Natalie Wood: The Death of a Hollywood Star
Three movie stars, a boat and an alleged cover-up.
Natalie Wood via HBO.com
The news of Natalie Wood’s death shocked Hollywood. But, with film royalty involved, a seemingly botched autopsy and hushed whispers fluttering through the hills of affairs and murder, what really happened that night on board the yacht?
Born Natalia Zakharenko on the 20th of July 1938, Natalie Wood rose to fame at a very young age. Her mother, Maria, was the instigator of Natalie taking this path to fame when a fortune-teller told her that her second child would be a star.
When she was four years old, the family moved to Santa Rosa, a popular filming location for Hollywood movies and Natalie was quickly added as an extra in Happy Land. Then, in 1944, her family moved to Los Angeles to be in the epicentre of the film industry, and she was signed with International Pictures, where she changed her name to Natalie Wood. Two years later, she got her prominent role in Miracle on 34th Street, starring alongside Maureen O’Hara.
Maria was a stage mum and put a lot of pressure on her child to take roles and perform. In Suzanne Finstad’s book, Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography, the author relays tales of Natalie’s childhood. The family abuse and alcoholism, being sent to Frank Sinatra for his pleasure when she was just 15 years old and forced to return a proposal from her high school boyfriend, who later tried to kill himself.
Natalie starred in 20 movies over the next eight years, often filming two at once. She worked constantly under her Warner Brothers’ contract despite being a teenager. Unfortunately, Natalie’s life wasn’t glamorous, and her experiences would only worsen as she got older.
In 1955, Natalie got her big break in Rebel Without a Cause when she was 17. It was her first film as an adult, and she had to work for the role. She needed to prove to the director, Nicholas Ray, that she could play a ‘rebel’, which led to intercourse with the man, who was 25 years her senior. She would later be nominated for an Academy Award for the role. The sexual assaults were never reported and swept under the rug by their mother, Natalie’s sister, Lana, stated in an interview with The New York Times.
A year later, the 18-year-old was introduced to Robert Wagner through the studio system and sent on a date by Warner Brothers. The 26-year-old was an actor, and his fame was beginning to plateau. He needed to step back into the spotlight, and Natalie was the one who was going to help him.
Robert Wagner via Vintage News Daily
Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1930, Robert became interested in acting after graduating high school. He caddied golf games for Clark Gable and other high-profile stars and knew that acting was what he wanted to pursue. His career began when he was 19, with an uncredited role in The Happy Years, when he was signed to Henry Wilson under the 20th Century-Fox studio.
From there, his career began to gain traction, and he filmed With A Song in My Heart, What Price Glory and Stars and Stripes Forever, all in 1952. He shared the screen with Spencer Tracy in Broken Lance and with Jeffrey Hunter in classic Western, White Feather in 1954 and 55.
Being seen with Natalie Wood was a strategic play by Robert and the studio. Her notoriety as a beautiful and successful actress was snowballing and could only help his floundering career. The couple were married a year later, on the 28th of December 1957, in Scottsdale, Arizona, but the happiness wouldn’t last.
A crumbling marriage
They were the hottest couple in Hollywood and couldn’t go anywhere without fans and press following their every move.
Natalie’s career was still climbing, with a huge number of hit movies on her resumé, whereas Robert’s was beginning to slow considerably, despite his young age.
In 1961, Natalie starred opposite Warren Beatty in Splendour in the Grass, and the rumour mill began to churn. The constant claims from the press that the pair were having an affair began to weaken the marriage, and the final blow came when Natalie found her husband at their home with another man.
Natalie never refuted the claims in the papers, instead opting for her alleged romance to take the headlines rather than the truth of her husband’s extramarital affair. The couple separated in June 1961 with a joint press release and divorced in April 1962.
Both went on to marry again. Robert married Marion Marshall a year later, and together they had a daughter, Katie. Natalie married British producer Richard Gregson, and they too had a daughter, Natasha.
When Natalie and Robert inevitably saw each other at a party years later, both of their marriages were over. Realising the years apart had made them grow as people, but their love for each other had remained, they began their relationship once more. The pair remarried a few months later on the 16th of July 1972, off the coast of Malibu, with Natalie telling her sister Lana, “sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”
After their daughter Courtney’s birth in 1974, Natalie took a step back from Hollywood to raise their children. However, Robert’s career had begun to climb again, and he landed the role of Jonathan Hart in Hart to Hart, opposite Stefanie Powers, which ran for five years.
Natalie decided to return to the movies in 1981, after several years of raising their children. She began with the sci-fi film Brainstorm opposite Christopher Walken, and this is where the story begins.
