This is a fascinating new report about the effects of giving supplemental zinc to African women. Read it first, then my comments follow:
Note that they mentioned that the women were eating low-meat/ high phytate diets. Phytic acid is an acid distributed widely in plants, and it binds minerals, such as zinc, making them unavailable. And it has also been found in Western populations that the high phytic acid in plant-based diets can compromise zinc status.
Zinc is involved in taste perception, and it has been found that vegans perform less well on taste perception tastes, suggesting the possibility of zinc deficiency.
Besides the phytic acid, also the oxalic acid in fruits and vegetables may bind zinc into a non-useable oxalate form. Then lastly, the high fiber content of plant-based diets may impede zinc absorption to some extent. There is a good side but also a bad side to all that fiber.
Note that overall, plant-based diets are very healthy and offer huge benefits. But, it's possible that they are marginal when it comes to maintaining optimal zinc status. Not major, but subtle degrees of zinc deficiency may be occurring widely among unsupplemented vegetarians and vegans. And that's why I prefer, for insurance reasons, to include a zinc supplement in my diet. I would rather be on the safe side.
And here is another consideration: As people age, their natural ability to absorb zinc goes down- way down. Dr. Walter Pierapaoli, a prominent Italian physician, believes that a significant amount of the decrepitude of old age results from poor zinc nutriture. There are over 200 enzymes that are zinc-dependent. This is way too important to leave to chance. I recommend including a zinc supplement in your health program- especially if you are eating a vegan or mostly vegan diet.
I think it’s very appropriate after writing about Irving Berlin that I write about George Gershwin. After all, they were contemporaries. I read the Gershwin biography of Howard Pollack entitled: George Gershwin: His Life and Work. But no, I am not recommending it because it’s almost one thousand pages long, which is quite an arduous read. And, the focus of the book is more on his music than his personal life. It’s good; it’s just that it’s a bit excessive.
But, I’ll begin by pointing out that many people, to this day, consider George Gershwin to be the most gifted musical composer that America has ever produced. And I am one of those people. And it’s especially true when you consider that he died of a brain tumor at the age of 38. So, his incomparable wealth of music was all produced within a mere 20 years. What kind of genius does that make him?
When his Rhapsody in Blue came out in 1924, when he was 26 years old, it was met with both praise and derision. The public loved it, but there were high-brow music critics who felt that it was too undisciplined, too unorganized, too much in violation of the standards of orchestral music, too patronizing of jazz and blues, and not anything that would endure. Well, they could not have been more wrong. Today, the Rhapsody in Blue is one of the most popular and frequently performed pieces of classical music in the world- not just in the United States but all over the world. Recall the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles when they had 50 white grand pianos on the field playing the Rhapsody in Blue to a worldwide audience. Why’d they pick that piece? Because it is the greatest and most beloved piece of American classical music.
Like the parents of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin’s parents were Russian Jews, and they were immigrants to New York City from Russia. But unlike Irving Berlin, George Gershwin was born here: in 1898. His given name was Jacob Gershovitz. He later changed it to George Gershwin. Everybody called him George, including his family.
As a child, he was a regular kid. He was very active. He loved sports; rollerskating and hockey were big for him; and he also got into fights. But, he was a poor student. His musical life started when his parents bought an upright piano which was intended mainly for his older brother Ira. But, it quickly became apparent that George was the one with natural ability; in fact, it quickly became apparent that he was gifted. So, they found a teacher for him and then better teachers as his talent became even more apparent. It became very obvious that he was a prodigy.
George dropped out of school at the age of 15 to become a song plugger. That was a pianist who played songs all day for one of the song publishers on Tin Pan Alley in order to showcase the songs. And he started writing songs. His first big hit was Swanee when he was 17 which caught the attention of Al Jolson and became a national smash.
It was the era of Broadway musicals, and George teamed up with his brother Ira, who had become a leading lyricist, and they became an indomitable team. But, George was also interested in "serious" music, and that's what led him to Europe to study with the masters. So, he had a foot in both camps: popular and classical music.
