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Natalie Wood's Russian roots

Author Gavin Lambert traces the life and career of the actress whose life was cut short in 1981 drowning.
/ Source: TODAY

When actress Natalie Wood drowned off Catalina Island after a night of drinking in 1981 it was ruled an accident. Now in a new book, author Gavin Lambert traces the life and career of the brunette beauty in "Natalie Wood: A Life." Here’s an excerpt:

Out of RussiaShortly after eleven p.m. on November 6, 1917 (New Style calendar), the Bolsheviks seized power by storming government buildings and the Winter Palace in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). After months of violent disorders throughout Russia, the revolution was under way; and as the majority members (Bolsheviki) of the Socialist Party believed in "dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants," thousands of wealthy landowners and businessmen realized their lands and businesses would be confiscated, and fled the country with all the money and possessions they could take with them. Supporters and/or relatives of Tsar Nicholas II (government ministers, army officers, princes and grand dukes with their wives and children) also took flight, and when fighting between Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik forces erupted across the country, thousands more fled their homes to become refugees from a savage and devastating civil war.

Among the refugees were two families, one rich, one poor, living three thousand miles apart. A daughter of the rich family and a son of the poor family eventually emigrated to California, met in San Francisco, and were married on February 8, 1938. The Russian Orthodox ceremony took place at the Russian church on Fulton Street, when the bride was almost five months pregnant, and the following July a future star was born.

