The mysterious death of movie legend Natalie Wood might be the most troubling and tragic ‘Hollywood Mystery’ that there is.
It’s a case that hasn’t been resolved – and which conspiracy theories still circulate around – for over thirty years. And it’s a case that keeps resurfacing every several years; most recently with the news, in the last few months, that Wood’s two-time husband (and American film and TV star) Robert Wagner is again “a person of interest” in the re-opened case.
Natalie Wood, who starred in, among other things, Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story, was a massive star and icon of her age.
One of the reasons I, personally, have always been interested in her story – and harrowed by the details of her death – is on account of her iconic performance as a child star in the classic Miracle On 34th Street. I’ve loved that film since I was a kid, and Natalie’s performance in that movie stands as one of the finest (perhaps the finest) child performances in a Hollywood picture.
Every time I watch that film (or any of her other films) I start thinking about the sketchy details of her death again – and wonder how it is that the handling of such a high-profile death has been so dubious and so inconclusive for so long. At the same time, the mystery around the death of Natalie Wood (who was 41) doesn’t seem to have generated quite the same amount of long-term interest or coverage that surrounds, say, the death of Marylin Monroe.
In 1981, Wood’s body surfaced around 200 yards off Blue Cavern Point in Catalina Island.
The previous night, she had been on board a yacht called the Splendour, with her husband the actor Robert Wagner, as well as fellow actor Christopher Walken, and the Captain, a man named Dennis Davern.
What happened that night on the Splendour has been the subject of speculation ever since. It is confirmed by all parties that a lot of alcohol had been consumed than evening and that there had been plenty of champagne at dinner.
According to the ‘official’ or consensus version of events that has been generally upheld for three decades, Natalie Wood – some time around midnight – fell out of the yacht while attempting to depart or while trying to adjust the dinghy attached to the vessel.
About eight hours later, her floating corpse was found by the coast guard.
What I still find particularly harrowing about the story – and about the manner of her death – is the fact that Natalie Wood had always been specifically terrified of the water and of drowning at sea. She said in an interview, “I’m frightened to death of the water… I can swim a little bit, but I’m afraid of water that is dark.”
The idea of a woman who was specifically terrified of the water and of drowning now finding herself, in the dead of night, literally experiencing her own worst nightmare makes these events seem even more horrific.
Wood’s death was declared accidental. The coroner’s report focused on the fact that Natalie “had drunk seven or eight glasses of wine”, thus suggesting that it was inebbriation that had caused an accident.
However, given the Natalie’s aforementioned terror of the water and of drowning, it might seem unlikely that – even under the influence of alchohol – she would take any risks while out at sea.
Thomas Noguchi was the chief medical examiner in the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office and he examined Wood’s death in a 1983 book, Coroner. In it, he expresses doubts about Wood having gotten off the boat intentionally or having been trying to access the dinghy, as there would’ve been nowhere to go and it wouldn’t have made sense. “What was she doing? And where was she going?” he asked.
Given her aforementioned fear of the water, I would argue that Noguchi’s doubts are justified – someone terrified of the water, and specifically of the water in the dark, is unlikely to set off on her own in a dinghy in the dead of night.
It’s still possible that she fell in by accident; but Noguchi then wonders why she couldn’t just swim back or climb back to the yacht.
Nevertheless, it would still seem the likeliest explanation that an intoxicated Natalie Wood might’ve fallen into the water by accident and then struggled to get back onto the yacht.
That is UNTIL you factor in the additional questions: such as what the fuck Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken were doing the whole time that Natalie’s struggle was transpiring?
To my thinking, it seems like a party of four on a boat is a pretty intimate number – if one of you is missing for any length of time, surely the rest of you would notice and would go have a check to see if they’re alright.
Did no one hear Natalie calling out for help?
There were reports, however, that Wood had been heard by a nearby boat calling out for help. But why did no one aboard the Splendour hear her?
Bruises were found on Natalie’s face, wrists, knees and ankles. The original 1981 coroner’s report stated the bruises were from the actress trying to climb back into the yacht.
However, when the case was re-opened in 2011, a new coroner’s report stated the bruises occurred before Wood went into the water.
There is also the matter of Dennis Davern, the Splendour’s captain.
In a television appearance, Davern pointed to Wagner as being responsible for Wood’s death, saying “We didn’t take any steps to see if we could locate her. I think it was a matter of ‘We’re not going to look too hard. We’re not going to turn on the searchlight. We’re not going to notify anybody right now.’”
Davern himself told both 48 Hours and the Today Show in 2013 that he had originally lied to the authorities about what happened that night.
