The Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood — Tragic Accident or Murder?
The body of Natalie Wood was found floating in a cove at Santa Catalina Island in the morning hours of November 29, 1981. Wood had been on a boating trip the night before with her husband, Robert Wagner, and the couple’s friend, actor Christopher Walken. Exactly what happened to Natalie is a mystery to this day.
Who Was Natalie Wood?
One of the most glamorous and beloved actresses in the history of Hollywood, Natalie Wood is arguably most known for starring alongside James Dean in 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause” and for playing Maria Nunez in 1961’s “West Side Story.” Natalie’s parents were Russian immigrants and wanted the best for their daughter. Natalie’s mother, Maria, signed her up for ballet when she was very young and helped her get her first acting job when she was only four years old. Natalie’s first starring role came at the age of 10 in 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street,” where she played the young Susan Walker.
Natalie Wood was just 16 years old when she starred next to James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Because of her young age and incredible beauty, Natalie was not always taken seriously for her acting talents early on in her career. This did not keep her from landing large roles, however, and in 1956 she co-stared with John Wayne in “The Searchers.” Warren Beatty was one of the biggest heartthrobs to come out of Hollywood, and she starred with him in 1961’s “Splendor in the Grass,” a role that really showcased her acting talents.
In 1962, Natalie Wood starred in a movie called “Gypsy.” There were many similarities between the character she played in the movie and Natalie’s real life, like the fact that her mother was the driving force behind her commitment to performing at such a young age.
Among Natalie’s boyfriends were icons like Dennis Hopper and Elvis Presley. Natalie married famed actor Robert Wagner when she was only 18 years old, although they divorced just six years later in 1962. Wood then married another man, director Richard Gregson, and the two had a daughter, Natasha Gregson (later Wagner). But that marriage did not last either and the couple was soon divorced. Natalie then remarried Robert Wagner in 1972 and the couple had Natalie’s second daughter, Courtney Wagner.
Natalie had been on a weekend boating excursion with her husband, Robert Wagner, and fellow actor Christopher Walken. Mysteriously, somehow, Natalie ended up dead the morning of November 29, 1981, floating in a cove off the shore of Santa Catalina Island. What makes her death a mystery is that no one could explain the circumstances leading up to her death with any satisfaction.
The boat they were on, the Splendour, was owned together by Wood and Wagner. It is reported that on the evening of November 28, 1981, Natalie and Robert were arguing and that Wagner reportedly broke a bottle on the boat during a jealous rage over Natalie’s relationship with Walken. Although he had no proof that Walken and Wood had been in a romantic relationship or affair, Wagner believed that Walken and Wood were too close nonetheless.
Natalie’s body was found floating in the water near Santa Catalina Island the next morning, with a small inflatable dinghy not far away on shore. Her body was found less than a mile away from the Splendour. Wagner’s official statement to the police was that he had been unable to find Natalie after their argument from the night before and he went to bed assuming she was somewhere else on the boat. To add to the mystery, Wood’s autopsy revealed she had a blood alcohol level of 0.14% and that she had two types of drugs in her system – a motion sickness medication and a painkiller. Additionally, the autopsy also revealed that there were bruises on Wood’s body and arms and an abrasion on her left cheek.
Theories Around Natalie Wood’s Death
One key person in the story of Natalie’s death is the captain of the Splendour, Dennis Davern. Captain Davern initially backed Wagner’s story to police via a signed statement. He has recently changed this claim, however, and now says that he was not honest during the original investigation. Further, Davern believes that Robert Wagner was responsible for Natalie’s death. In 2014, Davern co-authored a book called “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour” which details his experience from the night of Wood’s death and explains why he believes Robert murdered her.
Natalie’s younger sister, Lana Wood, also believes that Wagner was responsible for Natalie’s death. She has stated that Wagner, her then father-in-law, told her that Natalie’s death was an accident. Lana claims that she talked with Wagner shortly after Natalie’s funeral. However, Wagner’s story to Lana that her death was an accident does not match up with the claims that he made to investigators that he simply did not know what happened to Wood that fateful evening. Where he told the investigators that he simply could not find Natalie after their argument and went to sleep, he told Lana instead that her sister’s death was an accident.
Another mysterious circumstance that was never fully taken into account is that there were boaters in the area who came forward to police stating that they could hear a woman crying out for help on the night of Wagner’s argument with Wood. These same boaters claim that they went to the Splendour to see if they could help, but Wagner ran them off.
Where the Investigation Stands Today
After all these years, the people who loved Natalie have not had the opportunity for closure due to the many contradictions from the original investigation. In 2011, however, the case was re-opened and Natalie’s death was officially changed from accidental drowning to a suspicious death.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is still trying to put the pieces together, and one of the deputies, John Corina, says that there is more information from the witnesses to verify. They are looking further into the statements from the boaters that overheard the argument between Wagner and Wood, among other things.
In February of 2018, the LA Sheriff’s Department talked to Robert Wagner again. And, as a result, Wagner is now officially listed as a person of interest in Wood’s death. While the case is still ongoing, there is hope that there might a resolution at some point in the near future.