What lies beneath: The death of Natalie Wood

Anna Burnside explores the questions that have resurfaced amid fresh revelations about the night Hollywood star Natalie Wood died

THANKSGIVING, 1981. Natalie Wood, her husband Robert Wagner and co-star Christopher Walken have set sail on the Wagners’ yacht, Splendor. It’s an intriguing cast list. Wood, a former child-star and Oscar-winning adult actress is still, at 43, a notable beauty. Wagner, eight years her senior and a handsome smoothie of the old school, is married to her for the second time. Walken, currently shooting the sci-fi drama Brainstorm with Wood, is a darker character, already known for playing dangerous freaks and geeks.

On a cold, rainy Saturday evening, 28 November, captain Dennis Davern anchors the Splendor off Catalina Island on the Californian coast. Wood, Wagner and Walken have dinner at the island’s sole restaurant, Doug’s Harbour Reef. After a booze-soaked meal they return to the yacht and continue drinking. Sexual tension and jealousy crackle in the air. At one point Wagner slams down a wine bottle, which shatters. “What do you want to do,” he yells at Walken, “f*** my wife?”

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Wood retreats to her cabin. Wagner follows her and an argument begins. Thumping and shouting are audible. Then Wagner comes up on deck and tells the captain: “Natalie is missing.”

Wood’s body is found, floating face down about a mile from Splendor, around 8am on Sunday morning. She is wearing a down jacket, nightgown and socks. Her legs, arms and cheeks are heavily bruised. The yacht’s dinghy is washed up on a nearby bay.

Lurid speculation and wild theories fly around: Walken and Wood were having an affair; Wagner was in a jealous rage; Wood took her own life. Less colourfully, the dinghy had come loose and Wood heard it banging against the cabin. She went down to secure it and slipped. Eventually a police investigation finds the actress’s death to be accidental and the coroner rules that, having drunk seven or eight glasses of wine, Wood accidentally fell into the sea, hitting her face on the side of the yacht.

The medical examiner, Thomas T Noguchi, pieced the events of the night together in his 1983 book Coroner. He thinks Wood went down to the dinghy, untied it and was then blown away by a strong gust of wind. Drunk, she lost her balance and fell into the sea. Holding on to the side of the little boat, calling out for help, her shouts were drowned out by the loud music from a party on the island. Noguchi puts her bruises down to repeated attempts to climb into the slippery rubber craft.

Unable to get into the dinghy, he speculates that she tried to use it as a float and headed for land. Hypothermic in the icy water, her reactions slowed down by alcohol, she lacked the strength to make it. Noguchi reckons that she lost consciousness and drowned.

Wood’s funeral was a full Hollywood production. The coffin, covered with 1,000 gardenias, was carried by Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier, Frank Sinatra and Fred Astaire. The Queen sent Wagner a telegram of condolence. A broken, shrunken figure, he stooped over his wife’s coffin for a farewell kiss.

And so Natalie Wood joined her co-star in Rebel Without A Cause, James Dean, as one of the film stars who lived fast, died young and left a beautiful corpse. Her death, with its tantalising unanswered questions, was picked over by hacks, conspiracy theorists and producers from the Biography Channel. At least one member of the family was on hand to help: Wood’s sister, former Bond girl Lana Wood, claims never to have believed Wagner’s story. Her older sister was, she maintains, so afraid of water that she refused to enter a swimming pool. She would not have gone down to a dinghy in the dead of night.

And now new claims by Davern, the Splendor’s captain and a key witness, have prompted the LA County Sheriff’s office to reopen the case. In his 2009 book Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour, he claims that Wood was taking sedatives – Quaaludes – on the night she died. Davern overheard the wine bottle being smashed and, later, Woods and Wagner arguing – details he did not tell the initial police investigation. He states that Wagner forbade him from calling the coastguard or turning on the yacht’s search lights.

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Interviewed on NBC’s Today show last week, Davern admitted to making “some terrible decisions, mistakes” during the initial police investigation. He claimed that the fight between Wagner and Wood caused her death and that he held Wagner responsible. He attempted to intervene when the couple were fighting, he said, but Wagner made him leave. Then, after telling him Wood was missing, Wagner ordered the captain to hold back.

