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Who killed Natalie Wood? Sex, lies and a tragedy whose secret lies at the heart of Hollywood

Wood, her husband Robert Wagner, and Christopher Walken were sailing around Catalina Island on Thanksgiving weekend in 1981 when she drowned to death
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

One of the most tragic and mysterious deaths to ever plague Hollywood is that of renowned actress Natalie Wood who drowned to her death after falling overboard a yacht in 1981. After all these years, the first thing that comes to mind when you hear her name is her death, rather than her prolific acting career and blockbuster films spanning over three decades.  

Although first ruled as accidental by the coroner, many questions surrounding the 'Rebel Without a Cause' star's death remained unanswered. The bruises that were found on her arms, and the fact that she was terrified of the water but still took a dinghy out on the night she died. Some things just didn't add up and the case that had remained closed for 30 years was reopened in 2011 for round two of an extensive investigation into the circumstances around Wood's untimely death.

While her death has remained a public fascination for a long time for the secrecy and doubts behind the cause of it, Natalie Wood's life and career will be the subject of HBO's new documentary titled 'Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind'. The documentary will pan in on Wood's daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner's perspective, as well as accounts from those who were close to the late actress.  

Rise to fame

Former child actress, American film star Natalie Wood (1938 - 1981). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As glamorous and celebrated an icon that she was, Wood had a difficult upbringing which could be a shocking revelation to most.

Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, she was the daughter of Russian immigrants. She was ordained 'Natalie Wood' later on as a stage name given to her by studio executives when she first started acting as a child. Her parents would have never won the parent of the year award for her father was a violent alcoholic and her mother was a manipulative taskmaster who drove Wood into an acting career at a young age, making her the family's breadwinner. She reportedly tried to make a gypsy's fortune-telling come true by doing so. She came to national attention as Susan Walker in the 1947 Christmas classic 'Miracle on 34th Street.'

Wood's role in the 1946 film 'Tomorrow is Forever' alongside Orson Welles won her a long-term studio contract. She was very hardworking, in that she would learn her lines as well as those of the other cast and would also often finish a scene in a single take, which also earned her the nickname 'One Take Natalie'.

From there, her talent and filmography took her to high places and she soared with the success of her movies like 'The Ghost and Mrs. Muir' (1947), 'West Side Story' (1961) and was nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Actress by the time she was 25 for her leading roles in 'Rebel Without a Cause' (1950), 'Splendor in the Grass' (1961) and 'Love with a Proper Stranger' (1963). 

Natalie Wood in 1947 (Wikimedia Commons)

Her fame began to take a mental toll on her and she battled insecurity as well as melancholy and sought psychoanalysis.

In later years, her career began to wane and it seemed that the actress was finding it hard to get good roles, as she appeared in lesser films her insecurities continued to torment her, according to her biographer Gavin Lambert.

"During the last two years of her life, they became fully awake, and the rest of the story is of addiction to painkillers and too much white wine out of frustration at a stalled career."

Her last role before she died was in 'Brainstorm' (1981), alongside Christopher Walken.

Relationship with Robert Wagner

American actor Robert Wagner with his former wife American actress Natalie Wood, 23rd April 1972. (Photo by Chris Wood/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Breaking away from her mother's control was a major setback for her, but she eventually did and, at age 16, the innocent child actress had managed to portray herself as a sexual rebel. She had an affair with director Nicholas Ray, 44, and also slept with her co-star Dennis Hopper. She also went on to date the likes of other Hollywood stars as Elvis Presley and Tab Hunter, however in Hunter's case she turned out to be more of a beard helping conceal Hunter's homosexuality, albeit unknowingly. 

Then she met Robert Wagner, and sparks flew. They were nine years apart in age but it was different with him because he was a heartthrob and she'd been crushing on him for a long time. They went on their first date on the day she turned 18 and in 1957, a year later, they were married, becoming one of Hollywood's most high-profile "it" couple. However, their marriage was anything but blissful, and they divorced in 1962.

American actors Natalie Wood (1938 - 1981) and Warren Beatty attend the Academy Awards, Santa Monica, California, April 9, 1962. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Wood dated Warren Beatty, Frank Sinatra, and Steve McQueen, after calling it quits with Wagner, before marrying British producer Richard Gregson in 1969. She gave birth to their first daughter Natasha. Her marriage to Gregson only lasted a decade, and after they divorced in 1972, she got back in touch with Wagner and married him that same year, much to the delight of her fans. Their marriage this time around was a happy one and Wood gave birth to the couple's daughter, Courtney.

Thanksgiving 1981 aboard 'Splendour'

Wood and Wagner invited her 'Brainstorm' co-star Christopher Walken to join them on Wagner's yacht 'Splendour', during the Thanksgiving weekend of 1981. They planned to sail around Catalina Island, which was about 22 miles off the shore of Los Angeles. Wood and Wagner spent a lot of time on the boat with their family as a means of a getaway or keeping out of the public eye. 

Dennis Davern, a Navy vet, and family friend was aboard the yacht as the captain that unfortunate weekend. The four spent hours at a bar in Catalina Island and had dinner at Doug's Harbour Reef Restaurant, drinking champagne, two bottles of wine, and cocktails. The restaurant manager, however, was worried that they wouldn't make it back to their yacht that night when they stumbled out after the clock struck 10 pm, but they managed to take the inflatable dinghy 'Valiant' and arrived safely on board. Wood then went to her room, and Wagner followed after he had talked to Walken, only to find her and the dinghy missing.

