In 1971, two high-profile spanking enthusiasts, Roman Polanski and Kenneth Tynan, were working together on a film version of Macbeth, now best remembered for the decision to have Lady Macbeth (Francesca Annis) do the sleepwalking scene naked.
The director and the dramaturg shared their feelings of disappointment in the lady’s rear aspect (which was no reflection on any other aspect of her performance), and got to discussing which movie stars had the sexiest bottoms. Polanski’s pick was Jane Fonda, while Tynan opted for Natalie Wood.
Both had a point, over and above the objective evidence. A reviewer in the London Daily Mirror once said that Jane Fonda ‘bubbles with spankable sexiness’ in Barefoot in the Park (1967),
and as for Natalie Wood…
This was a publicity shot with Tab Hunter for her 1956 movie, The Girl He Left Behind, in which she plays the title role, but Hunter is the leading character. He’s Andy Shaeffer, an irresponsible college boy who is drafted into the army and has to grow up fast – while his sweetheart, Susan Daniels, is well ahead of him in the maturity stakes.
The spanking, photographed in July after production had wrapped, obviously has nothing at all to do with the story of the film, and everything to do with the fact that the studio, Warner Brothers, wanted to spin Natalie and Tab as a young couple.
That was a very long way from the truth for one simple reason that we’ll come to later on. But for now, let’s concentrate on the fact that in the publicity still Natalie seems to be having fun being spanked.
It is sometimes claimed that Natalie Wood was a spanking enthusiast. But I have only ever seen this suggested on spanko websites, and she certainly doesn’t come across that way in Gavin Lambert’s 2004 biography. On the contrary, what Lambert portrays is a highly sexed woman with conventional desires, who was married three times (to two husbands) and also had a lot of lovers. Hollywood being the gossip mill it is, it would be surprising for all of them to be discreet about any details of her preferences that were just a little out of the ordinary or spicy, especially during the media feeding frenzy in the wake of her early death. But let’s not get ahead of the argument, or the evidence…
The film Natalie made immediately before The Girl He Left Behind was The Burning Hills, a Western in which she plays Maria-Christina Colton, the Mexican love interest for Trace Jordan, another leading role for Tab Hunter.
During production, in February or March 1956, she was visited on the set by Nick Adams, another ambitious young actor whose name the studio thought it worth connecting with hers. The publicists took the opportunity to shoot some photos showing them having mildly flirtatious fun together, with her in period costume for the film and him in his own clothes. Among the pictures was:
Spank her twice, shame on her?
There are a number of problems with applying the ‘no smoke without fire’ principle to reach the conclusion that this was a position that Natalie Wood enjoyed being in and indeed actively sought out. You have to take into account that neither spanking was a spontaneous event captured in a personal snap of two actors at play together: they were both set up in publicity shoots that were designed to capitalize on an identifiable and relatable social situation between contemporary young people. In both cases, this was the familiar trope of the romantic spanking, but there were extra layers of meaning in the Girl He Left Behind shoot on July 18.
This wasn’t snapped on Natalie’s 18th birthday (that was two days ahead on July 20), but even so it was presented to the press as a birthday spanking. And because it was about Natalie and Tab rather than their characters in the film, it was then used to publicize their very next picture, The Burning Hills (imminently due for release on September 1), rather than held back until November for The Girl He Left Behind.
Tab Hunter always kept a copy of the picture, and described it as his favorite of all the ones he’d posed for with Natalie. And when, decades later, he found himself appearing with Natalie’s daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, in what turned out to be his final movie, Dark Horse, he took the opportunity to stage a reenactment:
The date was on or about September 29, 1991, and Natasha had just turned 21.
So might that make Tab Hunter the spanko in the case? Let’s add the most salient fact of all: he was gay. Closeted, but gay. So whatever enjoyment he might have gotten out of posing for those spanking photographs, it wasn’t sexual pleasure.
On the contrary, when the photos reached print, they were presented as ‘good clean fun’. At the time, spanking was still accepted as a regular part of life: a romantic practice between wholesome young men and women, a birthday tradition and, yes, something healthy and salutary that sometimes happened to teenagers running wild. As Tab Hunter said to reporters (or was said to have said by the studio publicists),
‘What Natalie needs, perhaps, is an old-fashioned spanking.’
He wasn’t the only one to think so. A 1957 Australian gossip column described her as ‘the chain-smoking teenage actress all Hollywood would like to spank’. The May 1956 issue of Motion Picture did tentatively suggest that by now it might be too late:
Not according to Hedda Hopper, who had an interesting story to tell in her movie gossip column on December 18, 1956.
Natalie had been enjoying herself out east during the break between making The Girl He Left Behind and her next picture, Bombers B-52, with an itinerary that included a date with Elvis Presley. At the time in question, she and Hedda Hopper were part of a starry group returning from the grand opening of the Hilton hotel in Mexico City, among them Barbara Rush, Martha Hyer and Linda Darnell. The flight plan included a one-hour stopover in Tijuana before they could go on to Los Angeles, and Natalie decided to entertain herself, and possibly others, with a jukebox that happened to be in the airport lounge.
One person certainly wasn’t entertained when Natalie put on the Elvis cover version of ‘Hound Dog’, which was both massively successful and intensely controversial that fall. Hedda Hopper told her:
‘If you play any more of his records, I’ll spank you.’
Natalie defiantly put another Presley on the juke – whereupon Hedda put Natalie over her knee and made good her threat!