“We didn’t take any steps to see if we could locate her,” Davern recalled. Asked if it was foul play or a case of just not looking too hard, he said: “We’re not going to look too hard, turn on search lights, notify anybody at the moment.”

Wagner himself wrote, in his 2008 autobiography Pieces Of My Heart, that he held himself responsible for his wife’s death. “There are only two possibilities: either she was trying to get away from the argument or she was trying to tie the dinghy. But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened.”

What is clear is that Wood and Wagner’s relationship was complicated. Wood played the Hollywood field, having affairs with co-stars, influential directors and the celebrities of the day. On the set of her first major movie, Rebel Without A Cause, the 16-year-old had a fling with director Nicholas Ray, 43. The studio also sent her on dates with actors Tab Hunter, Nick Adams and Raymond Burr, who was 38 when Wood was 17. Yet she had a long-standing crush on Wagner – whom she called “RW” – throughout her teens.

Their first date was a film premiere, on Wood’s 18th birthday. They married in 1957, when she was 19 and he was 27. Wood’s pushy Russian-born mother, hugely ambitious for her beautiful daughter, was horrified. The marriage lasted for five years and dissolved when Warren Beatty, her co-star in Splendour In The Grass and the most notorious tomcat in Hollywood, pursued Wood hotly and, eventually, successfully. In his autobiography, Wagner recalls that, in his jealous desire to kill Beatty, he drove to his home, parked outside and sat in the car looking at a gun. “I was pretty young, and I don’t think I could have gone through with it,” he writes, “but I was pretty frustrated and upset. Beatty was the man.”

Wood didn’t see it like that and blamed her husband’s obsession with golf rather than the attentions of the irrepressible Beatty for the demise of their marriage.

By the time of their divorce, in 1962, her career was on the rise. She was nominated for an Oscar for Splendour In The Grass, acclaimed as Maria in West Side Story, mesmerising in Gypsy. In 1964 she received her third Academy Award nomination, for Love With A Proper Stranger, with Steve McQueen.

All the while Wood was working her way through the Internet Movie Database, dating Michael Caine and Dennis Hopper as well as co-stars Beatty and McQueen, Elvis Presley and Californian governor Jerry Brown. She married British film producer Richard Gregson in 1969. It fell apart when Wood heard him having a saucy telephone conversation with her personal assistant, and they divorced in 1971, a year after the birth of their daughter Natasha.

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Wood and Wagner picked up their relationship and remarried the same year. They went on to have a daughter, Courtney Wagner, but the intervening events had left him possessive and suspicious. Despite their reconciliation, and her semi-retirement from the film industry to raise two daughters, he could not settle back into the marriage. Regardless of his own successful film career, RW knew he was not the moody, brooding bad boy that Wood was drawn to. Instead, Wagner styled himself as a Hollywood gentleman, a sender of flowers and rememberer of birthdays.

Even as a young man he was always smart and ready to meet the parents in his highly polished loafers and well-pressed slacks. The parts he played were equally wholesome all-American heroes, evolving into lovable amateur detective Jonathan Hart. Wood, despite her teenage infatuation with the swirly haired Wagner, often preferred kicked-in denims, white T-shirts, motorbikes and phone calls that were not returned. She once described the man she married twice as “sweet, but rather boring”.

Walken, on the other hand, was the kind of guy Wood could get hot and bothered about. Five years her junior, married to casting director Georgianne Thon, he already had a reputation as edgy and deep, playing Diane Keaton’s suicidal brother in Annie Hall and winning an Oscar for his part in The Deer Hunter.

Wagner is now married to actress Jill St John and enjoying late career success as Number Two in the Austin Powers franchise. An in-depth investigation by Vanity Fair magazine, however, identified sexual tension at play in the run-up to the tragedy. “Wood’s death,” the magazine concluded, “was the final act in a two-day drama of jealousy and rage, fuelled by round-the-clock drinking.”

Whether Davern’s 30-year-old memories shed any further light on the events of 1981 are now in the hands of the LA County sheriffs. They will take some untangling.