One of his last projects was the opera Porgy and Bess which concerns the lives of poor blacks living in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina. The music is hauntingly beautiful; the most famous song being Summertime, although my favorite is Bess, You is My Woman Now. It is regrettable that acclaim for Porgy and Bess did not surface until after Gershwin's death. Today, it is considered one of the greatest American operas, and it is the favorite of many.
Gershwin's final project was to write the musical score for the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie Shall We Dance, and that is what brought him out to Los Angeles. And it is considered to be superb writing, including the perennial They Can't Take That Away From Me. And that, by the way, is the song my parents danced to at their 50th wedding anniversary.
For the remainder, I am going to focus on Gershwin's health since this is a health blog. George had a very athletic way about him. He was toned and chiseled and in good shape for most all his life. And even though he worked like demon, he always reserved time for exercise. In the afternoons, he would quit composing and do something active. He was passionate about both golf and tennis and quite good at both. He loved to swim. And he even boxed. In those days, they had boxing gyms all over New York, and he went to one regularly.
Regarding food, he was particular, and he became somewhat of a health nut. When he would visit his parents, he would bring vegetables because he knew they didn’t buy them, and he thought they should all be eating them. And that made me think that he probably didn’t get too many vegetables as a child. And therefore, he probably did not get too many fruits either. Remember that this was a time when the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables in the diet was not widely known and appreciated.
Gershwin's digestion was delicate his whole life. He had a sensitive stomach. And he tended to have digestive complaints, both upper and lower. And he complained of irregular elimination. He always stayed thin, which was probably because he was so active physically but also perhaps because assimilating food was not his strong point. He just wasn't a good digester.
He did smoke, but practically all men did back then- as contradictory as that was for an avid sportsman as he was. His preference was for pipes and cigars, and there are quite a few pictures of him with one or the other, and they may be worse than cigarettes. He drank alcohol but not excessively. He was no big drinker. There was no mention of him ever being intoxicated.
Gershwin never really studied music academically. He didn’t go to Julliard or any other music school. He learned the technicalities of music from various private teachers that he had, here and in Europe. And that’s it; he never actually took a formal course in music. But, he doggedly traveled the globe to take influence from the masters of the day, including some of the biggest names in classical music, including Debussey and Ravel. Still, it is amazing what he did without any formal education in music.
Gershwin never married, but he was considered the most eligible bachelor of his day. If they had People magazine back then, they probably would have put him on the cover as the sexiest man in America. His longest relationship was with a woman named Kay Swift, who was also a musician and composer herself, and they did some collaborating. Another girlfriend of his was Ann Ronnell, who was also a songwriter. Her song, Willow Weep for Me, which became a standard, is widely believed to have been a collaboration with Gershwin. But, he went through a lot of relationships, and it’s amazing he had the time for them. Like Irving Berlin, he often sacrificed sleep in order to produce. He often stayed up all night to compose.
So, on the whole, he was athletic and healthy and certainly active and vigorous, and he looked good. However, he suffered with chronic issues relating to his digestion, and that was the worst health problem he had. That is, until the last year of his life when horrific headaches started to plague him. Also, he developed coordination problems which hampered his ability to play the piano. Even the simple act of bringing a spoon to his mouth to eat food became difficult and troubling. He also started having olfactory hallucinations; he complained of smelling burnt rubber all the time. And mentally, he started losing it too with personality changes and sudden explosive and bizarre behaviors.
Finally, a brain tumor was diagnosed, but by then, he was too far gone. They flew out to Los Angeles the best neurosurgeon in the country from the East Coast, and Gershwin was operated on. However, he never regained consciousness after the operation, and he died several hours later. That was on July 11, 1937, and he was 38 years old. He was 2 months shy of his 39th birthday.