Catalina, November 1981
Production had shut down on Brainstorm for the Thanksgiving holiday, and Natalie and Robert were planning to spend the weekend at Catalina Island on their yacht, Splendour. They invited Walken along, and he accepted their invitation.
Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood in Brainstorm via imdb.com
The 60-foot yacht had space for all of them, with room to spare. Bought by Robert in 1974 and Captained by Dennis Davern, the boat was anchored away from the port due to a busy weekend on Catalina. On the Saturday night, Wood, Wagner, Walken and Davern went for dinner at Doug’s Harbour Reef, a restaurant on the island. The group ate, drank and laughed all evening, and by the time they got up to leave, they were so drunk that restaurant manager Don Whiting asked the harbour patrol boat to check they got back to Splendour safely.
At 1.30 am the following day, Doug Oudin, the harbour master, received a call from the yacht, asking for help. A dinghy was missing from the side of the boat, as was Natalie. Doug quickly put together a search party to find Natalie and the dinghy, as the coast guard was still hours away from their location. Help included Don Whiting, who used his boat to aid the search.
Bad weather and clouds meant it was difficult to see too far into the distance. Don Whiting eventually came across the dinghy hours later, but Natalie was nowhere to be found.
Doug Oudin told Robert of the discovery, and he was concerned. He told Doug that Natalie was terrified of water, which she had spoken about in an interview with Hollywood columnist Shirley Eder. Natalie didn’t swim and had many terrifying experiences during her film career, ensuring a life-long phobia of water.
Doug Bombard was the one to find Natalie. The business owner who’d been enlisted to help with the search saw her red down jacket bobbing in the water, with Natalie’s lifeless body still inside it.
“Her hair was floating out. She was literally hanging in the jacket. She was a very beautiful dead body.” — Doug Bombard in an interview with ET Online.
After being told the devastating news that his wife had been found, Robert Wagner was asked to identify her body. But, instead of going himself, he asked Captain Dennis Davern, to identify her.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department opened a case into Natalie’s death, and Detective Duane Rasure was put in charge of the investigation. He began with interviewing the three men on board the yacht.
Robert told him that when they got back from dinner, the movie stars continued drinking into the night. He said they were sat in the salon when Natalie left and went back to their bedroom. Robert went to check on his wife and discovered that she had vanished, as had the dinghy. Christopher Walken gave the same account when questioned by the detective.
When Rasure spoke to Dennis Davern, he realised the timeline was wrong in the three men’s stories. If what they were saying was true, Natalie had been missing over an hour before the call for help came through to the harbour.
Robert told Rasure that he didn’t want to alert anyone to his wife’s disappearance because he wanted it kept out of the press to save them embarrassment. Instead, what he inadvertently did was prolong her rescue, potentially saving her life.
Splendour via Express Newspapers
Detective Rasure travelled to Catalina Island to examine the yacht and the potential crime scene for himself. When he arrived, he noted the broken bottle in the salon and the clothes were strewn across the bedroom that Natalie and Robert were using. The room was a mess, but without evidence of foul play, there was little to go on.
Natalie’s autopsy was performed by Dr Thomas Noguchi, who was the Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner in L.A County and was known as the ‘Coroner to the Stars’, as he had performed the autopsies of Sharon Tate, Marilyn Monroe and Robert F. Kennedy, plus many more.
Natalie was found to be wearing a nightgown, knee socks and the red down jacket. Noguchi noted a large amount of bruising to her body, including her face. Her blood-alcohol level was tested and came out at 0.14, meaning she was drunk when she went overboard.
Bruises shown at autopsy via thesun.co.uk
Noguchi held a press conference after the autopsy to explain his findings. He told the crowded room of reporters that Natalie had likely slipped when trying to board the dinghy and had dropped into the water. Because of the additional weight from her jacket, she couldn’t get into the dinghy or back onto the boat. He said that Natalie Wood died from accidental drowning, and there was no indication of foul play involved.
The journalists present at the press conference questioned Noguchi after this statement, with one asking why he thought Natalie had left the boat at such a late hour, in her drunken state and in her nightwear.
Noguchi slipped and told the press that an argument had taken place between Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken that night. He surmised that Natalie was upset and wanted to get away from the fight. The press ran with the alcohol-fuelled fight story instead of highlighting the accidental death.
Rumours of a love triangle between the three movie stars had filled the press, and Detective Rasure reinterviewed the three men later in December.
He asked them about the argument, and Christopher Walken admitted that he and Robert had disagreed about Natalie’s career. Robert later recalled in the HBO documentary, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, that he told Walken, “I think it’s important that you stay out of our life.” Less than two weeks later, Natalie’s case was closed.
The confessions begin
Ten years later, Natalie’s sister, Lana, was contacted by Dennis Davern. According to the sister, Dennis revealed that there was an enormous argument between Robert, Natalie and Christopher. He told the sister that the fight was because Natalie and Christopher had been fawning over each other, making Robert jealous and angry.
