I have always held Robert Wagner in high esteem. He’s one of those “handsome actor” types who is as adept at being gorgeous as he is at being funny. I grew up watching him on Hart to Hart, and relished every moment of his role as #2 in the Austin Powers movies. Moreover, he always held a place in my heart as Mr. Natalie Wood.
Natalie was my mom’s favorite actress, and I remember the day the news of her death was announced on television. We were at my aunt’s house, and my mom had to hold back her tears until we left. Caring about celebrities has never been allowed on my aunt’s watch, and so we took our sadness home and shared a small part in Mr. Wagner’s grief. The loss of this beautiful, vibrant woman has always seemed unspeakably tragic, and Wagner’s silence on the issue has been admirable. Even amid the rumors and speculation that followed her death, he maintained a dignified silence, not discussing their personal life or the circumstances of her death.
Nearly thirty years after that horrible night, Robert Wagner is finally baring his soul in Pieces of My Heart, a look back at his life, career, and marriage to Natalie. I approached the book with the same respect as I would approach Mr. Wagner himself, and fully expected a thoughtful, moving retrospective. Instead, I wound up feeling as though I was reading something penned by Austin Powers himself.
Though parts of the book are poignant and heartfelt, it is littered with salacious tales of old Hollywood, gossipy little asides, and personal anecdotes about other people. Not only does he freely discuss what went on behind closed doors, Wagner happily goes one step further and lets us know what went on under everyone’s clothes. Here are some of the random details we learn about some big stars and their naughty bits:
* This one time, after a day spent in the cold, David Niven retired to the indoors, poured himself a glass of brandy, unzipped his pants, and dropped his willy into his drink. Robert laughed so hard he wet his pants.
* This other time, while filming a bubble bath scene with copious amounts of bubbles created from harsh detergent, Robert Wagner sustained chemical burns to his eyes. His female co-star, an Italian actress, sustained chemical burns to her unmentionables.
* Another time still, Robert Wagner was in a movie with Errol Flynn, and he went to talk to him in his trailer, but instead he walked in on Errol getting a blow job.
* Peter Sellers was crazy, but Robert Wagner liked him anyway. Then he got crazier still, but Robert didn’t mind.
* Also, this one time, Peter Sellers suffered a heart attack while using a sex-enhancing drug.
* Nicholas Ray was widely rumored to be bisexual.
None of these details have much relevance to the story at hand, and somehow come across as blatant ploys to point out just what an insider Wagner is. As if it’s not enough to have befriended or worked with a famous name, he has to go one step further and illustrate that he also knows something intimate about them. The trouble is, he seems to have no filter at all, and little regard for the privacy of others.
Would Wagner’s dear friend Bette Davis appreciate the discussion of the “face that could stop a clock” and her struggle to cope with aging in Hollywood? Would Humphrey Bogart appreciate the revelation that at the end of his life, he was so frail and so sick with cancer that he was brought downstairs through the dumbwaiter to receive guests? Does Raquel Welch need everyone to know that she had no life skills and Wagner flat-out felt sorry for her? I strongly doubt it.
Wagner then has the nerve to say that Joan Plowright spoke too harshly of his pal Laurence Olivier in her biography. Oh really? After saying whatever the hell he wants about every big name he’s ever met, he actually has the audacity to criticize Plowright for talking about her husband? Well if that’s how we’re going to play, then let’s talk about naming a chapter “that c*nt will never work here again,” and then putting an adorable picture of your wife underneath. This of course causes the reader to gasp in shock and wonder who in the world would have said such a thing about Natalie. As it turns out, it was a comment Jack Warner made about Judy Garland that serves only to prove that Jack Warner wasn’t quite so jovial as he seemed.
As for the real scoop on Natalie, we learn little beyond what has already been reported. The events that occurred on the night of her death are still a mystery, and Wagner speaks of her with such love and admiration that there’s nothing to fuel the theory of foul play. As far as anyone knows, she slipped on a step and disappeared into the water without a sound. So ended a great Hollywood love affair and the life of a beloved icon.
At the core of Pieces of My Heart is life shaped by love and loss, family and career. It may be set against the backdrop of Hollywood and colored by famous names, but these are themes we can all relate to. It’s a shame then, that Wagner tosses in so many dishy details that are simply beneath him. What he has to say isn’t half as shocking as the fact that he chose to say it. The only thing to be learned in reading Pieces of My Heart is what we knew before: there is dignity in silence.