In 1917, Stepan Zudilov was forty-two years old, a portly, prosperous middle-class businessman who owned soap and candle factories in Barnaul, southern Siberia, and an estate in the outlying countryside. By then he had fathered a large family: two sons and two daughters by his first wife, who died in 1905 after giving birth to their younger daughter; and by his second wife, whom he married a year later, two more daughters followed by two more sons.His youngest daughter, Maria Stepanovna, born in 1912, claimed years later in California that her mother came from an aristocratic family with Romanov connections, and had "married beneath her." But this was Maria the fabulist speaking, with her dreams of nobility, and Zudilov the outspoken tsarist and land-and-factory owner had no need of Romanov connections to qualify for the Bolshevik hit list. The Zudilovs were known as "gentry," and to the Bolsheviks all landowning gentry were suspect, like the family of the great Russian writer Ivan Bunin (who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1933). "Any of us who had the slightest chance to escape did so," Bunin wrote after he fled from his estate in central Russia to France by way of Romania.But the armies of the new government headed by Lenin were slow to gain control of an enormous country, and for almost a year the Zudilovs, like their tsarist neighbors, were in no imminent danger by remaining in Barnaul. It was not until the summer of 1918, six months after the civil war broke out, that the Bolsheviks managed to gain control of all southern and central Russia. On the night of July 16, Tsar Nicholas II, his entire family, their doctor and servants, were executed by a squad of Red Guards at Ekaterinburg, the western terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway. When the news reached Barnaul, it sent tremors of fear throughout the neighboring gentry; and by late November, Red Guard units were only a hundred miles from the town, after executing suspected tsarists en route.Zudilov had arranged to be warned of their approach in advance, and when the alert came, the family hurried to a prepared hiding place on the estate, stuffing as much money and jewelry as they could inside loose-fitting peasant clothes. Forgotten in the panic of the moment was eighteen-year-old Mikhail, Zudilov's eldest son, who happened to be out of the house.After the soldiers moved on, the family left their hiding place. Just outside the house, they were confronted by Mikhail hanging from a tree. The sight of her dead half-brother sent six-year-old Maria into convulsions.Knowing the soldiers were bound to return, the Zudilovs quickly made plans to leave Russia, and in the dead of winter they set out for Harbin in Manchuria, the northeastern province of China. Maria claimed later that they traveled by private train, with a retinue of servants as well as stacks of rubles and the family jewels stowed in their luggage. Although there's no doubt they escaped with enough assets to live very comfortably in exile, the private train is almost certainly another example of Maria the fabulist.Red Guards were still searching the area for potential enemies of the new Soviet Russia, and a private train would have aroused immediate suspicion. But as Barnaul was a stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway, only four hundred miles from the Manchurian frontier, and Harbin the last stop before Vladivostok for eastbound trains, it seems far more likely that the Zudilovs decided to keep a low profile and traveled by the regular route.When the child from a secluded country estate looked out the train window during that journey of almost three thousand miles, she would have glimpsed the same frighteningly alien world as the Anglo-Russian novelist William Gerhardie, who traveled by the Trans-Siberian that same year. He saw a "stricken land of misery," with ravenous and spectral refugees huddled on the platform when the train slowed down past a wayside station; dismal tracts of frozen steppe, occasionally swept by a violent gale that caused the coaches to rattle, squeal, and shudder; and near the Chinese frontier, where civil war had been especially ferocious, a wake of gutted villages and more desperate refugees, some dying or dead.Ivan Bunin: No one who did not actually witness it can comprehend what the Russian Revolution quickly turned into. The spectacle was sheer terror for anyone who had not utterly lost sight of God.Like thousands of other refugees, Zudilov chose Harbin because it was a Chinese city with a strong Russian presence. The Byzantine dome of the Russian cathedral dominated its skyline, and there was an extensive Russian quarter, part business, part residential, with street signs in Russian, droshkies instead of rickshaws, restaurants that served borscht and beef Stroganoff. Japan had also moved in, with trading concessions at the port on the Songhua River, investments in the city's grain mills, and a chain of "Happiness Mansions," brothels that featured very young boys as well as girls; and Britain, with the British Export Company, which employed ruthlessly underpaid Chinese to slaughter thousands of pigs, fowl and sheep every year, then freeze them for export to the homeland and the United States.Business as usual, of course, meant politics as usual, colonial expansion in a country weakened by years of internal rebellions led by rival warlords. By the spring of 1918, Russian nationals formed almost a third of Harbin's population of three hundred thousand, and the Chinese quarter was just a suburb, like a picturesque Chinatown set in a Hollywood silent movie; while the much larger central downtown area, with its handsome beaux-arts railroad station and Hotel Moderne, looked solidly Western. Under the agreement between Russia and China, the stretch of the Trans-Siberian that crossed Manchuria was officially known as the Chinese Eastern Railway; but it was Russian-financed, maintained by Russian workers, and guarded by regiments of Russian soldiers headquartered in Harbin.And in the wake of the revolution, the Zudilovs escaped one political upheaval only to find themselves in the middle of another. Not long before they arrived, fighting had broken out between Red and White Russian workers and guards on the railway. The Soviet government had sent in militiamen to rout the anti-Bolsheviks; and in case a full-scale civil war developed, the Japanese made ready to invade Manchuria and seize control of the Chinese Eastern. At the end of December, when the Zudilovs reached Harbin, the Chinese government intervened by sending in an army to disarm and deport the Soviet militia; and