Was this true, half-true or just pure Hedda Hopper invention?
At one level, it may not matter. If the function of celebrities is to be a focus for what people feel and desire at any given moment in cultural history, then part of the particular function of Natalie Wood in 1956 was to represent the kind of wild, Elvis-loving teenager that so exasperated the ‘Hound Dog’-hating older generation. So by extension, one element of what might later have been called her ‘job description’ was to be spanked for enjoying Elvis (among other things), because that’s what her elders would dearly love to do to similar but non-stellar girls in their own neighborhoods when ‘Hound Dog’ was heard blaring from the local jukeboxes. So what was satisfying was the story that Natalie Wood had been spanked by Hedda Hopper; it was immaterial whether it ever literally happened in Tijuana as described.
That’s not so dissimilar to the spanko websites’ eagerness to claim Natalie as ‘one of their own’. The root of it is the desire to spank her, in this case as a specifically sexual fantasy rather than the ‘good clean fun’ of times gone by. This begets the gentlemanly hope, and thence the disingenuous belief, that she would enjoy it too, justified in terms of the ‘spanko vibes’ she supposedly emits and not in terms of anything that might reasonably pass for empirical evidence. It’s not that it takes one to know one, but rather a case of unconscious projection.
We all have our sexual fantasies, some of them involving real people, and I make no criticism of that at all, so long as those fantasies don’t get mistaken for, or misrepresented as, reality. So it’s time to balance healthy fantasy with an equally healthy dose of realism. If you ever actually got to ask your preferred celebrity whether she would enjoy being spanked, and were given an honest answer, then it’s statistically likelier to be a ‘no’ than a ‘yes’; and even if it were a ‘yes’, there’s only an infinitesimal chance that it wouldn’t be followed by the four words, ‘but not by you’.
We can apply this directly to Natalie Wood, because of something that happened to her on the night of July 29, 1966. Two years earlier, the German psychoanalyst Fritz Perls (1893-1970) had begun to practice at the Esalen Institute in California, and had recently found a celebrity advocate in Jennifer Jones, the actress widow of legendary producer David O. Selznick. In order to forge connections between Esalen and the glitterati of Hollywood, she hosted a party at her Bel Air mansion, with a guest list that included, as well as Perls, such stars as Rock Hudson, Glenn Ford, Eddie Albert, Dennis Hopper, James Coburn, Roddy McDowall, Tuesday Weld, Shirley MacLaine – and Natalie Wood.
Fritz Perls had definite views on the subject of spanking. He wrote in his autobiography, In and Out of the Garbage Pail (1969) that there were ‘thousands of women’ in America who had problems that might be solved by physical assertiveness: ‘Provoking and tantalizing, bitching, irritating their husbands and never getting their spanking.’ He had been known to rectify this omission with his female clients at Esalen, with Rita Hayworth among the notable women he spanked.
On the evening of Jennifer Jones’ party, Perls offered to lay on a poolside group therapy session, if one of the guests would agree to be the principal object of analysis in the ‘hot seat’.
Natalie Wood volunteered, and Perls’ scrutiny became progressively more intense until he told her:
‘You’re nothing but a little spoiled brat who always wants her own way!’
There are two eye-witness accounts of what happened next. According to Mike Murphy, the cofounder of Esalen:
‘He put her over his lap and began spanking her, and she began kicking and carrying on.’
Also present was George Leonard, editor of Look magazine:
‘Fritz somehow had her over his knee, spanking her. It was a brief episode, hard for the senses to register or credit. Natalie flounced away, and her friend Roddy McDowall offered to fight Fritz. Fritz ignored this offer. Natalie marched out of the party, with no goodbyes, her nose angled sharply upward.’
After she made her exit, Perls offered to try again with another subject, and Tuesday Weld took up the invitation, not anticipating that the ‘hot seat’ might lead to the other kind of hot seat for her too.
She found herself being accused of ‘absolute phoniness’, and as it became clear that Perls was working up to giving her a spanking too, she followed Natalie’s example and walked out before he got the chance.
Of course, the story spread all over gossipy Hollywood, and July 29 became known as ‘The Night Fritz Perls Spanked Natalie Wood’. Despite this, some actresses decided that Perls’ therapy might be worth a try, among them Ali MacGraw and Candice Bergen.
As Marion Goldman tells it in her academic book The American Soul Rush (2012):
‘They considered the spanking as nothing more than a rock on the bumpy path to self-actualization.’
It’s not entirely clear whether Goldman means that they had heard what had happened to Natalie and yet were not deterred from their intention to consult Perls, or whether they did so and got spanked in the process, but took it more casually than Natalie. What is clear is that nobody ever so much as hinted that a spanking was something that Natalie might have enjoyed, even in different circumstances and over a different knee.
So there is no reason whatsoever to imagine that Natalie Wood was a spanko, and some reason to believe that she was not.
One other thing comes out strongly from Gavin Lambert’s biography. After her untimely death in 1981, many people on the fringes of her life claimed intimacy with her, and even self-promoting members of her family told stories about her that were, to say the least, of dubious authenticity. Lambert calls this ‘invading her memory’, and it is just as bad when done by people who did not know her even slightly, but want to interpret her to suit their own agendas or fantasies.
The dead are the sum what the living say about them, something that is never more true than of those who die before their time. So it behoves us to take care what we say about the dead, especially the dead whom we like, or fancy, or revere.
Rest in Peace, lovely Natalie Wood.