According to Dennis, Natalie went into the bedroom she shared with Robert, and he followed her. He said it sounded like a physical fight occurred, with furniture being thrown around the cabin. When Dennis knocked on the door to check on the couple, Robert opened it a crack and told the Captain that everything was fine and closed the door.
After checking on the couple, Dennis went up onto the deck and found Robert. Enquiring as to where Natalie was, he replied, “she’s gone”. Dennis saw Natalie in the water and began to rescue her, but Robert told him to leave her where she was and that she needed to be taught a lesson.
Hours later, Robert made the call for help. When Dennis saw him next, he was sweating, and the dinghy was gone.
In 2009, Dennis Davern co-authored the book, Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour with Marti Rulli, where he told his account of what happened that fateful night.
The press criticised Davern for not telling police the whole story when Natalie’s body was found. He said that he and Robert had a discussion about what they should say, and after all, he was just an employee. He was scared.
In 2011, 30 years after Natalie’s death, Dennis was interviewed on Today, and told David Gregory his story, “We didn’t take any steps to see if we could locate her. I think it was a matter of, ‘We’re not going to look too hard, we’re not going to turn on the searchlight, we’re not going to notify anybody right now.’”
The forgotten witness
There was another witness who came forward a few days after Natalie’s body was discovered.
A woman who was on a neighbouring boat with her boyfriend and son that night heard someone in the water shouting for help. She told police that the pleas continued for 20 minutes, and she heard a male voice respond to the cries. Unfortunately, the witness wasn’t interviewed by the police before they closed the case.
In 2011, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department told the press that Natalie’s case had been reopened. This was partly due to a Vanity Fair article written in 2000, in which Sam Kashner wrote about the numerous parts of the case that didn’t make sense.
Another Coroner examined Noguchi’s autopsy report of Natalie to see if they came to the same conclusion; that Natalie Wood’s death was indeed an accident.
Noguchi claimed that the bruising on Natalie’s body came from falling overboard into the water, but additional markings on her body weren’t consistent with a fall.
The new Chief Medical Examiner concluded that there was a lack of evidence to develop the answers they were looking for. However, according to Susanne Finstad’s book, there were other witnesses at the original autopsy.
Dr Michael Franco was an intern when Natalie was brought into the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office in 1981. He said that the markings on her body were of those from someone being pushed off a boat, not trying to get back on board. He said that when he told Dr Noguchi what he understood from the bruising patterns, Noguchi allegedly replied, “Some things are best left unsaid”.
After the 2011 revisit, Natalie’s death certificate was changed from ‘accidental death’ to ‘drowning, and other undetermined factors’ and the case was left alone. In 2018, detectives found another witness who saw two people on the rear deck of the Splendour, corroborating Dennis Davern’s statement. Robert Wagner’s status in the case was soon changed to a ‘person of interest’.
Where we are now
Natalie’s death is still viewed as suspicious by family members, the press and people working on the case, new and old.
In Dr Thomas Noguchi’s book, Coroner, he wrote about his experience of being part of Natalie Wood’s case and even posed his own questions;
“Wasn’t it strange that the two men on the yacht didn’t even know that she had left the boat? Hadn’t she spoken to them? Why had she slipped out to the stern of the yacht in the middle of the night, climbed down a ladder, and untied the dinghy? What was she doing? And where was she going? And why?”
Robert Wagner’s authorised biography, Pieces of My Heart, hit back at claims that Natalie’s death wasn’t an accident and to this day holds this view. In countless interviews over the years, Robert’s been asked questions about that fateful night in 1981, but has always given the same answers; Natalie’s death was an accident, and he didn’t kill her.
This year, Natalie’s daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, produced the HBO documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, which includes interviews with Hollywood stars including Mia Farrow and Robert Redford. However, according to The New Yorker, it believes the film's purpose is to absolve Robert from his involvement.
Robert Wager hasn’t spoken to the police since 1981.
Over the years, Christopher Walken has said very little about Natalie Wood’s death. However, a confidential source told Suzanne Finstad that Walken heard the fight between Natalie and Robert and that he believed that Robert had pushed Natalie overboard.
Lana Wood, Natalie’s sister, wrote a book about Natalie’s life, Natalie Wood: A Memoir by Her Sister, that details their lives growing up, their mother’s ferocity to ensure her daughters became movie stars and her view on Natalie’s romances and marriages.
Natalie’s cause of death remains undecided, with many unanswered questions. Will we ever know the truth about this story? While independent authors continue to write about these unsolved mysteries, there will eventually be an end to this real life ‘whodunit’, but history may not be rewritten.