for the moment at least, the situation was defused.A few weeks later, on February 8, 1919, the Zudilovs celebrated Maria's seventh birthday. Although she was too young, of course, to understand the ways of the great world, the flight from Barnaul had stamped images of warning and terror on her mind. Like most Russian refugees, the Zudilovs stayed within their own community of exiles, ignoring China and the Chinese; but as she grew up, Maria couldn't fail to notice-beyond the house in the Russian quarter where Zudilov established his family with a Chinese cook and a German nanny for the girls, and the Russian school where she occasionally took ballet lessons as well as regular classes-more warning signs that the great world was a disturbingly insecure place.Throughout the 1920s, the city witnessed several outbreaks of fighting between Red and White Russians, parades of underpaid Chinese workers on strike against foreign companies, and street demonstrations by the growing nationalist movement. In 1920 one of these demonstrations led to violence, and smoke covered the city when the storage plant of the British Export Company was burned to the ground. Occasional Soviet threats to invade Manchuria and restore order sent shivers of alarm through the exiles; and an increasingly familiar experience for Maria was the sight of Russians who had arrived in style, like her own family, reduced to begging in the streets when their money ran out.The sight of her half-brother hanging from a tree had produced Maria's first convulsion. It soon led to others, when something frightened her or when she didn't get her own way. As a result she was considered delicate, pampered and spoiled by her parents and nanny.As a further result, Maria learned that she could get her own way by throwing a fit. She grew cunning, but at the same time incurably superstitious, and most of her superstitions were based on fear. At first they were the conventional ones: the bad luck caused by breaking a mirror, leaving a hat on your bed, or touching a peacock feather. But they grew quite bizarre with time, like her more extreme fantasies. Years later, in California, she told her daughters that she was a foundling, born into a Gypsy family that taught her fortune-telling, explained the dangers lurking in everyday signs, and later abandoned her on a Siberian steppe.Among the multitude of poor Russians, peasants and laborers, some had never heard the word "revolution" before, and thought it meant a woman chosen to replace the tsar. The poor, in fact, simply fled the chaos of civil war: famine, butchery, looting, skyrocketing inflation. In Vladivostok, a subzero city on a bleak peninsula in Far Eastern Siberia, almost half the population had been reduced to near-starvation, and some died of cold on the wooden sidewalks rotting under heavy snow.Hundreds more died in the street fighting that broke out in November 1918 between Red and White Russian soldiers. Among the dead was Stepan Zacharenko, who worked in a chocolate factory and joined the anti-Bolshevik civilian forces who fought side by side with the Whites. His widow escaped by train to Shanghai with her three young sons, and wrote to ask for help from her brother, who had emigrated to Canada. With the money he sent, she bought steerage tickets on a boat that left Shanghai for Vancouver, but it's unclear whether she traveled with her sons or remained behind.In August 2000, the youngest Zacharenko son, Dmitri, was living in Palm Springs. At first he insisted that his mother remarried in Shanghai, and her new husband, a Russian engineer, brought her to Canada, where the family was reunited. But at eighty-five Dmitri's memory was erratic, and he later contradicted himself by insisting that he and his brothers were sent to live with their uncle and aunt in Montreal.Although Dmitri wasn't always sure what he remembered, it's certain that he and his brothers, Nikolai and Vladimir, attended school in Montreal, learned to speak serviceable English, and soon heard the call to go west. As a young boy, Nikolai had acquired a passion for reading and learned to play the balalaika. As a young man, he became a migrant worker, took any job that would bring him nearer California, and developed into an expert carpenter along the way. But in San Francisco he had to take the only job on offer at first, as a janitor at the Standard Oil Building.Vladimir, the oldest brother, played violin; Dmitri played mandolin; and when the three Zacharenkos met up in San Francisco, they formed a trio with Nikolai on balalaika to earn extra money at local dance halls. Although Vladimir eventually became a nuclear engineer, and Dmitri worked as chief accountant to an automobile tire company after joining the U.S. Army and being awarded a Purple Heart in World War II, Nikolai appeared to place his future on indefinite hold. In 1934, the year he met Maria, he was working at the docks, loading and unloading the sugarcane boats that plied the coastal ports between San Francisco and San Diego.A photograph of Maria in Harbin with her mother, sister, two half-sisters and German nanny shows a dark-haired girl with strikingly intense eyes. She faces the camera confidently, directly, as if daring it not to find her more attractive than her siblings. She looks around sixteen, so the photograph was probably taken in 1928, the year she met and fell in love with a Russian-Armenian regimental officer from one of the military units stationed in Harbin."When I was young," Maria said many years later in California, "I was ruled by my heart, not my head." So was her own mother, she added, who was forced to break off her affair with an impoverished aristocrat to marry Zudilov, a merger arranged by the heads of their respective families. And Maria claimed to have married Captain Alexei Tatulov in secret, because she feared her father would consider him "unsuitable."For "heart that ruled the head," read "sexual drive." Maria probably inherited it from her mother, and there's no doubt the same gene recurred even more strongly in her famous daughter.In Maria's sometimes conflicting accounts of her early life, she never discussed her parents' reaction to her secret marriage to Tatulov. But in 1929, after the birth of their daughter, Olga, it was clearly no longer a secret. At Tatulov's insistence, Olga was baptized in the Armenian Orthodox Church; and when Zudilov learned that he had a granddaughter, he accepted the situation on condition that a Russian Orthodox priest rebaptize her.

Excerpted from Natalie Wood by Gavin Lambert. Copyright © 2004 by Gavin Lambert. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.