What can we say about George Gershwin’s tragic death? And it was tragic for him, his family, and the whole world because there is no telling how much more beautiful music he would have written. Why did he develop a brain tumor? Was it the result of his bad habits? I can’t say that because millions of people indulge in bad habits much worse than he did who do not develop brain tumors.
I don’t think we can attribute any particular cause to his developing a brain tumor, especially at that young age. To me, the lesson from this is that we should do the best we can for ourselves, and all we can, but we need to recognize that there is luck involved in health, that it is not all under our control, and there is nothing particularly fair about it. But, I don’t think that one should be discouraged by that. You simply have to recognize that you are trying to do the best that YOU can do.
I’m going to leave you with a link to the Andante movement of the Rhapsody in Blue because I don’t think I have ever heard a more beautiful melody than this. To me, this is musical perfection. It is so emotional and haunting and moving. What a gift to humanity.
I just finished reading King of the Night by Laurence Leamer, a biography of Johnny Carson. I had personal reasons for wanting to read about Johnny Carson which I won’t go into except to say that I got to meet him once.
And as always, I shall build my review around the health aspects of his life. First, he lived 79 years and died of emphysema. That, of course, is a smoking-related disease, and he was a heavy smoker for most of his life. So, I have to think that if he hadn’t smoked, he would not have gotten emphysema, and he would have lived a lot longer.
And he did try to quit smoking at times, repeatedly, but he always went back to it, although I can’t say he was smoking at the time of his death. But, I think he was lucky to have lasted as long as he did considering.
I believe the secret of his success was his brains. He was smart. You have to be smart to be funny. It's all about seeing associations that others don't see, and the delight is in the surprise of it. It takes brains to be funny, and that's why they call it wit. As a boy, he got involved with card tricks and expanded it to a whole magic show. After high school, he joined the Navy, and he caught the end of World War II in the Pacific. And even in the Navy, he was involved doing magic and being involved with entertainment. Once, he even put on a magic show for the Secretary of the Navy.
And it was only natural for him to work comedy into his magic show. It may not be true of all magicians, but it was true of him. After the war, he attended the University of Nebraska, majoring in radio and communications, and with a minor in physics. That’s right: he had a minor in physics. And he graduated with a minor in physics. As I said, Johnny Carson was a smart guy, and he would have excelled at anything he put his mind to.
After college, he went to work in radio and that quickly segued into television. But, his career did not take off until he went to California 1951, which was the year I was born.
But getting back to his health, it sounds like he had a good constitution. The book I read, which was written long before his death, said nothing about any health crises impacting his life or his career. He was slender by nature, particularly when he was young. Not being fat is a big advantage.
My impression is that Johnny Carson was not a food person. He wasn’t a foodie. He ate to live; he didn’t live to eat. His taste in food was very conventional, not high-brow by any measure. Steak was mentioned as a favorite food, but, he wasn’t a big eater. But, he wasn’t the least bit drawn to health food ideas, even though there were people in his life who tried to get him into it, such as his second wife Joanne and his youngest son Cory.
Then, alcohol was a big element in his life. He had periods when he was frankly alcoholic. And it was emphasized that he did not handle alcohol well at all. He got inebriated quicker than most people do. He couldn’t hold his booze. I recall that it was when he was doing the Tonight Show from New York that he had his worst time with alcohol, and Ed McMahon was his drinking buddy. There were a lot of drunken times.
So, the heavy smoking was bad enough, but the heavy drinking was another huge burden. That’s why I say that he made out like a bandit making it to 79.
Then there was stress, and he had a lot of it in his life. He lived an amazing life but not an enviable one, in my opinion. For instance, I think he made a big mistake trying to become a business mogul. What did he need it for? He was paid a vast amount of money, more than he could ever spend, and he had no need to buy banks and tv stations and other businesses which were more than investments- they were enterprises which had to be run. And as fate would have it, many of them didn’t turn out well, and he lost money. But, the greatest cost was all the time involved and all the stress that it imposed on him. Frankly, he should have just bought regular passive investments and not tried to build a business empire.
He was married 4X, and when three of the marriages ended, they ended badly, it was very stressful. He got off easy financially speaking the first time since he hadn’t hit it big yet. But the second and particularly the third divorce were very expensive and very stressful. You might wonder why he didn’t just give up on marriage. The answer is that he didn’t like being alone. That was emphasized repeatedly.
Even his 4th marriage which lasted until the end wasn’t without its problems, and It’s fair to say that his relationship with his three sons was difficult and stressful throughout. And then his middle son Richie died tragically in a car accident at the age of 39. So, there was lots of stress and pain on the fathering side of his life too.
I realize that in everyone’s family there are joys and sorrows, but I got the distinct impression that for Johnny, there was a lot more sorrow than joy.
And then the other irony was that even though he was beloved by millions, Johnny Carson had few friends, and the friendships he had often ended. Especially by the end of his life, he had very few friends.
But, what were the positives health-wise? As I said, he tended to be thin, and he stayed thin. He didn’t get fat. It was automatic when he was young, but as he got older, he worked at staying fit and trim. He had a full Universal gym in his home which he used religiously. He was also an avid tennis player. He was diligent about exercise.
And the Tonight Show was an outlet for him. He had his problems, but he knew that people were turning him on at night to escape from their problems. He felt a responsibility to them. He wanted to make them feel good in the hour before they went to bed. His commitment to his audience was absolute. I believe it superseded everything and anything else. His devotion to his audience was unwavering.
Was he a nice guy? Well, he gave away a lot of money, both during and after his life. He helped people in need, and he often did it anonymously. But, he wasn’t by nature sunny. He had a dark side. And there was a big difference between his public persona and the real Johnny Carson.
He had such an unusual life. If you said he was one in a million, you’d be way off. He was much rarer than that. He was an American institution. He was very, very American, and Americans were proud that he was American because he was class act, and he made the whole country look classy. Johnny Carson was as American as apple pie and the 4th of July, and not because he wore patriotism on his sleeve, but because he embodied the American spirit without doing that.
I think it’s fair to say that Johnny Carson was one of the most beloved entertainers of all time, and people felt that they knew him. He was Johnny- one of those people for whom a first name was enough. Had he never smoked, he surely would have lived a lot longer, but it wasn’t remotely possible. Like most people, he was a product of his time and circumstances. It's true of the rich just as it is of the poor. And it’s very possible, even likely, that no one will ever match what he did, which was to become the late-night viewing habit of this entire country. Who is going to be the next Johnny Carson? Nobody.
As you know, I enjoy reading biographies, and my favorite are biographies of musical genius. And there certainly is no one who deserves the title of musical genius more than Irving Berlin.
He wrote so many popular and enduring songs, some of which are deeply ingrained in our culture, such as White Christmas, God Bless America, Always, What’ll I Do, Easter Parade, Happy Holidays, Cheek to Cheek, Puttin’ on the Ritz, Let's Face the Music and Dance, How Deep Is the Ocean, and Blue Skies. But, there seems to be no end to the gems that he wrote. For instance, listen to this rendition of A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody. It was written in 1919- almost 100 years ago- and I have no doubt that people will be listening to it 100 years from now because it is that good.
I don’t know what is more amazing: the fact that Irving Berlin wrote such beautiful music without any education in music and with only a limited ability to play the piano OR the fact that he lived 101 years. But, I’ll address both.
Israel Baline (his real name) was born in Russia in 1888. There was an awful lot of anti-Semitism in Russia at that time, and when he was 5, his family had had enough. So, they moved to America. They were Ellis Island immigrants. His father was a cantor, which is a professional singer of religious music at the synagogue. But unfortunately, he could never find gainful employment as a cantor here. So, he had to work other jobs, like at a chicken processing plant. But, everybody in the family worked. And when Moses Baline died of a heart attack at age 49, it became even more imperative that everyone worked. Izzy dropped out of school at the age of 14 in order to work. But, he loved music, and when he was 17, he became a singing waiter. He sang popular songs of the day, but he also created his own songs and sang them, and people liked them. He taught himself to play the piano at night, but he only learned to play the black keys, which meant that he could only play in one key F#. But, he eventually bought a piano which had a mechanical transposing device, so that he could play in F# and make it sound like any key he wanted.
This was the Lower East Side of Manhatten, a very tough neighborhood, teeming with immigrants. But, it was close to Tin Pan Alley, which was where the music publishing houses were. Back then, sheet music was much more popular than it is today. It was a very big business. And these publishers were always looking for new songs. Izzy Baline saw it as way for him to make money and rise out of poverty. His first song was a collaboration in which he wrote the words and another guy wrote the melody, called Marie from Sunny Italy. And that is when the name Irving Berlin came to be. And that was soon followed by a song called Alexander’s Ragtime Band, written entirely by Berlin, words and music, which became an international sensation.
That was 1911, and he just rose like a rocket after that. By the time of the first World War, he was the preeminent songwriter in America. However, that did not stop him from getting drafted. But, he was very patriotic, and he served willingly. Fortunately, the Army realized that putting a rifle in his hands and sending him into battle was not the best use of his talents. So, he spent his war years right on Long Island designing musical revues for the Army- shows to entertain the troops. And by the time of the second World War, he was no longer in the Army, but he did it all over again, traveling the world to entertain American troops.
His first marriage was very brief because his wife caught typhoid fever in Cuba on their honeymoon, and she died a few months later. He was single for many years after that until he met Ellin MacKay, the daughter of a wealthy Catholic industrialist who happened to be an anti-Semite. His relationship with and marriage to Ellin became a scandal, especially because it was so vehemently opposed by her father. But, it was a good marriage, and they stayed married until her death, which was shortly before his. They had 4 children, but his one and only son, Irving Berlin Jr., died shortly after birth.
Irving Berlin wrote all of his own lyrics, and that’s amazing too when you consider that English was not his first language. It was actually his third, after Russian and Yiddish. And as I said, he dropped out of school so young that it’s amazing that he could have such a way with words, English words. It was a rare thing back then for a composer to write his own lyrics. The only other prominent one who did was Cole Porter, and they became close friends, even though they were as different as night and day. ( Hope you caught the pun.)
Irving Berlin was also a very competent businessman. He started his own music publishing company, which published his works and the works of other songwriters. He also started his own musical theater which was called the Music Box Revue. It was very successful, and he amassed a vast fortune. But, he was also very generous. For instance, he did all that work for the troops during WW2, traveling to faraway places such as New Guinea, for absolutely nothing. And he donated all the revenues from God Bless America (which was actually written for the 1st World War, but it didn’t take off until the 2nd World War) to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America. And that is true to this day through the Irving Berlin Charitable Fund. During and after his life, he gave away millions.
Before I get to his health and his longevity, I’d like to relate one more thing about his music, and that is the production of the musical Annie Get Your Gun. It’s amazing how that came about. It was actually produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It was their musical. But, they didn’t have time to write the score because of other commitments. So, they hired the great Jerome Kern to do it. So, he came back to New York from California explicitly for that purpose ready to begin work on it right away. But, he died of a heart attack the night of his return. So, Rodgers and Hammerstein had to scramble. The only names they could think of who were up to the task were Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. They decided on Berlin mainly because Porter had a reputation for being risque’, and they didn’t want that. So, they chose Berlin.
And Irving Berlin was very honored to get the gig. But, he was also very intimidated because he knew that Rodgers and Hammerstein were very great technical composers, and he couldn’t even read or write music. He wasn’t sure he was up to the task. But, they encouraged him and expressed their confidence in him. The result was the marvelous musical score to Annie Get Your Gun. Here, from Spider Man 2 is Kirsten Dunst singing the beautiful They Say That Falling In Love is Wonderful, originally from Annie Get Your Gun, which is surely one of the greatest songs about love.
Now, concerning Irving Berlin’s health and longevity: The bio I read is called As Thousands Cheer by Laurence Bergreen. And, it’s very good except that it deals mostly with his professional life, and only superficially with his personal life, including his habits. For instance, the author never stated whether Irving Berlin smoked. And I was unable to find out online. However, the author did make one statement which gave it away. He said that the old transposing piano which Irving Berlin composed on and transported everywhere he went, which is now sitting in a Belgian museum, and which he called his "Buick", got to be “cigarette-stained.” So, I take that as an indication that Irving Berlin did smoke. But, I have a hunch that he was a light smoker, the reason being that I have yet to see one photo of him with a cigarette.
As for alcohol, he did drink some, but he never had a problem with it. It was mostly social drinking; celebratory stuff, champagne and wine. Not once did the author mention Irving Berlin getting inebriated.
As for food, he just ate regular food for that time, and there certainly was an emphasis on animal foods: meats, dairy products, eggs. He liked duck. Also crabs. I don’t recall the author mentioning any fruit or vegetable being a favorite of his. But, my impression is that he was not a big eater. He wasn’t a foodie. He ate to live; he didn’t live to eat. And he stayed thin his whole life. He was lean as a boy and lean as a man. And that, I suspect, is the single biggest reason why he lived so long. We know that keeping calories down- undernutrition without malnutrition- prolongs life. It is the single most proven life extension technique. But, Irving Berlin did it spontaneously. He just wasn’t a big eater.
Did he exercise? Not really. I saw one photo of him playing golf. But, that was just something that others put him up to. It was a social thing. He really wasn't into it. What he was into much more enthusiastically was playing poker, and he played it a lot with other composers. I kid you not: he, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, and other songwriters of that era had a regular poker club. They were close buddies, and Irving Berlin was the senior member. You might say he started it all.
Apparently, his health was remarkably good for most of his life. The author never mentioned any medical problems until Berlin got quite old. Never once did it say that he had to miss an important event or engagement or performance because of illness. There was no mention of any hospitalizations or surgeries.
However, Berlin did have one very chronic health problem: insomnia. And it was lifelong. Typically, he couldn’t fall asleep until 4 or 5 in the morning. It wasn’t uncommon for him to stay up all night and just be active the next day, skipping a night's sleep. Especially when he had deadlines to write music, he just stayed up all night and did it. He was most productive at his songwriting in the dead of night.
However, when he was in his 50s, he started taking a drug for sleep, Nembutal, which is another name for phenobarbital. It’s a very strong barbiturate. It’s still around, but today, it’s used more in veterinary medicine than human medicine. It’s considered a harsh drug. It’s addicting, and if you take too much of it, it can kill you. But, that's what they gave for insomnia back then, and you know what it did to Marilyn Monroe. It didn’t go too well for him either. He got habituated to it, and he had to keep increasing the dose to maintain the effect. And sometimes, even with a heavy dose, he still wouldn’t sleep.
So, Irving Berlin’s sleep problem was his biggest health challenge, and it took a toll on him. In the latter decades of his life, he became clinically depressed. That was stated, and, his sleep problem surely contributed to it. How could it not? He became difficult and short-tempered. And once rock n’ roll became dominant, he had even more to be depressed about. He probably should have retired sooner than he did. And once he couldn’t write music any more, it was hard for him to find other things to do with his time. He tried to take up fishing, but that didn’t go too well. He didn't have the patience for it. He did take up painting, and that he really enjoyed. However, apparently, nobody thought he was particularly talented at it.
He lived the last decade of his life in complete seclusion. He really dropped out- almost like Howard Hughes. And other problems cropped up, for instance, a bad case of shingles. He also developed a heart condition and had a cardiologist who would treat him at home. There was a big television production for his 100th birthday, but, they couldn’t get him to attend. His last notable public appearance was when he sang God Bless America on the Ed Sullivan Show on his 80th birthday with Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts backing him up. For 80 years old, he looked and sounded fantastic. See for yourself.
