Nearly 40 years ago, Hollywood icon Natalie Wood met a tragic end in the dark waters off of Catalina Island. The dazzling actress, who awed audiences in Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story and Splendor in the Grass, drowned on a starless night. The circumstances surrounding her death sparked decades of speculation. Did Wood die in a terrible freak accident? Or was she murdered by a jealous husband? These two popular theories are compared below.
The Uncontested Facts
On November 28, 1981, Natalie Wood, her husband Robert Wagner, and her co-star Christopher Walken had dinner and drinks at Doug’s Harbor Reef Restaurant on Catalina Island, off the coast of Los Angeles. Afterward, the trio returned to the couple’s 60-foot yacht, Splendour, where all three were staying for a post-Thanksgiving weekend getaway. Below deck, an argument arose, which resulted in Wagner breaking a wine bottle. Wood went to her bedroom. At some point, Walken retired to his.
By midnight, Wagner realized Wood was not on the boat and that its dinghy was gone. At 1:30 AM, Wagner used the ship-to-shore radio to call for help. By 3:30 AM, the Harbor Master called in the Coast Guard for support. Search parties looked for the actress, but it was a rainy and dark night. The visibility was very poor. She was discovered the following morning, drowned. Wood was 200 yards from the shore, wearing a nightgown, socks, no undergarments, no shoes, and a down jacket. She was 43 years old.
Wood and Wagner had long been hounded by tenacious tabloids that relished reporting on their romances and marriages. That the two had married, divorced, married other people, divorced them, then gotten remarried to each other made the couple’s private lives a feast for the celebrity gossip industry. So, when news of the argument aboard Splendour leaked, speculation ran wild. Did a drunken night out lead to debauchery then murder? Was Wood having an affair with her Brainstorm co-star, and a jealous Wagner found out? Or did Wood catch Wagner and Walken in bed together in a gay love affair? Did someone want the actress to die for whatever went on before the bottle broke?
Robert Wagner’s Story
For nearly four decades, Wagner has been dogged by these grim speculations. In the HBO documentary <i>Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, he recounts this night on camera, with his stepdaughter Natasha Gregson Wagner serving as the interviewer.
Wagner explains how the first night of their trip, November 27, Wood had not spent the night on the boat. They weren’t able to get a mooring in the harbor. The waves where the Splendour was anchored were very rough. “That got your mother very nervous,” Wagner told Natasha. So the ship’s captain Dennis Davern saw her to shore, where she stayed in a hotel in Avalon. The next morning, Wood returned to the boat. That night the famous trio had dinner out. “Which was pretty nice,” Wagner recalled, “I had a few glasses of vino and was feeling pretty good.”
“We came back to the boat. I opened up another bottle of wine, had a couple more glasses of wine,” Wagner continued, detailing the scene in the boat’s salon. “I sat there with Chris, and we started talking. He started to mention to me about your mother and how wonderful she was and what a great actress she was, and how he enjoyed working with her. And he said, ‘You know, I think it’s important that she works.’ And I said, ‘I think it’s important that you stay out of her life.’ I was a little teed off about that, suddenly he’s telling me what she should do and how she should behave. I got angry at that.”
According to Wagner, Wood witnessed this exchange then left, heading down to their stateroom. Wagner does not describe her mood. “She went down below to get ready to go to bed and I sat there with Chris,” he continued, “I said, ‘Why don’t you just—don’t tell her what to do and stay out of our life.’ I picked up the bottle and smashed it on the table.”
Then, Walken “ducked out” going above deck. Wagner pursued him and repeated his “stay out of it” argument. “I was a little high at the time…But I calmed down,” he says, twice. “I calmed down.” The pair went back below deck, talked more before Walken retired to his cabin. Then, Davern helped Wagner clean up the shattered glass from the broken bottle (though not thoroughly enough that it would go unnoticed by the police). The captain and Wagner talked briefly, “and when I went below (to the stateroom), she wasn’t there.”
“I went on the aft and the dinghy was gone,” he said. From there, Wagner alerted Davern and Walken to Wood’s absence. “We would have heard it if the dinghy had fired up,” he explained. So he called the “shore boat,” a ferry that takes boaters from their vessels to shore. Wagner took the ship to shore, but he found no sign of his wife or the dinghy. “She didn’t go ashore,” he reasoned, “It was then that we called the Shore Patrol.” When the Shore Patrol couldn’t find her, the Coast Guard was called. Wagner does not note the time of any of these events.
Of the moment he learned Wood’s body had been recovered, Wagner says, “He said, ‘We found her.’ I said, ‘Is she okay?’ He said, ‘She’s dead.’ And everything just went out from under me…We were all stunned.” Wagner goes on to say “Chris was there with me. He—by the way—is a very stand-up guy, a gentleman, a true gentleman.”
Supporters of Wagner’s Story
In the doc, Wood’s friends refute that she and Walken were romantically involved. Yes, she’d fallen for co-stars before, like Warren Beatty. But those close to her insist she didn’t cheat on her husbands. Brainstorm director Douglas Trumbull also rebuffed the rumors of an affair. As proof, he notes that there was a sex scene in the sci-fi movie, but its co-stars had no sexual chemistry.