Natalie Woods' former boat, The Splendour is seen docked at Keawalo Basin boat harbor on November 19, 2011 in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Private searchers, Harbor Patrol and even the Coast Guards scoured through the water and island coastline, and eventually, a Sheriff's Department helicopter had spotted Natalie's floating body in a flannel nightgown, socks, and a down jacket the next morning.  She was pronounced dead at 7:44 am on November 29, 1981, at the age of 43.

In his 2008 memoir 'Pieces of My Heart: A Life', Wagner said he and Walken argued (not elaborating on the subject of the issue) and that Wood had gone to another part of the yacht, after which she fell off the yacht and drowned.  “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.”

New revelations

Three decades after the tragic incident, in 2011, Davern came forward to reveal that Wagner, Walken and he had stuck to the original script after they had found Wood's body, the same as the timeline that showed up on the coroner's report in 1981 - Natalie went to bed first, Wagner and Walken had a chat after which the former went to join her, he saw that she was missing and so was the dinghy. 

However, according to Davern, there was only some truth to it. The story of what exactly transpired between the four after coming back from dinner has changed several times. According to a new book by biographer Suzanne Finstad, Walken first said during the original investigation that he and Wagner had a "small beef" about a parent being away from young children for a long period of time whilst shooting a movie, referring to Wood. However, they two reconciled over an apology and were in good terms thereafter. 

Actors and spouses Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, leaving court following a court case, London, June 22nd 1976. (Photo by Frank Barratt/Keystone/Getty Images)

In the most recent version, however, Davern said that they resumed drinking wine onboard and the two got into an altercation, with Wagner breaking a bottle of wine on the table and accusing Walken of wanting to sleep with his wife. He said after their spat, Walken retreated to his own room as did Wood who left for her room that she was to share with Wagner, with him following and Davern said an argument between the couple then ensued. He didn't witness the quarrel but heard it while he was on the deck of the boat before "everything went silent." Giving it some time, he went to check on the two and only found Wagner alone on the deck who said to him, "Natalie is missing," and proceeded to ask him to look for her.

The search yielded no results but Davern noticed that dinghy was missing too. However, with Wood being "deathly" afraid of water, there was no way she would have willingly taken the small boat out by herself. 

Davern also recounted in multiple interviews that Wagner even delayed calling for help and refused to turn on the boat's in-built floodlights because he didn't want to attract bad publicity. But according to the autopsy report, Wagner said they had "immediately" radioed for help.

Death by 'accidental drowning'

Natalie Wood's Grave (Wikimedia Commons)

Her death was classified as an accident by "probable drowning in the ocean"  in her autopsy report. Thomas Noguchi, a prominent Los Angeles coroner noted “numerous bruises to arms and legs” that were “superficial and probably sustained at the time of drowning” and wrote, “No other trauma noted and foul play is not suspected at this time." Authorities proposed that she may have sustained her bruises after falling overboard and tried to climb the dinghy which also bore some scratch marks.

Wood's funeral was held on December 3, and a devastated Wagner was pictured weeping and surrounded by family and friends and other celebrity friends.

40-year-old cold case reopened

In a press conference in 2011, John Corina, a lieutenant in the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department  Homicide Bureau deemed that Robert Wagner, 88, had become a "person of interest" in her death.

A new witness had emerged providing a fresh insight into the case, who claimed they had been docked by Wagner's yacht and had heard what seemed like a couple arguing, and a woman crying out “Somebody please help me, I’m drowning.”  The authorities wanted to speak with him and hear his version of events about his wife's tragic passing in 1981. Wagner has kept mum about the incident, only having spoken about his wife's death at the time that her body had been recovered. “[Wagner] is a person of interest, because he was the last one with Natalie Wood. And somehow she ends up in the water and drowns," said Corina.

(Getty Images)

“As we’ve investigated the case over the last six years, I think he’s [Wagner] more of a person of interest now,” he added. “Some of the things we found that he did afterwards, or didn’t do, in the boat, cause us to say, ‘This doesn’t make any sense’.”

A 2013 coroner’s report released almost classified Wood's death as a homicide but it said some key pieces of evidence were missing. So instead the cause of death was changed from "accidental drowning" to "drowning and either undetermined factors." 

Ralph Hernandez, another investigator said the bruises on Wood's wrists and upper body a "superficial abrasion" on her left cheek implied that she looked like a victim of an assault” and her death was "suspicious enough" for the police to consider that something was amiss. “We have not been able to prove this was a homicide. And we haven’t been able to prove that this was an accident, either. The ultimate problem is we don’t know how she ended up in the water," said Hernandez. 

However, Wagner released a statement through his attorney, Blair Berk, in 2013 saying: "Mr. Wagner has fully cooperated over the last 30 years in the investigation of the accidental drowning of his wife in 1981. Mr. Wagner has been interviewed on multiple occasions by the Los Angeles sheriff’s department and answered every single question asked of him by detectives during those interviews.”

Lana Wood, right, pictured here with her sister, late actress Natalie Wood when Lana played Natalie as a young girl in the film "Searches." (Getty Images)

To this day, the questions surrounding her death and what actually happened aboard 'Splendour' that day still haven't been answered. Many believe that her tumultuous relationship with Wagner could have led to her death. Wood's loved ones still have their doubts, with Wood's sister Lana sayings she's certain Wagner had a hand in her sister's death.  “She would have never left the boat like that, undressed, in just a nightgown,” she said.