In my view, the fact that Davern lied earlier on and then changed his story years later makes him an unreliable witness whose account can’t be entirely trusted. There are also some who see Davern as a charlatan or opportunist whose motivation was fame, attention and to profit from his book on the subject.
Why hadn’t Davern heard Natalie’s calls for help on the night? And why did he give one version of events at the time and then change his story decades later?
Even with that said, however, Lana Wood, Natalie’s sister, claims in her book Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood that Davern told her he’d actually witnessed Wagner throw Natalie into the water. According to this account; “He said it appeared to him as though [Wagner] shoved her away and she went overboard. Dennis panicked and [Wagner] said, ‘Leave her there. Teach her a lesson.'”
Although Davern’s testimony might be regarded as suspect – on account of the changes over the years – it is worth noting that he is said to have passed polygraph tests (for what that’s worth).
It is also worth noting that Wagner has consistently refused to take a test or to agree to questioning.
Marti Rulli, co-author of the book, Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour, explains that the Coast Guard wasn’t alerted until some four hours after Natalie’s disappearance. Rulli’s assertions seem to fit then with Lana Wood’s claims about what Davern said he witnessed Wagner say and do.
Again, it seems suspect to me that, in an intimate party of four people, it would’ve taken four hours for anyone to notice that one of their party was missing.
There is also the testimony of a Marilyn Wayne – whose boat was anchored near the Splendour‘s location. Wayne said she received a written death threat three days after Wood’s death, warning her to keep quiet about anything she witnessed.
Wayne claimed that, on the night of Natalie Wood’s death, she heard someone cry for help at around midnight (the same time the coroner’s report cites as the time of Natalie’s falling into the water). “My cabin window was open. A woman’s voice, crying for help, awakened John and awakened me, ‘Help me, someone please help me, I’m drowning.'”
As of now, the matter is still unresolved. The case was re-opened in 2011, at which point mistakes (deliberate or not) were discovered in the original autopsy. Crucially, the cause of death was no longer recorded as “accidental drowning”, but was now “undetermined”.
Although the various accounts of that night’s events contradict each other, the one thing that is absolutely known is that Wagner and Wood had had a particularly vicious row on the yacht that night.
There have also been claims that Wood and Christopher Walken had either been flirting or might even have been having an affair.
Further problems arise from the fact that Walken himself didn’t speak a word publicly about Wood’s death until two years after it happened and has been very reitcent to say anything on the subject in the years since.
The behaviour of both Wagner and Walken, as well as authorities involved in the original handling of the case, could be suggestive of a cover-up.
It is still also generally held that Robert Wagner ‘still has a lot of power in Hollywood.’ This could be construed as meaning that Wagner, or parties close to Wagner, have used their influence to obscure the reality of that night’s events or deflect ongoing interest in solving the case – and that, possibly, the majority of the entertainment-industry establishment has gone along with it for the sake of protecting him.
The idea of powerful showbusiness figures being able to keep dirty secrets for a long time isn’t particularly surprising, as the recent controversy over Harvey Weinstein demonstrates. Indeed, Jimmy Savile’s crimes were an open secret for decades – known about by scores of people in the showbiz world and the upper echelons of society – but only came to light after his death.
While we cannot categorically argue – and we shouldn’t either – that Robert Wagner might’ve deliberately murdered Natalie Wood, I tend to wonder if the truth of the matter will ultimately come out only after Wagner’s death.
The thing that I find most haunting, however, is again the fact that Natalie Wood died experiencing the very terror she had been afraid of for many years.
We also, strangely, cross into the realms of ideas like predestination or ‘fate’ and the question of how much our deep-seated psychology or fears are somehow tied to some kind of subconscious cognisance of this.
While filming The Star with Bette Davis in 1952, the director wanted Natalie – who was only 14 at the time – to jump over the railing of a private yacht and land in the water for a scene.
Apparently, she complied with this – but, according to the story, had a serious panic attack about being in the water. The story has it that Natalie was so traumatised by having to film this scene that Bette Davis had threatened to quit the movie if the director dared to ask the 14 year-old to do it again.
Eerily, the location where this filming was taking place had been near Catalina Island – the same area where Wood would fall off a boat and drown for real many years later.
Just as curiously, it is claimed that Natalie Wood’s long-time fear of the water came from a psychic reading her mother had taken her to when she was a child, in which Natalie had been told she would die drowning in the water.
How much of this is true and how much of it is apocryphal, I’m not sure.
But it is clear that Natalie had a life-long aversion to the sea and a fear of drowning, saying herself “I’m frightened to death of the water… I’m afraid of water that is dark.”
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