Wood’s friends also note the twice-married couple was having troubles, in part because it was difficult to care for their children and each other when productions pulled them away from home. For some time prior, Wood had taken a break from the business to focus on their family. However, with Wagner in Hawaii shooting his TV series, Hart To Hart, and Wood recently returned from shooting in North Carolina for Brainstorm, there was a brewing tension about what their marriage would look like. All this aligns with Wagner’s account that the fight was about Wood’s working more.
Wagner believes that while he talked with Walken, Wood went to the back of the boat to adjust the dinghy. He claims that it could bump against the side, causing a noise that made it hard for her to sleep. Wood’s daughter Natasha, who was 11 at the time of her mother’s death, supports this theory; concurring Wood was bothered by that sound. They suspect Wood went out to the deck in her socks and coat to make the adjustment but slipped and fell into the water. No one heard her, and the heft of her wet coat weighed her down, making it impossible to climb into the boat. Scratches on the dinghy seem to support this. The original medical examiner was convinced of this theory, ruling her death an “accidental drowning.” Walken is not interviewed in this doc, but prior statements reveal this is what he believes happened that night.
As to the darker speculations, What Remains Behind rejects outright the notion that Wagner had any hand in Wood’s drowning. His daughters speak passionately about his love for their mother/stepmother. (“You would have given your life for my mom.”) They also recall how they as a family had to grapple not only with the grief of losing her but also with the pernicious press that invaded her private funeral. “People just want to have some media storm,” Natasha declares in the doc.
Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind dismisses the account of Captain Davern’s accusatory tell-all, Goodybe Natalie, Goodbye Splendour as well as the suspicions of the late actress’s sister, Lana Wood, with the Wagner sisters suggesting its a smear campaign motivated by greed and jealousy. The documentary does not address the other witnesses who have come forward to refute Wagner’s story.
For years, Captain Davern’s account aligned closely with Wagner’s. However, according to Lana Wood, Davern lied to cover for his employer. In the 2018 television special, Natalie Wood: An American Murder Mystery, Lana recounts how in 1992, Davern called her to confess to his part in the star’s death.
The first notable difference in these stories is what was said before that bottle was broken. Davern insists what Wagner said to Walken was more along the lines of “What are you trying to do f*ck my wife?”
In both versions, Wood then retreated her stateroom. However, Davern says that after the bottle broke, Walken went to his room and Wagner followed Wood to hers. The captain could hear the couple “fighting like crazy.” He knocked on the door to check on them. Wagner answered and insisted things were fine. “It looked like a storm went through that room,” Davern later told The Dr. Oz Show, “Everything was just all over the place, it was a mess.”
At 11:30 PM, Davern sees Wagner on the deck, looking “tousled and sweating profusely, as if he’d been in a terrible fight.” Davern asked where Wood is and was told, “She’s gone.” Wagner then said she was in the water and, “Leave her. Teach her a lesson.” Davern said Wagner ordered him not to turn on the boat’s lights to look for her, as it might draw attention to Splendour.
Davern believes Wagner killed Wood by pushing her off the boat; however, the captain does not claim to have witnessed physical abuse or Wood going overboard. He also says Wagner told Walken and the captain “the story” to tell the police.
Davern claims he didn’t come forward with his story sooner because Wagner held him “hostage.” In 2018, he told Megyn Kelly, “When I was at Robert Wagner’s house, I was actually there for just about a year (following Wood’s death). Robert Wagner got me a job at the studio. He was doing the TV series called Hart to Hart. If I would have a morning call, or something like that, to go to the studio, his driver would pick me up and take me from the house to the studio. At the end of my workday, the driver would bring me back to the house. When I would go to bed for the night, you’d close the door [to my room] and there was sort of like a magnetic lock to where you couldn’t open the door.”
Supporters of Wagner’s Story
In 2011, Davern publicly stated that he lied to the 1981 investigators. The case of Natalie Wood’s death was reopened, which entailed a re-evaluation of the original autopsy reports. The assigned medical examiner rejected the original conclusion that said the bruises and wounds on Wood’s face and body would come from falling off the boat into the water. Her cause of death was changed from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other undetermined factors.” Robert Wagner was named as a person of interest, but he has declined to speak further to the police.
Witnesses have come forward who support Davern’s account. Marilyn Wayne was on a boat just 50-feet away from Splendour that night. She says her boyfriend at the time, John Payne, was awoken by the cries of a woman calling for help. “‘Help me, someone please help me, I’m drowning’ we heard repeatedly,” Wayne said in a statement. “Alarmed, I called out to my son, who also heard the cries, and looked at his new digital watch: it was just minutes after 11:00 P.M.”
While Payne called the harbor patrol (who didn’t answer), the couple heard a man’s voice responding to the unseen woman. Wayne says the male voice was “slurred” and “aggravated,” and said something like, “Oh, hold on, we’re coming to get you.” They heard the woman’s screams for 15 minutes, then nothing.
Wayne was not interviewed in the 1981 investigation. However, she says she received a death threat that read, “If you value your life, keep quiet about what you know.”
Obstacles To The Re-Opened Investigation
While new witnesses have drawn fresh interest to the case, the original investigation made mistakes that could be costly. For one, none of the three men aboard the Splendour were physically examined by police. This makes it more difficult to determine if the bruises on Wood’s body may have come from a struggle outside the dinghy. Because her death was initially determined an accident, the Splendour was not preserved as a crime scene. So, what investigators are left with are conflicting witness accounts.
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