30 Years On, The Question Remains: Was Natalie Wood Murdered By Robert Wagner?
It was November 29, 1981 and Hollywood star Natalie Wood had a few days off over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend from shooting Brainstorm. She and actor-husband Robert Wagner were doing what they often did on weekends, spending some time on their yacht Splendor, which was docked at Isthmus Cove on Catalina Island, drinking and drugging. Christopher Walken , who also was appeared in Brainstorm, was with them.
The sci-fi film would be the diminutive actresses’ last. At some point a heated argument broke out between the two men and sometime after that Wood, who was wearing a down jacket, nightgown and socks, drowned. The official ruling was that it was an accident. Police and famous L.A. Coroner Thomas Noguchi ruled that Wood had fallen into the water trying to secure a dinghy that was banging against the Splendor’s hull.
Noguchi concluded Wood had drunk “seven or eight” glasses of wine and was intoxicated when she died. He also found Wood’s fingernail scratches on the side of the rubber dinghy indicating she was trying to get into it.
But a witness on a nearby boat gave police another account.
She recalled hearing a woman’s cries for help around midnight that lasted for 15 minutes. “Someone else said, ‘Take it easy. We’ll be over to get you,'” the witness said. “It was laid back . . . There was no urgency or immediacy in their shouts.”
Now some 30 years later almost to the day of Wood’s death, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department announced the case has been reopened because investigators had been contacted “by persons who stated they had additional information about the Natalie Wood Wagner drowning. Due to the additional information, Sheriff’s homicide bureau has decided to take another look at the case.”
Wagner, who twice married Wood, said the argument with Walken was about “how much of one’s personal life should be sacrificed in pursuit of one’s career,” has insisted over and over again that no one heard anything that night, but in true L.A. fashion not only has the investigation been reopened but there is a new book out on the case, Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour, an account of the fateful evening by Dennis Davern, the captain of the yacht.
Davern says that in addition to drinking, Wood, Wagner and Walken were taking Quaaludes before she disappeared. Wagner became enraged when he saw Wood and Walken speaking, and smashed a wine bottle, yelling at Walken, “What do you want to do, f–k my wife? Is that what you want?”
At that point, Walken returned to his cabin and Wood and Wagner went to their state room, according to the captain. He said he heard a loud argument between the couple and thumping sounds, and eventually silence.. A short time later, Davern went to the deck and was told by Wagner, “Natalie is missing,” but he refused to let the captain call the Coast Guard.
Wagner told Davern that he dinghy was gone, along with Natalie, but some people have doubted that account because Wood was deathly afraid of dark water.
I was a huge fan of Wood, whose outstanding film roles include Rebel With Out a Cause, West Side Story and Splendor in the Grass. She was nominated for two Best Actress Oscars and several Golden Globes, but the body of her work as a whole is on the disappointing side and she never attained the stature of an Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn.
While the official account of her death did not seem to quite add up at the time despite Noguchi’s fine reputation as a forensic investigator, I am skeptical of Davern’s account because it took him 30 years to come clean and he had done so in the form of a tawdry true-crime memoir.
PHOTOS: Wood in (from top) Brainstorm, Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story and with Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass.