Natalie Wood was not the first love of Robert Wagner's life. Stop the presses, because Wagner — currently starring in the third Austin Powers film as Dr. Evil's trusted sidekick "Number Two" — got around a lot before he married Wood in 1957.
It's a story reminiscent of the current movie Tadpole, in which a young man is seduced by his stepmother's friend. Miramax has been trying to promote the idea of "tadpoling" as this summer's trend. But back in 1953, Wagner was way ahead of the game. He met the four-time Oscar nominee Barbara Stanwyck on the set of Titanic (1953). He played the young idealist later portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio. Stanwyck was the mother of the society girl his character fell in love with, whom Kate Winslet would play in the 1997 movie. He was 23, and Stanwyck was 46. Wagner told me the affair lasted five years, but the two remained close until her death in 1990.
"I was her love. I wasn't her 'Tadpole.' She was a wonderful woman, wonderful lady. It was a great time in my life, to be a young actor in the motion picture business. She was very influential."
How did they manage to keep it out of the papers, away from famous gossip columnists like Winchell, Hopper and Parsons? "It was all handled. We were very discreet. And I think they might have, I think it came out a little bit. But we had a few beards."
Wagner is the quintessential star. In addition to his hit TV series like Hart to Hart and Switch, he made some memorable movie appearances in A Kiss Before Dying (1956) and Harper (1966). He counts among his mentors Spencer Tracy, Richard Widmark and Lew Wasserman.
Last week, Terry Press of DreamWorks said that new movie stars should take lessons from Tom Hanks. But really, even Hanks might agree that Wagner is the standard for classy deportment in Tinseltown. He's been there since the mid 1950s, for God's sake! He's been up, he's been down, he was married to an icon and he's still working and looking great at 72 years old. You can't beat that with a stick.
For the last dozen years, Wagner has been married to former Bond girl Jill St. John. You heard recently about a documentary about "it" girls? St. John was all of 'it' and so much more back in the early 1970s when she dated Henry Kissinger and ruled the town. She was glamour personified. When Wagner's mega-famous wife, Natalie Wood, died in 1981, St. John quietly appeared on the scene and took over as friend, step mom and second wife. The couple has not been apart since then. A few years ago, they even made a memorable appearance on Seinfeld as the elegant parents of Kramer's garrulous friend Mickey.
"Didn't you think Seinfeld was a great effort?" he asks. "We were asked to do it. It came out of nowhere. The sight gag was so funny. I was blown away there. And I've been around ... I've been around."
But Wagner suffers the slings and arrows of having been married to a Hollywood superstar. Two years ago, out of nowhere and for no apparent reason, Vanity Fair dredged up whatever it could about Wood's accidental drowning and tried to make Wagner look bad. It didn't work, even though the magazine resurrected old news by interviewing the captain of Wagner and Wood's yacht and Wood's sister — neither of whom Wagner had spoken to in years. But Wagner's ultimate innocence in the matter prevailed, and the writer vanished along with his tabloid implications.
Wagner just kept going.
"The thing is, you can't do anything about these articles. This guy's already said these things in other articles." He clears his throat. "The situation is really minimal, what happened. He has to go home at night. But I didn't really [read it]. I asked my children not to read it. And the thing is, it was so unnecessary. I don't even know why he wrote it."
Wagner — who went on to raise three successful beautiful daughters after Wood's death — doesn't talk about her much in public. But when she came up yesterday in lunch conversation, Wagner was diplomatic and gentlemanly, but willing to be candid. He is in the tricky position of maintaining Wood's legacy while trying to live his life. "I'm very happy she's an icon. Sometimes it happens. I thought Spencer Tracy would become like that, like Humphrey Bogart. But he hasn't."
It's not easy. Other Hollywood icons, like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Dean Martin, etc., are often thought of as having had tragic lives, I offered.
"I don't think she had a tragic life," Wagner says. "She seemed to be ... she worked very hard on herself and on pulling herself together. She had a tremendous career. I mean, she really had a run that was good." His voice is full of admiration and pride. "She loved her children, she was happy. To try and go in and turn that all upside down is just---" He sighs and shakes his head.
"You know with Natalie, I have handled her estate since she left us. I've done several things that have perpetuated her legacy. The estate is handled by Global Icons, and they police the world so her picture isn't on a T-shirt or coffee cup unless we approve of it. Right now I'm trying to do a fragrance called Natalie. She's very, very much alive for us."
It must be hard to turn on the TV and see crazy things, I ask.
"I wish there was some way to get the law changed. They can write anything about you after you're deceased and there's nothing you can do about it. There's been so much written. She was a great part of my life, and my daughters, my god. We talk about her all the time. She's a part of all of us."
Wagner has made his reputation on being suave and sophisticated, a small screen Cary Grant. But he also has an impressive interest in history, current events and politics. Far from being a plastic idol, he's several layers deep and quite introspective. For example, after Wood's death he turned into a Mr. Mom, caring for three daughters and making sure they became well-adjusted adults. No big scandals there, no stories of drug addiction or 7-11 hold-ups.
"It's all a judgment call. I think you have to be very fortunate," he says about parenting. "These kids have all done their thing, but all normal things. It's a tough time for young people." Daughter Kate works in television production, Courtney is a jewelry designer, Natasha is an actress. "After Natalie we were all very much together. It made us all very close."
Sure there's loads more gossip — take, for example, the story that a young Warren Beatty, then engaged to a slightly older Joan Collins, broke up Wagner's first marriage to Wood in 1962. (Wagner says now it didn't happen that way, and the couple remarried in 1972.) Collins had an affair with Cloris Leachman's husband, George Englund, almost simultaneously. Wagner's good friend was Debbie Reynolds, who was married to Eddie Fisher, who cheated on her with Liz Taylor. No one in today's Hollywood could have kept up with this group.
It must have been a crazy time, I offer. "It was heartbreaking for me," Wagner says. "I think I could have probably handled it a little better." He must run into Beatty now, I ask. "Sure. All the time," Wagner says. And if Collins were to walk into this restaurant right now? "I'd wrap my arms around her and hold her as tight as I could," he says. "I love her. She's a wonderful lady. She has such courage. She's such a good actress."
After all these years, there are no scores to settle. It's what makes Robert Wagner the standard for cool.
"People ask me, 'What do you think has made you sustain this long?' I honest to God don't know. I mean, I got up to the plate and swung at a lot of those and never hit it," he says, looking at his list of credits going back 50 years. "But I got up there."