So, how amazing is it that Irving Berlin lived to 101? Extremely amazing. He must have had a very good constitution, plus the fact that he stayed thin. Physically, he wasn’t athletic, but he had excellent proportions. For instance, he always maintained a healthy shoulders-to-waist ratio, and you could still see it even when he was 80. He didn't get apple-shaped or pear-shaped. He kept a v shape. He didn’t get fat and sloppy. He kept a youthful shape. And I’m sure it contributed mightily to his longevity.
You can’t say that Irving Berlin was 1 in a million because he was more like 1 in a billion. His talent to create music was beyond gifted. To me, it is like he was from another planet, not a regular human, but with faculties much greater than a regular human. And, it makes sense to me that a person with that much capacity to express life through music should have a lot of life to express. In other words, his longevity came from the same place that his musical creativity came from- his inner vitality. Irving Berlin had something great inside of him, sustaining him to write music and sustaining him to live. And, the music that resulted from it shall always live, making him immortal.
I just finished reading Natasha by Suzanne Finstad, a biography of Natalie Wood. I am drawn to reading the biographies of people with incredible life arcs, which was certainly true of her. By rights, she should have been born in Russia because both of her parents were Russian immigrants who spoke little or no English upon arriving here. Natalie Wood was bilingual; she spoke Russian. And not too many of her fans know that.
As usual, I am going to review her life from the health standpoint, since this is a health blog. Natasha was extremely petite; she was short, and she was small. She only reached a height of 5'0", and that was often hidden in her films, not just by her wearing heels but through other tricks. She was small-boned, small-chested; everything about her was small, and it enabled her to play teenagers well into her 20s. It seems her diet growing up was a combination of standard American fare with the addition of special Russian dishes that her mother made. Poverty may have been a factor in compromsing her nutrition in the early years, that is, until she hit in big in 1946 in Tomorrow is Forever at the age of 8. From that point, she was the breadwinner of the family, and lack of money would never again prevent her from eating well. However, there is a lot that is already set in stone by the age of 8, including her dietary habits.
Natasha's education went through high school, and it was a combination of studios schools, in which they brought tutors to the set to teach child stars, and regular public school. It seems like it was about half and half. And when she went to public school, she tried to fit in and be a regular kid. It so happens that she attended the same junior high school that I did: Sutler Jr. High in Canoga Park, California. And then she went to Van Nuys High, which was close to where I went. And it mentioned her doing typical high school things like going to Bob's Big Boy on the weekend nights to get burgers and fries, and that was the cool thing to do during my time attending high school in the San Fernando Valley. It said that she could eat a lot of that kind of food without gaining weight. In fact, if anything, her tendency was to be too thin. All references to food in the book were to unhealthy, junky stuff. Never was a fruit or vegetable mentioned. Yet, she stayed thin. Typically, she weighed 93 to 95 pounds in her younger years. But later on, her weight became a problem, and she would have to diet before she started filming. She lost that waifish look.
Natasha did not exercise. For one thing, her mother discouraged it. And for two, she just had no jock tendencies whatsoever. But one thing she did take up as a teenager was smoking; and she was a heavy smoker. She became a chain smoker. Of course, that's bad for anybody at any age, but to start it as a teenager is especially bad because you haven't even finished growing and developing yet.
She also took up drinking. As a teenager, she was just as rebellious as any teenager you might know. Her drinking fluctuated; if she was with someone who was a big drinker, then she would drink heavily too. It's important to realize that females do not metabolize alcohol as well as men do. They are more adversely affected by the same amount of alcohol as are men. But then, in addition, being a small 93 pound person, the same amount of alchol affected her more than a 160 pound person. So, because of her gender and her diminutive size, she really couldn't handle alcohol. And it had a lot to do with her death.
