It was more than four decades ago, when in the cool early morning hours of 29 November 1981, the body of Natalie Wood, one of the glamorous beauties of Hollywood, was found floating face down in the Pacific Ocean, off the shore of Catalina Island, a mile away from her husband’s yacht, Splendour. She was found drowned, wearing nothing but a nightgown, wool socks and a down jacket and was supposedly taken a dinghy out of the yacht, in the middle of the night, although she was scared of water.
Even though her death was classified as an accidental drowning in the ocean with numerous bruises on arms and legs that were possibly sustained at the time of the drowning and no foul play was not suspected, there are few Hollywood mysteries more enduring than the tragic death of Natalie Wood. The circumstances surrounding her death, as well as her husband’s involvement in it, remain cloaked in mystery to this day.
Natalie Wood was depicted by many as the silver screen symbol of a woman in transition and few stars had ever made the successful leap from the hurdles of child stardom to become an iconic screen figure. Pimped to Frank Sinatra at the age of 15, forced to return an engagement ring to her high school sweetheart, who tried to kill himself afterwards, she was even exploited into a sexual liaison as a teenager with the 42-year-old film director Nicholas Ray to prove that she could play a bad girl in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in the film.
However, that was only the beginning, she was nominated for three Oscars before she turned 25 and her larger-than-life presence on camera was only matched by the glamorous off screen life she had made for herself.
The 18-year-old blooming star Natalie married actor Robert Wagner, eight years her senior, on 28 December 1957 and they were officially divorced on 27 April 1962. However, she had numerous relationships in her life and dated actor Dennis Hopper, sensational playboy Henry Warren Beatty, even Elvis Presley. Following her marriage that lasted less than five years, she also dated Michael Caine and David Niven Jr and finally, after dating for nearly three years, she married British producer Richard Gregson on 30 May 1969. She had a daughter with Richard Gregson in 1970, but filed for divorce from him on 4 August 1971, which was finalised on 12 April 1972. Nevertheless, after having a short-lived romance with future California Governor Jerry Brown, she resumed her relationship with her first husband, Robert Wegner, at the end of January 1972 and the couple remarried on 16 July 1972. Their daughter, Courtney was born in 1974.
The otherwise happy couple decided to spend the 1981 Thanksgiving weekend with a trip to Catalina Island, aboard the 55-foot yacht of Robert Wegner, along with Christopher Walken, Natalie’s co-star in Brainstorm (1983) and Dennis Davern, the captain of the ship. Nobody really knows what actually happened on board the yacht on the fateful evening of 28 November 1981, except for its three living male passengers.
But the following morning, authorities recovered the floating body of the actress a mile away from the yacht and a small dinghy was found beached nearby.
Later, it was reported by Dennis Davern that during the afternoon of 28 November, Wood and Walken spent hours together at a Catalina Island bar, laughing and seemingly flirting, until her fuming husband showed up. In any way, from the bar the four proceeded to Doug’s Harbour Reef Restaurant for dinner, where they shared champagne, two bottles of wine and cocktails, before going back to the yacht. The employees of the restaurant recalled that during drinking, Wagner smashed a wine bottle in rage while talking about Wood’s close relationship with Walken. The night manager at the restaurant also recalled that all four looked heavily intoxicated and it seemed to him that they might not board the yacht safely from their dinghy. He, therefore, requested the Harbour Patrol to accompany the group to their yacht which happened at around 10:30 PM.
Although Dennis Davern initially stated that the fight died down, after they boarded the yacht, later he claimed that everyone continued drinking when back on board and Wagner was still screaming at Walken. Davern recalled Walken retreated to his cabin, followed by Wagner and Wood to their room, when a shouting ensued between the couple. Later, he heard the fight continued even on the deck, before everything went silent. However, at around 11:05 PM, when he went to the deck to check on them, he saw only Wagner, who informed him that Natalie was missing. He wanted to go look for her, but was told by Wagner that the dinghy was missing too.
Nevertheless, after two weeks of investigation, Dr Joseph Choi, the deputy medical examiner who performed the autopsy, ruled that the death of Natalie Wood was an accident. At the time of her death, she had a blood alcohol content of 0.14% and probably, she slipped and drowned while trying to get into the dinghy. She had numerous bruises on her left cheek, arms and legs, which were considered consistent with a fall overboard while the actress was presumably trying to board the dingy.
However, in view of the specific additional information received from unidentified sources, the LA County Sheriff’s Department reopened Natalie’s case on 17 November 2011, exactly thirty years after her death. A day later, in an interview for NBC’s Today, Dennis Davern, the captain of the yacht admitted that he had lied to the police when he was initially questioned about the night of Natalie’s death. He claimed that it was Wagner who was responsible for the tragedy without clarifying how. He said that he had doubts about Natalie taking the dinghy out all alone, as he knew that she was deathly afraid of water. Despite his sincere suggestion of turning on the searchlights to see if they can locate her and the dinghy and call for help, Wagner did not allow him to do anything and said that he did not want to draw any attention to the situation. Davern also said that at that time he somehow had the feeling that due to some unknown reason, Wagner was not very keen on trying to find his wife.
Vidal Herrera, who took photographs of Natalie’s body for the coroner’s office, stated that Natalie’s head wounds may indicate that she was in a violent fight and was pushed or thrashed, in the water while unconscious. Dr Michael Franco was an intern at the LA Coroner’s Office when Natalie Wood’s body was flown to Los Angeles County, but was not listed as a coroner’s employee. However, he claimed that the critical physical evidence on Natalie’s body was sufficient to prove that her death was a homicide. The wounds clearly indicate that she was pushed off of whatever it was she was holding on to.Lana Wood, Natalie’s younger sister, also claimed in a television interview that Natalie would never have left the boat like that, undressed, in just a nightgown.
After further investigation, the coroner’s office released an addendum to the autopsy in 2012, stating that some of Natalie’s bruises may have been inflicted before she got into the water. Her death certificate was also officially changed from accidental drowning to drowning and other undetermined factors. Much later, in February 2018, the LA County Sheriff’s Department arranged for a press conference where the reporters were briefed that the 88-year-old Robert Wagner was a person of interest in Natalie Wood’s case, although he always claimed his innocence in the matter. However, although upon reviewing her autopsy reports, Natalie looked like the victim of an assault, the investigators could not prove that Natalie was killed or her death was an accident.