t belong here, and I say too bad. I’m a star-struck fan, always have been.

Many writers model characters on recognizable celebrities, TV and film stars, at least for their general appearance. It keeps an easily recalled image in mind when writing, may even help the reader, and can be a kind of shorthand to avoid overly detailed descriptions. I chose a young Natalie Wood as the physical model for my current project’s main character, Sharon Gardner (real name Sasha Garodnowicz), the ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’, who’d only be a year older than Natalie Wood as the first novel opens in the Spring of 1959, and who concedes that she looks like the actress. Well…sort of. Here’s a short bit, for instance, the opening paragraphs from the in-progress sequel to the first novel, when Sharon Gardner wonders why she headed out to a neighborhood cocktail lounge she’d been avoiding for months…

The woman didn’t throw a dirty look my way when I eased atop the last open seat at Silky’s bar. But she didn’t exactly look pleased either, probably looking for someone else to grab that empty barstool, someone handsome and with a billfold handy.

The cocktail lounge was packed, as it ought to be on a Friday night, and she played to the crowd when she slid her things over to make room for me, making a real production out of arranging her purse, smokes and a fancy lighter on the bar, then rearranging herself with a tug on the hem of her shiny sea green dress, crossing her legs dramatically once she was done. While I tried to catch the bartender’s attention, the woman winked at me, eyes a shade darker than the dress, and her red lips managed something like a smile. So I gave one back. I guess I could have offered more, said thanks or maybe introduced myself.

I would’ve, if I’d known she’d be dead later that night.

The bartender slid a highball my way before I even had a chance to order. Which confirmed I was a regular, or at least, used to be. It had been over four months, after all. I popped my purse open, but he patted my wrist and shook his head, so I pulled out my Viceroys instead of my wallet.

Maybe it was the change of seasons? Who knew what lured me back, but I just couldn’t take another Friday night mixing my own seven-and-seven’s with 77 Sunset Strip on the television for company. I was already curled up on the living room sofa with a glass in hand when I changed my mind and ran a bath instead. I only fussed a little. Well, maybe a little more than a little. Twisted a few curlers into my hair while I got ready, tried a touch more makeup than I’d wear to the office, and a spritz of perfume from the row of Avon samples on my dresser. My one decent black dress had been hiding inside a dry cleaner’s bag for months, and it almost seemed to sigh when I slipped it off the hanger. It was an unremarkable thing, but it fit me like a glove, and once I stepped into my heels and grew a few inches, I knew I looked somewhere on the pretty side of cute. Hell, a fellow could almost mistake me for Natalie Wood.

Well, Natalie Wood minus some curves.

If the lights were dim and he’d already had a few, that is.

And the lights were always nice and dim at Silky’s. When I stepped inside, it was like coming home.

Love With A Perfect Stranger 1963

For me, it’s Natalie Wood in 1963’s Love With The Proper Stranger with Steve McQueen, for which she received an Oscar nomination. Sure, it’s four years late for my project’s 1959 setting, but styles didn’t change all that much till the British Invasion erupted later and the whole mod thing swept the U.K. and America.

Miracle On 34thStreet, Rebel Without A Cause, West Side Story, Splendor In The Grass, Love With The Proper Stranger, This Property Is Condemned…what a resume. She didn’t do costumed dramas. There were no Elizabethan courts or frontier women that I can think of. But I sure do wish she’d managed a film noir, or at least a noir-ishly flavored crime caper, or took a turn as devilish femme fatale. One can only imagine what Natalie Wood might’ve done with that.

Natalie Wood was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko on this date, July 20th, 81 years ago in in 1938. She was taken from us at only 43, her death still shrouded in mystery, one which may never be solved, in fact. But like so many great actors and artists, she’s not really gone, with a body of work that will live forever. And she’s in my mind often, darn near every time my fingers are poised over the keyboard and I’m about to get some work done, always seeing Natalie Wood in one scene or another from Love With The Proper Stranger (which I’ve watched more times than I can count) or even those New York publicity shots shown above that she took to promote the film.

So, Happy Birthday, Natalia.

 

 

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