There was no mention of her taking any street drugs, however, it was also in her teen years that she started taking sleeping pills. And I don't mean once in a while but every night. She would joke that when it was time for bed, she would wash her face, brush her teeth, and take a sleeping pill. Back then, the sleeping pills available were very harsh: barbituates, such as Seconal. She was taking it every night as a teenager, and it continued until the night she died.
The first movie in which she got to play someone other than a little girl was Rebel Without A Cause in 1955. And that cast, consisting of Jimmy Dean, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo and Natalie, they were rebels alright. Smoking, drinking, and wild driving in which Natalie almost got killed. (Note: she had several near-fatal car accidents in her life). But if that wasn't enough, she was also having an affair with the 43 year old diretor, Nicholas Ray. She was 16. And then, if that wasn't enough, she got brutally raped by a leading Hollywood actor. The author didn't name him directly, but the strong implication was that it was Kirk Douglas, and that seems to be the unanimous conclusion in cyberspace that Kirk Douglas raped Natalie Wood. Google it if you don't believe me.
Natalie's love life was filled with pain and disappointment. Her first marriage to Robert Wagner ended when she caught him in bed with a man (according to the author). Then, she took up with Warren Beatty, her co-star from Splendour in the Grass, where, ironically, they didn't even like each other during the making of the movie. All of the passion they had to show each other onscreen was pure acting. But, they became a couple after her divorce, and it flew high for a while only to crash and burn. She had numerous other men, but then met British producer Richard Gregson. She married him with high hopes, but just months after the birth of her daughter Courtney, she caught him in bed with another person, but at least it was a woman this time- her own secretary. So, that marriage ended, and Gregson went back to England. He pretty much forfeited his daughter too. Then, she married Robert Wagner a second time (which is amazing when you consider how the first marriage ended). But, they had a baby together right away, and they both strove hard to make it work.
Natalie's career in the last decade of her life was mostly disappointments. She usually received praise, but most of the movies were considered second-rate. It seems that Rebel Without a Cause, Splendour in the Grass, and West Side Story will always be considered her greatest movies, with Miracle on 34th Street as her best childhood movie. I can tell you, unfortunately, that her very last movie, Brainstorm, was a dud. It wasn't her fault, and she only had a supporting role in it.
I've mentioned her heavy smoking, her drinking, her drug use, and the fact that her diet was far from optimal. And all of that took a toll, more than the public realizes. She developed dark circles under her eyes, which they would cover with make-up. But, some days, it was so bad that they couldn't make her look good. They would just have to stop shooting, tell her to go home and sleep and come back when she was refreshed.
Natalie Wood died in 1981 at the age of 43. The cause of death was drowning. Somehow, late at night, she wound up in the cold water off the coast of Catalina where their boat, the Splendour, was moored. The irony, which the author emphasized repeatedly throughout the book, is that her lifelong fear was of drowning in dark water. And that is exactly how she died. I won't attempt to piece together the events of that night, which are still shrouded in mystery and controversy. But, I will point out that the amount of alcohol that she and Robert Wagner, and their guest Christopher Walken, and their hired skipper Dennis Davern, consumed was staggering. It was a prodigious amount of alcohol.
It was an incredible life, one that no one could envision or imagine except her obsessed and driven mother Maria, who was apparently the ultimate Hollywood mother. Was Natalie's life happy? At times, I suppose, but overall, I would say no. She had so much pain and disappointment and anguish in her life, which led to at least two suicide attempts. What can we learn from it? For one thing, celebrity is a mixed bag, and there is a lot to be said for anonymity. For two, even celebrities often succumb to the same destructive practices that destroy regular people. Smoking, drinking, drugging- it wrecks the beautiful people just as surely as the Average Joes and Average Janes. And note also that Natalie Wood didn't get her Seconal from a street vendor; doctors prescribed it. Just as with Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and other tragic figures, doctors were complicit in Natalie Wood's downfall. Celebrity doesn't save people from medical stupidity either. Hooking a teenager on Seconal should be considered a crime- regardless of who the teenage is and who the doctor is.